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Feature

Elmer L. Andersen reading a book.

Elmer L. Andersen fell in love with book collecting and his donation of nearly 12,500 volumes to the University library that bears his name is just one of the ways he served the University.

Elmer L. Andersen 1909-2004: long-time servant of the University

long-time servant of the University

By Martha Coventry

Published on November 16, 2004

When former governor Elmer L. Andersen died last night at Fairview University Medical Center, Minnesota lost a shining light. With foresight and compassion, Andersen devoted himself to the people and landscape of this state for more than seven decades. He was 95 years old when he died and he filled those years with an uncompromising commitment to knowledge, beauty, and equality.

"Elmer Andersen was a tireless advocate for the public good," says University president Robert Bruininks. "I cannot think of very many leaders in my life that I've respected more and revered more than Governor Elmer Andersen. He was a progressive voice for reform and change throughout his entire life."

A self-described "searcher," Andersen took an uncommon joy in learning about everything--from dairy cows to opera--and he kept his mind open and curious to the very end. His core principle as a private man, as an elected official--first as state senator, then as governor from 1961-1963--and as a successful business owner was a deep respect for the individual.

In his 2000 autobiography, A Man's Reach, he expressed his belief that a person should be, above all other things, "honest, decent, kind, generous, and civil."

"Elmer was a remarkable human being whose passion for his fellow man was without peer," says Tom Swain, Andersen's long-time friend, former chief of staff, and now interim VP of University Relations. "He devoted his life to helping those less fortunate."

Andersen pushed through legislation to provide education for special-needs children, then called "handicapped," was the chief sponsor of Minnesota's first modern-era civil rights bill, and believed in the wise use of welfare. As CEO of H.B. Fuller Company, which he bought for $10,000 in 1941 and shepherded to Fortune 500 status, he enacted medical retirement benefits and maternity-leave programs far ahead of their time. In his 2000 autobiography, A Man's Reach, he expressed his belief that a person should be, above all other things, "honest, decent, kind, generous, and civil."

And education was a particular focus for Andersen. Hard won for himself, education, he believed, should be encouraged and made available to everyone.

"As Governor, Elmer helped institute one of the best student financial aid programs of any state in the nation," says former University president Nils Hasselmo. "His arguments were always driven by his concern that the state should provide access to quality education for all who could benefit from it. Higher education in Minnesota owes him a deep debt of gratitude for his leadership in this matter."

Andersen graduated from the University of Minnesota in 1931 and never forgot the place that gave him his education and where he met his wife, Eleanor. He served on the Board of Regents from 1967-1975, chairing it from 1971-1975; and led the University of Minnesota Foundation from 1979-1980, serving as a trustee from 1968-1988.

"Never again will there be a person more dedicated to Minnesota and its great university than the remarkable Elmer L. Andersen," says C. Peter Magrath, president of the University from 1974-1984.

At the University, as in every other capacity in which he served, he believed in the truth and held hard to his values. He stood for the students' right to protest and for faculty tenure, even if that meant challenging the system he was part of at the time.

He is often quoted as saying "You don't manage a university; you nurture it." And his generosity to the University with both his time and money reflected that belief.

"Never again will there be a person more dedicated to Minnesota and its great university than the remarkable Elmer L. Andersen," says C. Peter Magrath, president of the University from 1974-1984. "To his dying breath, he was thinking of ways to strengthen the University of Minnesota; it was the intellectual love of his life--and he showed it in countless ways. We will all miss him, but he will never be forgotten."

For a man whose Lutheran upbringing drove him to work hard, Andersen did allow himself the pure pleasure of collecting books. Drawn to texts as artifacts and pieces of extraordinary craftsmanship, he began his collecting during the Depression, buying old books for a dime and eventually building a library of rare and exceptional volumes. In 1999, he donated the major portion of his collection of 12,500 volumes to the University, and the Board of Regents voted unanimously to name the new library on the Twin Cities campus the Elmer L. Andersen Library, home of all the University's rare books and special collections.

"What nobler purpose can there be for a University than to gather up the prizes of a culture--preserve them, propagate them, make them available so that the best of what has gone before can be preserved and built on," said Andersen.

Andersen and his wife, Eleanor, also donated rare horticultural books and drawings to the University of Minnesota Landscape Arboretum, and the Andersen Horticultural Library there is named for them. The Andersens later created the Andersen Book Trust, a permanent endowment that will enable the book collections at the Andersen Library and the Arboretum to be properly cared for, expanded, and utilized by the University community and the public.

"His vision was so broad, there was no subject area he wasn't going to help us with," says former University of Minnesota Librarian Tom Shaughnessy.

Andersen continued to buy books for University collections up until the end of his life, with wide ranging subjects like early Minnesota Jewish literature, children's literature, historic GLBT literature, and African American literature for the Archie Givens Collection.

By spreading his financial contributions to nearly every corner of the University, Andersen provided support to the College of Liberal Arts; the Stassen Center for World Peace at the Humphrey Institute for Public Affairs; the McNamara Alumni Center; the Weisman Art Museum; and many other programs. In 1987, H.B. Fuller, Inc., gave $1 million to create the Elmer L. Andersen Chair in Corporate Responsibility at the Carlson School of Management.

"I don't think there will be any way to replace Elmer Andersen in the public life of our state," says Bruininks. "I fervently hope that there will be legions of people who will notice his life and respect it, will celebrate his enormous contribution to Minnesota, and will do what I know he would like us to do, and that is to emulate his passion through our own good works."

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