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West St. Paul’s most famous citizen is perhaps Harold Stassen, Minnesota’s youngest governor in history and a nine-time presidential candidate.
Harold E. Stassen was born on April 13, 1907 at his parents’ farm in West St. Paul. The farm was located on the west side of Robert Street, between Thompson and Wentworth (on the former site of Granny Donuts, now Savor apartments). His parents were William A. Stassen, a three-time mayor of West St. Paul, and Elsbeth Mueller Stassen.
The Stassen farm grew vegetables to sell at the St. Paul Farmer’s Market, giving Harold Stassen a firm education in hard work. He raised his own rabbits, pigeons, and guinea pigs, and even took over the farm operation for a year as a teenager while his father recovered from an operation.
“Harold was always a guy to get things done, more than the other boys. Ambitious. You ask me what kind of boy he is. He’s a square-shooter. He don’t take anything from anybody. I don’t mean he’s a roughneck. He’s not looking for trouble, but he can face it when he has to.”William Stassen, St. Paul Dispatch, 1938
Stassen first saw his future wife, Esther Glewwe of South St. Paul, at a Sunday school picnic at Riverview Baptist Church (then located at George and Stryker in St. Paul; it relocated to its current location on Moreland in West St. Paul in 1961). Stassen was only 12 at the time, and would often recall to friends and family members that she “ran like the wind.” They were married on November 14, 1929.
- Stassen skipped three grades in elementary school and started high school at the age of 11.
- He graduated from Humboldt High School in 1922 at the age of 15.
- He graduated with a law degree from the University of Minnesota in 1929 at the age of 22.
“The answer to all of our problems is not to shrug our shoulders and say ‘let the government do it.’”Harold Stassen, 1940
Law Practice & County Attorney
- Stassen started practice as an attorney in South St. Paul.
- In 1930, Stassen was elected as Dakota County attorney at the age of 23.
- At the age of 26, with just five years of law practice under his belt, Stassen argued before the Supreme Court of the United States in a case about interstate commerce and taxation. The court sided with Stassen unanimously.
- During the gangster years of the Prohibition era, Stassen came face to face with organized crime, not just investigating and convicting, but in one case leading an armed posse on a manhunt for two burglars who had escaped custody by killing two police officers.
- In the early 1930s, as farmers fought to keep prices from falling, a movement arose to artificially prop up prices with roadblocks and violence. That suggestion came up at a meeting of Dakota County dairy farmers and someone asked about the county attorney. “Lynch him!” someone responded. Little did they know, Dakota County Attorney Harold Stassen was in the crowd. He stepped forward in what he later described as the “most difficult decision” of his life. He told the crowd he would prosecute any lawbreakers, but he also offered to negotiate pro bono on behalf of the farmers to secure better prices. He later reached an agreement that raised the price of milk by 25%.
“I can see developing in Minnesota the same friendly spirit of cooperation between the men and women of all nationalities, creeds and races, of all political parties, of all stations in life, that we have witnessed together here in Dakota County. There is a deeper realization that the men and women of all nationality backgrounds have made a contribution that has been woven into the very fabric of this state and nation as we know it today. There is a deeper realization that progress was never paved by bitterness and dissension, by corrupt machine politics, by name-calling and epithets, or by wild talk of economic wars and gloomy prattle of the failure of the American system. It is in a humble effort to give leadership to that constructive feeling of unity, to seek to build up our state and to improve the conditions of our people, that we have carried on these past eight months.”Harold Stassen, 1938
- In 1938, Stassen won a surprise victory to become the youngest governor in Minnesota history at age 31. He ultimately won election to the governor’s office three times (back then the governor had a two-year term).
- Among his accomplishments, he overhauled the civil service sector and nearly eliminated political patronage. He also proposed a 30-day “cooling off” period that improved labor-management relations.
- In 1942, Stassen ran once more with the understanding that he’d retire after the first legislative session and join the war effort. He won in November and retired by April 1943.
World War II
- Assigned to the staff of Admiral William F. Halsey in the Pacific theater, Stassen was decorated three times and was awarded six major battle stars.
