Most people lucky enough to reach the age of 90 are ready for a little rest and relaxation, but not former Governor Elmer L. Andersen. When he donated 12,500 rare and limited-edition books to the University of Minnesota earlier this year, it became clear that he plans to continue doing what he’s always done—make contributions. “Elmer has taught me that you still have plenty to offer in your 70s and 80s,” says Wheelock Whitney, chairman of Whitney Management Company. “I think that’s a great role model for people to have.”
Given Andersen’s track record, it’s no surprise. Over the years, his contributions have assumed a multitude of forms in the business, government, academic, and nonprofit realms, and he has cut perhaps a wider swath in more arenas than any other single living Minnesotan.
As a businessman, he set aggressive growth goals for H.B. Fuller, the St. Paul-based adhesives and chemical company he purchased in 1941, calling for it to double in size every five years while championing employee benefits that were nothing short of revolutionary at the time. One such benefit was the birthday holiday given to all H.B. Fuller employees, beginning in 1945. “I remember telling people, ‘Washington is important to us, Lincoln is important to us, but so are you, and you should have your own day to think about yourself, your family, your plans and how you’re doing,’ ” he says. The idea was a hit, heralded by newspapers around the country and soon emulated by many other companies.
Andersen is still breaking ground in employee benefits today with a new parental leave program at East Central Minnesota Publishers, Inc. (ECM), the company he founded in 1976 with the purchase and merger of two community newspapers (the firm now owns 18 such papers). All ECM employees become eligible for three years of parental leave after three years of employment, to be taken up to one year at a time and at 40 percent of their regular pay.
It’s another example of enlightened management—Elmer Andersen style. “I have a strong philosophy about business,” he says. “Profit is very important, but it shouldn’t be the first priority. The first priority should be the customers. The second priority should be the people associated with the enterprise. The shareholders should realize that if you take care of the customers and develop a good workforce, you’ll have a strong, lasting company.”
Andersen’s years in public office led to another set of lasting achievements. Elected to the Minnesota State Senate in 1949, he chaired an interim committee between 1955 and 1957 that studied the problems of handicapped children and recommended ways to provide them with educational opportunities. Of his roster of accomplishments, Andersen calls this one the most satisfying. “It was the only time in my experience, and one of the very few times ever that all the recommendations of an interim commission study were enacted,” he says.
In 1960, Andersen was elected governor of Minnesota, defeating incumbent Orville Freeman. While in the governor’s office, he pushed for improvements in civil rights and education, and planted seeds for the formation of Voyageurs National Park. “Being governor was the biggest challenge because so much comes at you so fast,” he recalls. “But I welcome challenges. I don’t think of them as struggles or burdens.”
One particularly challenging time emerged in 1962, during Andersen’s failed reelection bid against DFL opponent Karl Rolvaag. A week before the election, DFL operatives circulated allegations that Andersen had rushed the completion of I-35W for political gain. Andersen lost narrowly, suffering the most crushing setback of his life. “I learned that sometimes you lose,” he says. “And people can do mean tricks, as they did in that case, to win.”
Despite the experience, Andersen continued to work for the public good. “Being governor wasn’t all that important,” he says. “The projects were important. You don’t have to hold office to be a public servant.”
Andersen also was appointed to the University of Minnesota’s Board of Regents, where he served 14 years. Today he remains the institution’s guardian angel. “I told President [Mark] Yudof the other day that the reservoir of goodwill toward the university is so great that no incident like this athletic thing is going to shake the confidence of the people,” he says.
Andersen continues to be a mentor for Minnesota’s governors, university presidents, and business and community leaders. “He’s the most balanced person you’ll ever meet in your life,” says former U.S. Senator Dave Durenberger, who worked with Andersen at H.B. Fuller from 1971 to 1978. “He was often asked by governors or others who needed to solve a particular problem in the community to chair groups, define problems and make recommendations.”
Nils Hasselmo, University of Minnesota president from 1989-1997, and the current president of the Association of American Universities, takes a similar view: “He has become the elder statesman in the state of Minnesota, with a standing that is—under any circumstances—unrivaled.”
1909 – Born in Chicago.
1932 – Graduates from University of Minnesota’s business school.
1934 – Joins H.B. Fuller.
1941 – Purchases H.B. Fuller.
1949 – Elected to Minnesota State Senate.
1960 – Elected governor of Minnesota.
1968 – Selected president of the board of the Bush Foundation.
1975-1979 – Chairs University of Minnesota Board of Regents.
1976 – Launches ECM.
1992 – Steps down as chairman of H.B. Fuller.
1994 – Retires from H.B. Fuller board.
1999 – Donates 12,500 books to University of Minnesota.