Pre-Ventura

by Bruce Carlson

One of Minnesota’s finest citizens just published his memoirs. In A Man’s Reach, 91-year-old Elmer Andersen looks back with humor and wisdom on a full, rich, and wonderful life.

He was born in Chicago. His father was a streetcar motor-man operating the Halsted line out of the Ashland Avenue car barns. His parents separated when he was six and his mother took in laundry to earn money. Young Elmer had polio, and was orphaned at fifteen.

Andersen worked his way through school, and with intellectual curiosity, a strong work ethic, imagin-ation, and a "you never lose" attitude, became very successful as a businessman, taking H.B. Fuller, a little glue company, to world-wide eminence. His business philosophy was unique and startling: he firmly placed the interests and welfare of the employee over that of the owners and shareholders. And he thought work should be enjoyable and fun. Andersen, in time, entered the Minnesota State Legislature. In 1960, he was elected Governor. Members of all political parties today agree that he was one of the finest leaders the state has ever known. Later he led the University of Minnesota as an active Chair of its Board of Regents.

Governor Andersen on the Campaign Trail

Elmer Andersen then, like a retiring Roman senator, turned away from the city and plunged into farming. Soon he and his wife owned and actively managed a large farm which included many botanical delights as well as a herd of prizewinning Holstein dairy cattle. Later, he bought a small-town newspaper and became a skillful journalist who wrote superb editorials. The first paper he purchased was The Princeton Union-Eagle. His interest grew and he developed a chain of ten small-town newspapers which he eventually turned over to one of his sons. His other son was running the H.B. Fuller Company. His daughter lived near Lake Superior and worked ever so closely with her father on major environmental projects.

Charles Lindbergh, a close friend, taught him to fly a small plane. Andersen is a great conservationist and worked hard and successfully to establish state and federal parks. He is a world-class rare book collector and has given thousands of important books to various libraries. He and his wife established and endowed a great horticultural library which is a vital part of the Minnesota Landscape Arboretum. Honorary degrees and directorships in major corporations as well as in non-profit arts and letters organizations have come his way. He established a foundation and is a highly regarded philanthropist. It seems that Elmer Andersen, like Thomas Jefferson, might have been a splendid President of the United States.

His impressive schedule of accomplishments goes on and on. It is almost exhausting just to hear it, let alone to have done it all. What are larger-than-life people like this really like? What about their non-public side? Reading A Man’s Reach, one discovers a down-to-earth, fun-loving, humble, and very engaging man. Andersen never looks back at disappointments, and his virtues are the common, true virtues of integrity, goodness, good humor, and public service. He has a fine family and has had time for everyone.

I am one of thousands of Minnesotans who have come in contact with Governor Andersen. His wife, Eleanor, has served on the Board of Directors of The Schubert Club, the music organization where I work. I have been in the Andersens’ lovely home many times for meetings, concerts, and receptions. It is a home with an immense library of rare and beautiful books—and also a kitchen that produces Swedish meatballs and rice pudding. Once, about ten years ago, I met Governor Andersen for a lunch at a St. Paul restaurant. When we were about to leave, he gave me a check for fifty-thousand dollars. It was, he said, to assist The Schubert Club with its student music programs. More recently he and his wife underwrote a project in which The Schubert Club Museum sent a skilled craftsman to Leipzig to make drawings and a full-scale working replica of the 1746 Silbermann pianoforte on which J. S. Bach had once played.

My respect and admiration is not unbiased. Yet as I read A Man’s Reach over the Christmas holidays, it had a deep effect on me. How should one live a life? It is good to have an occupation, to be generous, to be public-spirited, and to be reflective and thoughtful. Elmer Andersen did all this and much more—and on such a large canvas. A Man’s Reach is one of those books that makes me want to be a better person—to shape up and fly right.

In Andersen’s last chapter, written when he was 91, he suggests that if a man can avoid heart problems in his fifties, cancer in his sixties, and prostate troubles in his seventies, he can go on indefinitely. The later years are a time for reflection. He describes his interest in the fifth-century philosopher and statesman, Boethius, whose ideas of goodness and whose book, The Consolation of Philosophy, Andersen admires. He also states that the Christian faith as it has been taught to him by the Lutheran Church is crucial in his life. His theology has boiled down, over 91 years, to this: "One should attempt to put into practice the essential teachings of Christ. They are about grace, forgiveness, love, caring, and selflessness. They are wonderfully evident in the parable of the Good Samaritan." He asks, along with the Old Testament prophet Micah, what more is required of a person but to act justly, and love mercy, and walk humbly through life?

Near the end of this fine book Andersen writes:

I do not miss a life of scheduling and running about. That kind of activity seemed important once, but now I understand that ideas are what really build a life. Ideas are inspired by the thoughts and work of other people, and fueled by quiet, uninterrupted reflection. I believe the saying that ‘the kingdom of heaven is within you’ is true. There is much in the mind that is undeveloped. There is much to know. There is much to think about. There is much to try to resolve. There is much to try and reach out to touch for good. (p. 401)

A Man’s Reach, by Elmer L. Andersen, University of Minnesota Press, 436 pp., hardcover, $29.95.

Bruce Carlson (1940-2006) was the Executive Director of the Schubert Club and Pietisten Editor of Poetry and Navigation.

See all articles by Bruce Carlson