- At the end of the war, Stassen was in charge of the evacuation of American prisoners of war (POW) in Japan, including the infamous Omori POW Camp. The operation came between Japan’s surrender and the official transfer of power, which meant there were no clear lines of authority. When a Japanese colonel tried to stop the prisoners, saying, “You can’t do it. I have no authority from Tokyo to let any of these people go.” The 6-foot-3-inch Stassen grabbed him by the tunic and lifted him off the ground, responding, “I have no need for orders from Tokyo to do what I want to do with these American prisoners.”
- Stassen also coordinated and attended the surrender ceremony on the U.S.S. Missouri in Tokyo Bay, which officially ended World War II.
“Men and women of Minnesota, I know that you are arising as one to meet the great task before this nation. As you do it, may I add this word of caution. Seek not to sit in judgment on the loyalty and patriotism of your neighbor. Rather sit in judgment on your own contribution to this nation. Let us realize that while the out-break of war was sad and grim for everyone, it was the saddest and most grim for those of our fellow citizens whose ancestors came from Germany, Italy, or Japan. Let us realIze that almost without exception they are here because they love America. Before this war is over, it’s pages will record acts of heroism on our side, by men whose names will show that in their veins runs some of the blood of those very nations who now, in the diabolical grasp of the dictators Hitler and Mussolini and the Japanese Military Clique, are waging war on us. Let us realize that America today is a part of all nations; that the sons and daughters of every land have played a part in building this great country. Let us demonstrate that not only do we have the blood strains of all nations, not only do we have great principles, but we also have the steely courage and strength of all nations welded together in an armor that cannot be broken. Welded together in a strength that will mean victory. And, pray God, will mean a victory, not for America alone, but for America as a symbol of the united strength of the finer qualities of all nations.”Harold Stassen, December 18, 1941
- President Franklin Roosevelt appointed Stassen as a delegate to the San Francisco Conference of the United Nations in 1945 and he became one of the original signers of the United Nations Charter.
- President Dwight D. Eisenhower appointed him to the National Security Council and called Staseen his “Secretary for Peace.”
- In 1963, Stassen joined the March on Washington with Martin Luther King Jr.
“War is intolerance between nations. Intolerance is an insidious vice. It has no place in a free people. It breathes strife and warfare. We must practice tolerance at home if we would expect tolerance abroad. He who talks peace and preaches hatred and intolerance of one man toward another and one group toward another cannot be sincere in waving the olive branch.”Harold Stassen, 1937
Run for President
- Stassen ran for the Republican nomination for president an impressive nine times: 1944, 1948, 1952, 1964, 1968, 1980, 1984, 1988, and 1992. His many runs for office eventually became the butt of jokes, something he took in stride. In 1984 he quipped that he was running to make Ronald Reagan look young.
- He also had many other unsuccessful runs for office, including governor of Pennsylvania (1958 and 1966), mayor of Philadelphia (1959), U.S. Senate (1978 and 1994), governor of Minnesota (1982), and U.S. representative (1986).
- In 1948, Stassen would come the closest to the presidency. At a time when party bosses chose the nominee, Stassen competed in primaries and actually won four of them. Stassen’s primary campaign put the vote to the people and parties took notice, changing the way presidents are elected. The Minnesota Historical Society posits that it could be Stassen’s “most important legacy.”
“I know I’ve had an impact, that some things I’ve done have really counted for world peace, for the passion of the individual. I sometimes wish people would ask not how many times I’ve run a political campaign, but how many times I’ve been right on the issues.”Harold Stassen
After living in Washington, D.C., while serving in the Eisenhower administration, and in Pennsylvania, while working as a lawyer and president of the University of Pennsylvania, Stassen returned to Minnesota in 1978. He lived in Sunfish Lake and practiced law in West St. Paul, not far from his childhood home.
Harold and Esther Stassen had two children, Dr. Glen Stassen and Dr. Kathleen Stassen Berger, and seven grandchildren. Harold Stassen died on March 4, 2001 at the age of 93. Funeral services were held at Riverview Baptist Church in West St. Paul.
For more on Harold Stassen, check out Stassen Again by Steve Werle.
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Photo Credits: Minnesota Historical Society and Library of Congress.