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Political pioneer, rights advocate dies

Former Duluth city councilor and human rights advocate Meg Bye died Wednesday after a battle with cancer. She was 69. Bye, who was diagnosed with ovarian cancer in 2007, was receiving hospice care at her home in Pequot Lakes. She served 12 years ...

Meg Bye
Mayoral candidate Meg Bye explains her views on the high number of renters in the city in 2007 and says she believes it is important to look at the issue of housing as a whole instead of separating renters and homeowners. She was speaking at a forum for mayoral candidates at VFW Post 137. City councilor and mayoral candidate Greg Gilbert listens next to Bye. (File / News Tribune)

Former Duluth city councilor and human rights advocate Meg Bye died Wednesday after a battle with cancer. She was 69.

Bye, who was diagnosed with ovarian cancer in 2007, was receiving hospice care at her home in Pequot Lakes.

She served 12 years on the Duluth City Council. When she was first elected, in 1973, she was just the third woman to serve on that body.

In a News Tribune story last month, Minnesota Lt. Gov. Yvonne Prettner Solon called Bye a mentor who gave her the confidence to enter politics. She said her friend will leave a lasting legacy.

"I think of Meg as one of those pioneer women who forged the way for other women to consider that they, too, could be leaders in the community," Prettner Solon said.

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Gov. Mark Dayton expressed his thoughts on Bye's death Thursday.

"Meg Bye was a tireless crusader for causes benefiting Duluthians and all Minnesotans," Dayton said. "Her passion, dedication and talents were a unique combination. I will miss her."

Bye was born in Oceanside, Calif., on Feb. 6, 1943, and graduated from Babbitt High School before attending the College of St. Scholastica, where she earned a bachelor's degree in math. She became a Benedictine nun and taught at St. Scholastica beginning in 1961.

She chose another path in 1966, leaving the sisterhood.

"I wanted to try to use that forum for providing some service to humanity, some service to God. I just realized that the way I seem to feel most comfortable providing that type of service didn't fit in the religious community that well," she told the News Tribune in 1985. "I felt a need to be involved in a larger community, in the world at large as opposed to the more confined community one is involved in in a type of religious order."

Bye left St. Scholastica and worked with the Community Action Program in Duluth. She married local attorney and DFL Party activist Don Bye in 1969. They had a daughter, Raa Lyn, who died in childhood, and later a son, Dan.

In 1972, Bye got up the gumption to run for Duluth City Council, raising more than a few local eyebrows.

"Those were very different times," she told the News Tribune earlier this month. "Until I ran and won an At-large race, there was a sense that a woman couldn't do that, because it was too big a job."

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Bye was elected in 1973, becoming only the third woman to hold a seat on the council. She was named council president in 1977 and that same year also became the first woman ever picked to serve as president of the League of Minnesota Cities.

Bye jumped into her new job enthusiastically and believes she changed the way some people thought of women's abilities during her 12-year stint on the council.

"I was naive enough to think I could do it, and I did. Once people saw what it was like to have a woman in a position of leadership, it became normal," she said. "That's what happens if you do a job reasonably well."

Duluth City Council member Sharla Gardner said earlier this month that Bye inspired others and opened doors for women to enter local politics.

"She was a tremendous influence for me," Gardner said. "Meg was one of the women in the DFL who I've always looked up to."

During her City Council tenure, Bye championed a city human rights ordinance that sought to prohibit discrimination based on factors including race, religion, age, gender, disability, family status and -- most controversially at that time -- sexual orientation.

She pushed for the ordinance unsuccessfully in 1976, 1980 and again in 1984. That last time, the council approved the ordinance but also put the issue to voters by referendum, where it was soundly defeated. The human rights ordinance became an issue in the next year's campaign when Bye lost her bid for a fourth term to two candidates who opposed the rule.

"She stood tall, and it cost her," today's interim Human Rights Officer Bob Grytdahl said.

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In 2001, the city finally did pass a human rights ordinance. The next year Bye rejoined city government when Mayor Gary Doty named her Duluth's first human rights officer. She was in charge of investigating and mediating human rights complaints in housing and employment, among other areas. She also worked to ensure city departments did all they could to hire minorities.

Doty said Thursday that while his views often clashed with Bye's, he admired her tenacity in fighting for what she believed in.

"She taught us all that when you believe in something, you keep going," Doty said. "I have an extreme amount of respect for her for that."

Bye's strong advocacy for human rights earned Gardner's admiration as well.

"She knew how important it was for Duluth to be in the vanguard and set an example for the rest of the state and country," Gardner said. "Our human rights department will be part of her legacy."

Patty Murto worked with Bye at Northland Mediation Services and encouraged her to head up the Human Rights Office.

"I was positive there was nobody better than her," Murto said Thursday.

There was a big backlog of cases and it was evident that the office had been needed for years, Murto said. It was important that a bulldog like Bye took it on, she said.

"She didn't do anything halfway," Murto said.

"It wasn't just a job," she said, it was her way of living.

"She shaped it, she built it," Grytdahl said. "She did a great job."

Bye stepped down as Duluth's human rights officer in 2007 and entered the race for mayor, only to be defeated by Don Ness.

Ness called Bye tenacious and effective in service for the city. He worked with her in forming the new Human Rights Office.

"Meg was absolutely the right person" for the job, Ness said Thursday. "She understood process and structure but then had the heart of an advocate."

After the 2007 election, Meg and Don Bye moved to Pequot Lakes, but she didn't slow down. Even after the cancer diagnosis, Bye ran for the Minnesota House in 2008 and 2010, losing both bids.

Murto supported Bye through the political campaigns and said nothing changed.

"She was the same person," Murto said. "A caring human rights advocate. It carried through everything she did."

Although Bye called Pequot Lakes home in her final years, she said earlier this month that "I still have Duluth in my heart."

Bye is survived by her husband, son, stepdaughter and four grandchildren, among other family and friends.

A service will begin at 11 a.m. Wednesday at Our Savior's Lutheran Church in Pequot Lakes. Visitation will be Wednesday from 9:30 a.m. until the time of the service at the church. Arrangements are with Kline Funeral Home in Pequot Lakes.

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