Rep. Willard Munger dies of cancer at 88

Erin Ghere

The oldest member of the state Legislature died Sunday night in a Duluth hospital, after a career of staunch support for environmental causes and an old-fashioned approach to House politics.
Rep. Willard Munger, 88, DFL-Duluth, served in the state House of Representatives for 42 years, although he was not elected until 20 years after he first ran for office in 1934.
Munger died at St. Mary’s Hospital after battling liver cancer since he was diagnosed in February. He missed portions of the 1999 legislative session for cancer treatments and colon surgery.
“This is where you belong,” House Speaker Steve Sviggum, DFL-Thief River Falls, said to Munger upon his return on March 29, after medical therapy.
Many of his colleagues agreed. In the closing days of the legislative session, several representatives gave supportive speeches for Munger on the House floor.

A long-lived career
Munger’s political career began in 1934, when he ran for the state Legislature and lost. On his wife’s urging, he ran again in 1952 with the same fate. Two years later, he tried one last time and was elected to the House.
He served 22 terms, missing only one after a failed attempt for the state Senate. Upon turning 87 years old last year, Munger became the oldest legislator in state history.
Munger was passionate about the environment, his colleagues even nicknamed him “Mr. Environment”. His biggest environmental success was in the 1970s, when he secured $115 million in state and federal funding to build a sewage treatment plant and to clean up the St. Louis River. The result was the return of fish to the river and the Duluth harbor.
He had other victories as well. A recreation trail that runs north of the Twin Cities, from Duluth to Hinkley, bears his name and may eventually be extended to the metro area in his honor. Munger also had a hand in establishing the lottery-financed Environmental Trust Fund. Now seven cents of every dollar spent on lottery tickets goes to protect the environment.
Under Munger’s leadership, Minnesota become the first state to put restrictions on the use of the pesticide DDT in 1969.
Munger often said that by protecting the environment, legislators were looking out for the state’s best interests in years to come. Because of his powerful stance, he was the longtime chairman of the House Environment and Natural Resources committee.
Longtime friend of Munger, Rep. Sam Solon of Duluth said Munger’s biggest defeat was the Legislature’s failure to require a mandatory deposit on nonreturnable pop and beer cans.

Iron Range beginnings
Munger was born in Fergus Falls in January 1911. He owned a motel in West Duluth for some time before being elected, and continued to operate the business into the 1970s.
His legislative and business lives intermingled from time to time, but not always in positive ways. During the mid-1970s, Munger sided with other legislators who wanted Reserve Mining Co. to discontinue the dumping of taconite tailings into Lake Superior. As a result, vandals took hammers to his motel, destroying windows and damaging other property.
Munger’s first wife, Martha, died in 1960 of cancer. He married his second wife, Frances, in 1964 and, after 33 years of marriage, she died of a stroke in 1997.
Along with his long term pro-environment battles, Munger championed other ideals in the House as well.
He was avid about the continuation of House traditions and courtesies, which it had historically retained. Even after the House relaxed its dress code, Munger wore a tie every day and would not let other representatives present legislation to his committee without one on.
From his seat atop the House floor, Munger watched nine governors and 15 House speakers pass through office. His years in the Legislature ended on a historic one, with the leaders of the legislative and executive branches coming from three different political parties for the first time in state history.
Munger missed parts of the legislative session in the spring as a result of medical treatments. Still, he made his constituents a priority by returning to House proceedings while still undergoing chemotherapy.
“It’s amazing what all you can do if you make up your mind to do something and show a little talent,” he said this spring.
“It’s a good part of me,” he told colleagues in the Legislature. He planned to seek another term in 2000.