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Local construction legend Bill Hedenberg dies

Where there are clusters of Americans, there are going to be movers and shakers among them. In Duluth in the last half of the 20th century, Alfred William "Bill" Hedenberg fit the mold of an old-school mover and shaker. "Bill was always the same ...

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Bill Hedenberg (left) discusses details of the Radisson Hotel project in the building’s lobby in this undated photo. Photo courtesy of the Hedenberg family.

Where there are clusters of Americans, there are going to be movers and shakers among them.

In Duluth in the last half of the 20th century, Alfred William “Bill” Hedenberg fit the mold of an old-school mover and shaker.

“Bill was always the same - straight and dependable,” said Joel Labovitz, the former Maurices owner who golfed with Hedenberg and called their families friends. “What you saw was what you got. He was a solid, decent person.”

As owner and senior project manager for the construction firm A. Hedenberg and Co., Hedenberg built some of the city’s most notable structures, including the Radisson Hotel, the First United Methodist Church with its copper top, several hospital and university buildings, and scores of others.

Hedenberg died Sept. 27. His funeral is today in Duluth, where the 87-year-old was born in 1927.

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As he’s laid to rest, his legacy of prolific building is worth noting. He had a significant impact on the installations in the city and the surrounding Northland. He built mighty structures like the Minnesota Power and U.S. Bank buildings downtown, a phase of the Duluth Entertainment and Convention Center and the YMCA. He built schools. He built for industry, for Main Street, for surrounding towns, for civic pride and private sector growth. He could build a treatment plant or a surgical center. In 1973, he built UMD’s physical education facility and, in 1986, he built it again.

“They were the premier contractors in the north country,” said Thomas Vecchi, a longtime Duluth architect. “There was no one as formidable as that company; you could count on quality construction.”

Hedenberg gained his construction legacy from his father, Alfred Hedenberg, who started the company. It closed up shop in the early 1990s, with Hedenberg liquidating the company and retiring.

Still today he’s influencing the local construction industry with the example he set. Greg Yetter is senior project manager at J.R. Jensen Construction in Superior. He was hired by Hedenberg right out of college in 1985 to be a project manager while the company was working on a string of multi-million-dollar projects, including what is now the Chris Jensen Health and Rehabilitation Center, and Hermantown High School.

“He was the master of estimating and managing projects,” Yetter said. “The rest of the field looked up to him; they compared their stuff to Bill’s. When I came back to work for other contractors, we always knew we had a good bid if we were anywhere near Bill’s bid.”

The people who knew him say Hedenberg treated everybody in the construction process with integrity.

“He was always fair,” Yetter said. “And that was something he always taught me, ‘we treat our clients honestly.’”

Hedenberg attended East Junior High School, graduated from Shattuck Military Academy in Faribault, Minn., and later earned his civil engineering degree from the University of Minnesota. He was sharp with money and excelled at managing the layers of details associated with the company’s non-stop list of projects.

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“It’s a big responsibility to be in control and on the ball,” Vecchi said. “It’s complicated, dealing with all the different construction trades … all the suppliers. It’s a complicated business.”

Yetter said he found a mentor in Hedenberg.

“He was a super guy to learn the business from; you couldn’t get any better,” he said.

“I was the brand new guy,” Yetter added. “I was doing what I thought I was supposed to be doing, but I was getting a lot of guidance in the background from Bill. He was taking a young project manager through the learning stages.”

Whether negotiating a shot on the tennis court or details in a bidding process, “He’d rather win than lose, but Bill was always gracious,” Labovitz said.

“He was the best,” Yetter said, “and everybody knew it.” 

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The Radisson Hotel in Duluth is under construction in this News Tribune file photo from Oct. 20, 1969. The Radisson was one of many landmark buildings in Duluth constructed by A. Hedenberg and Co. Longtime company owner and senior project manager Alfred William “Bill” Hedenberg died Sept. 27 at age 87. (News Tribune file photo)

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