Rice Lake's first mayor loses battle with cancer

John Werner, 72, a Vietnam veteran and longtime township supervisor, died Saturday.

Rice Lake Mayor John Werner stands in the council chambers Nov. 16, 2021, at City Hall.
Clint Austin / File / Duluth News Tribune

RICE LAKE — "Faith," "family" and "country" were the three words acting Mayor Suzanne Herstad used to describe that city's first mayor and longtime township supervisor John Werner.

Werner, 72, died Saturday after a long battle with cancer, according to a news release from the city.

"If I had to pick three words to sum up John, that's what they would be," Herstad said. "And it affected every decision that he made. He served his country and his community and was always thinking of ways to make things better for people. But he'd also always tell people to take care of their families first."

Werner, a lifelong resident of Rice Lake, enlisted in the U.S. Army and served in the Vietnam War. He continued to serve for 41 years, most recently as a command sergeant major. He raised three children with his wife of 40 years, Barbara, and worked as a heavy equipment mechanic at Ziegler for several years.

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Werner was best known for getting things done in the community. He served as the township supervisor for Rice Lake before it was incorporated as a city. That's where Herstad first met him.


"They wanted to put utilities down our road and the engineer came back with these assessment fees and a group of us showed up to the meeting to say, 'Thanks, but no thanks. We can't afford this assessment,'" Herstad said. "And I remember him being very stoic, very serious, but he heard us out. And we learned after that meeting that they weren't going to push that project down our road as the citizens weren't for it."

Robin Murphy, deputy clerk of Rice Lake, from left, Mayor John Werner and Carley Hungerford, deputy clerk and building administrator, on Nov. 16, 2021, at Rice Lake City Hall.
Clint Austin / File / Duluth News Tribune

Later, Herstad encountered Werner again when the city of Duluth explored annexing a portion of Rice Lake. Herstad said she felt encouraged to run for Rice Lake City Council once the city was incorporated due to the leadership she saw in Werner and others.

"He was a wealth of information and he was always willing to share his knowledge," Herstad said.

Darrel Johnson, a longtime friend of Werner and fellow Rice Lake resident, said Werner was known for finding and gathering people to get things done. In fact, Werner had encouraged Johnson to advocate for Rice Lake to become a city when annexation by Duluth loomed.

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"Back in 2014, he came up to me and said, 'Digger, the city of Duluth wants to annex and we've got to get ready for a fight,'" Johnson said. "He told me I had to save Rice Lake Township because he couldn't as the township supervisor. So that's what we did. We started a Facebook page called 'Save Rice Lake Township' and grew that to 900 people and together we saved it and got incorporated as a city."

Johnson also helped Werner with his next move: to run for the mayor of Rice Lake while undergoing cancer treatment. Johnson said Werner spent most of the election cycle in and out of the hospital. He was undergoing stem cell treatment in Seattle on election day.

In August, a judge granted the town of Rice Lake's request to incorporate as a city. On Tuesday, Rice Lake residents turned out to elect their first slate of city leaders.

"I flew out to be with him that night," Johnson said. "He was really sick. But three weeks later, he was able to come home. I think that win gave him the push he needed to recover. He was on his third term as mayor and boy have we had fun over these years."

Serving as mayor also means attending to emergency situations such as a large windstorm and blow-down that occurred in the region in 2016. Many in Rice Lake found themselves without power and unable to pass roads due to fallen trees and branches. Werner moved quickly to open up a city dump where residents could bring clean refuse and dump the large pieces of debris.


"I've never seen anything like the response he pulled together from the community," Herstad said. "And we knew there were people coming from Duluth and other areas to dump their wood and he was just like, 'Don't worry about it. We're not going to turn anybody away. We'll figure it out later. This isn't the time to talk about it.'"

Herstad said the storm also pushed Werner to get a generator installed at Rice Lake City Hall so residents would have a place to go if they didn't have power.

He served his country and his community and was always thinking of ways to make things better for people. But he'd also always tell people to take care of their families first.
Suzanne Herstad, acting mayor of Rice Lake

"A lot of people didn't have power for like a week and it always bothered him that we didn't have a place for people to go that had power. So he did something about it and now we're prepared for the next event," Herstad said.

Werner was also known for his involvement in the Duluth Honor Guard, the Veterans Memorial Hall advisory board and his work to memorialize veterans and their service in the community. He and his brother worked to install the anchor of the USS Duluth beside the Northland Vietnam Veterans Memorial on the Lakewalk in Duluth.

USS Duluth anchor
The USS Duluth’s anchor sits on a Halvor Lines flatbed trailer at the Esco Marine naval scrapyard in Brownsville, Texas, after being loaded for the trip to Duluth, where it was installed on the Lakewalk.
Contributed / John Werner

He died before seeing his final project completed: a memorial bronze statue to honor veterans in his home city of Rice Lake.

"John had this vision of a memorial park that would honor not just every soldier, sailor, airman, Marine, but everybody who sacrifices when soldiers are deployed overseas," said John Marshall, captain of the Duluth Honor Guard and Werner's friend. "Because also the community suffers, the family suffers. And this monument was his vision of a kneeling soldier to represent that burden."

Members of the Duluth Honor Guard are working with city officials to create a statue and grounds to honor veterans.

The memorial is set to be placed at the corner of Rice Lake and Martin roads. Marshall said the project is partially funded but still has a way to go.

In lieu of flowers, Werner's family asked for memorials to be made to the Rice Lake Memorial Park for Veterans. Checks can be made payable to Duluth Honor Guard, memo: Rice Lake Memorial Park, 5814 Grand Ave., Duluth, MN 55807.


The funeral for Werner will be held Wednesday at 11 a.m. at St. John’s Catholic Church, 4230 St. Johns Ave., Duluth, with a visitation Tuesday from 5-7 p.m. at Dougherty Funeral Home and at 9:30 a.m. prior to the funeral at St. John’s.

Teri Cadeau is a general assignment and neighborhood reporter for the Duluth News Tribune. Originally from the Iron Range, Cadeau has worked for several community newspapers in the Duluth area for eight years including: The Duluth Budgeteer News, Western Weekly, Weekly Observer, Lake County News-Chronicle and occasionally, the Cloquet Pine Journal. When not working, she's an avid reader and crafter.
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