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Losing Leaders in Rural Minnesota

March 13, 2012 By Lee Egerstrom, Economic Development Fellow

Untimely deaths always create voids in our hearts and within our communities. Tributes flow. Those who provided leadership or mentored people, or offered comfort to others, are truly missed.

Rural Minnesota lost two such people in recent days. State Sen. Gary Kubly of Redwood Falls died while in St. Paul for the current Minnesota Legislative session. Former State Sen. Gary DeCramer from the Marshall area, more recently director of the master’s of public affairs program at the University of Minnesota’s Humphrey Institute in Minneapolis, died while attending meetings at the University of Minnesota – Morris.

These losses are part of an unfortunate larger picture, notes Dana Yost, an author, writer and former newspaper editor in southwest Minnesota. Rural Minnesota is losing leaders on both public and personal levels and this represents a threat to entire regions of the state, he said.

“It’s been a nasty triple-whammy for Southwest Minnesota,” Yost said. In addition to DeCramer and Kubly, he said, the region is losing State Sen. Doug Magnus of Slayton to retirement. This continues the voluntary departure of past regional leaders from retirement from both major political parties and from nonpartisan civic engagement.

Adding to this thinning of the ranks is reapportionment. By at least one unofficial method for describing Southwest Minnesota, the region will go from 15 members of the Minnesota Legislature to nine after the next election.

Kubly and DeCramer were DFLers. Magnus is a Republican. Recent retirees from public leadership posts in the region were active in the two parties or made themselves valuable to their communities without partisan identification or from within official capacity.

Kubly was a Lutheran minister. He would have helped people and touched the lives of many in need during his years of service at different churches. Such comfort and counsel would be known at a personal level, and not by the general public.

DeCramer, likewise, toiled in many gardens. As a result, entirely different communities are mourning his loss – including some that this writer has called home. His was the most recent death; his complex career of service will be looked at closely here. 

Foremost an educator, DeCramer taught English at what is now Southwest Minnesota State University at Marshall. He was elected to the state Senate from there, and he later served as an interim president of the university. Educators and former students there comprise one of his many communities.

Another affected community, and perhaps the best known at this point, is the Humphrey Institute at the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis. “Gary has been an integral part of the Humphrey School of Public Affairs since 1992,” noted Dean Eric Schwartz in announcing the death to faculty and graduate students at the institute.

A wallboard at the school used by colleagues and current and former students reveals how genuinely DeCramer was loved and will be missed.

But there are other communities served by DeCramer that former colleagues in the Minnesota Legislature or in academia don’t know well.

Native Americans are among them. DeCramer forged close bonds with Indian tribes while he was a graduate student at the University of Oklahoma. While there, he was a driver delivering frozen foods to reservations for Schwan’s Food Company, recalls Tom Sand, a former assistant to DeCramer at the USDA Rural Development office in St. Paul.

Among his prized projects when DeCramer was state director during the Clinton administration were helping the Upper Sioux Agency at Morton improve water and sewer systems and helping northern Ojibwe tribes construct senior and assisted living facilities for tribal elders, Sand said.

Economic development and water and resource management problems made up other communities of interests, said Minnesota Agriculture Commissioner Dave Frederickson, who also served with DeCramer in the Minnesota Senate.

The economic development interests played out with different communities at home and abroad. Church work had him involved with projects in Romania and developing countries, and water scarcity and quality problems engaged him with different groups and communities in southwest Minnesota.

Multi-jurisdictional water utilities, closely resembling water management cooperatives and boards in the Netherlands, now bring water to farms and communities throughout the southwest region. DeCramer was the chief Senate sponsor of legislation forming the state coordinating board for soil and water conservation districts, commonly referred to as the BOWSER board, which also bears close resemblance to Dutch water management entities.

Sharing grief over his death, Atlantic Pacific Exchange Program managing director Lia Rosenbrand recalled DeCramer studying the Delta Works water management projects in southwest Holland while he was on a sabbatical with the Rotterdam-based program in 1989.

“In the years after his participation, we were very pleased to hear and see how his participation influenced water management in southwestern Minnesota,” she said.

People who made these programs work don’t always know where the ideas originated. “Gary wasn’t an ‘in-your-face’ person,” said Yost. He was always an educator who would share information. He would help others. “He didn’t worry much about who got the credit,” Yost said.

This represents a marriage of personal responsibility with public leadership. Yost, the veteran observer of southwest Minnesota, said his region and most of western Minnesota faces a leadership void. True leaders will be missed, he said. They must also be replaced, if not in our hearts.       

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