GOVERNORS OF MINNESOTA
Elmer L. (Lee) Andersen
Thirtieth State Governor
January 2, 1961 - March 20, 1963
Born: June 17, 1909
in Chicago, Illinois
Married to: Eleanor A. Johnson (1932)
Ethnic Background: Norwegian, Swedish
Occupation: Business executive, legislator
Elmer Lee Andersen was born in Chicago, Illinois, on June 17, 1909, the son of a Norwegian immigrant father (Arne Andersen) and a Swedish-American mother (Jennie Johnson Andersen). When Elmer was about six, his parents separated and he moved to Muskegon, Michigan, with his mother and sisters. He and his family were part of the "working poor" and young Elmer did laundry, sold newspapers and vegetables on the street, and worked in a furniture factory. After graduating from junior college in Muskegon, he became a traveling salesman, which brought him to Minnesota.
He enrolled at the University of Minnesota in 1929 and graduated two years later with a degree in business. Elmer Andersen would later write that the "greatest gift" he derived from his years at the university was meeting the woman who would become his wife. Elmer Andersen and Eleanor Johnson met in 1929 and were married three years later on September 1, 1932.
Andersen quit his job as a traveling salesman in 1934 and went to work in the sales promotion department for the H.B. Fuller Company, a St. Paul manufacturer of industrial and home use adhesives. Six years later he owned the company and began to expand it into one of the leading industrial companies in the country. He remained president of the firm until 1960 and CEO until 1976.
During the later 1930s and 1940s, Andersen became involved in state and national politics and active in the Republican Party. In 1949 he successfully ran in a special election for a St. Paul seat in the state Senate. During his nine-year tenure, Andersen carved out a role for himself in legislative areas such as education, child welfare, and the environment. In 1955, he was the chief Senate sponsor of the first modern-era civil rights legislation in the state, the Fair Employment Practices Act, which banned hiring discrimination.
Elmer Andersen gave up his Senate seat in 1958, intending to go back to business fulltime. But in 1960, he decided to challenge popular DFLer Orville Freeman in his bid for a fourth term as governor. On Election Day, Minnesotans returned Democrat Hubert Humphrey to the U.S. Senate and voted for Democrat John F. Kennedy for President, but elected a Republican as governor—Elmer Andersen. As governor, Andersen worked to bring economic stability to Minnesota's Indian reservations and to the Iron Range, where the mining industry was undergoing upheaval. He pushed for the creation of several new state parks and pressed the state Senate to pass the Fair Housing Bill, another landmark in civil-rights legislation. The highway safety legislation he championed resulted in a substantial drop in fatal accidents.
Elmer Andersen faced DFL opponent and former lieutenant governor Karl Rolvaag in the gubernatorial election in 1962—the first since statehood in which the winner would serve a four-year term. The November 5th election was the most closely divided in Minnesota history, triggering a recount and back-and-forth litigation that lasted 139 days. In the end, Elmer Andersen was defeated by 91 votes out of more than 1.2 million cast.
After conceding the achingly close election in 1963, Elmer Andersen re-entered private life. He would later see that losing the recount was probably a "fortunate thing," an event that preserved his health and prolonged his life. He stayed active in business and civic affairs, as well as party politics, but never again ran for public office.
Elmer Andersen had always wanted to own and publish a weekly newspaper. In 1976 he achieved that goal by buying the two Princeton, Minnesota, newspapers and combining them to form the Princeton Union-Eagle. Later, Andersen expanded his involvement in newspapers by purchasing ECM Publishing, which continues to be responsible for nearly 20 weekly newspapers in central Minnesota.
One of Elmer Andersen's proudest achievements came in April 1975, when the U.S. Congress passed the legislation establishing Voyageurs National Park—thousands of acres of forests and lakes along Minnesota's northern border. Along with people like naturalist Sigurd Olson, legislator Willard Munger, and famed aviator Charles A. Lindbergh, Elmer Andersen had devoted thousands of hours doing the hard work of persuading landowners, timber industry leaders, politicians, and citizens of the value of this park to future generations. For his work, Elmer Andersen will always be remembered as the "father of Voyageurs National Park."
In his more than four decades as former governor, Elmer Andersen never abandoned his dedication to the ideals of public service. He served as a volunteer on the boards of many organizations, including the Minnesota Historical Society, the Charles Lindbergh Foundation, and the Child Welfare League of America. But he reserved perhaps his greatest devotion for his alma mater, the University of Minnesota. He served on the university's Board of Regents and as president and chair of the University of Minnesota Foundation. The library at the university's Landscape Arboretum is named for Elmer and Eleanor Andersen. In 1999, Elmer Andersen, who had been an avid book collector since the Depression, donated the major portion of his rare book collection—nearly 12,500 volumes—to the university. In his honor, the university named the new library on the Twin Cities campus the Elmer L. Andersen Library, the home of all the university's rare books and special collections.
Elmer L. Andersen, who was once described as "the ultimate Minnesotan," died on November 15, 2004, in Minneapolis.