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Ralph Doty remembered as public servant, educator

Former state senator and media personality dedicated his life to helping others

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Ralph Doty is pictured in his office in St. Paul in this undated photo. Doty died Saturday morning at the age of 78. (Submitted photo)
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Ralph Doty had been living at Benedictine Living Community in Duluth the past nine years, but his brother, former Duluth Mayor Gary Doty, hadn’t been able to see him in recent months due to the coronavirus pandemic.

That changed this week when Ralph’s health took a turn for the worse. With Ralph’s death imminent, Gary and the rest of his siblings were allowed to see Ralph one last time, with Gary and his wife, Marcia, visiting Thursday.

Ralph Doty, a former state senator, local media personality, lifelong educator and public servant, passed about 3 a.m. Saturday. He was 78.

Gary Doty, 72, said the last meeting with his brother was only 5 to 10 minutes, but the memory will last a lifetime, a cherished chance to say goodbye.

“He was aware in that when I talked to him, and I held his hand, he squeezed my hand,” Gary Doty said. “He did the same thing with everyone else when they said we were going to leave. He wouldn’t let go. He still had strength in his hand, and he would squeeze and not let go.”

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Rather fittingly, the Doty brothers talked politics one last time.

“He and I had that in common,” Gary Doty said. “He’s the one who got me into politics. He was a good guy, a very smart guy — extremely intelligent. He was always trying to make things better for people.”

Ralph Doty dealt with a combination of diseases for more than a decade, including frontotemporal dementia (FTD), progressive supranuclear palsy and Parkinson’s. While his memory remained sharp, he was robbed of his wonderful voice, the great communicator losing his No. 1 ability to communicate. His brain is being donated to the University of Minnesota for research.

“He never lost who we were, but it really affected his motor skills,” said his son, Grant Doty. “He was wheelchair-bound for the last six years, at least, and it’s hard, it’s hard on a family.”

For about the past year, or year and a half, Ralph wasn’t able to talk, and if he did, Gary Doty said, you had to get very close to him to try to understand what he was saying. It was a whisper.

“He just slowly deteriorated,” Gary Doty said. “The last six or seven years had been pretty bad, and the last couple years he couldn’t stand up.

“The biggest problem with something like that is he could read the newspaper and understand it, but he couldn’t react, he couldn’t talk, he couldn’t move. So his brain was good, but he was trapped inside of his body which couldn’t function.”

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Ralph Doty wipes his eyes during 911 ceremonies at Bayfront Memorial Park in Duluth. His wife Dianne is pictured to the right. The Dotys' son was in the Pentagon when it was attacked. (2005 File / News Tribune)

Ralph Russell Doty was born in Duluth on July 20, 1941, to Russell Carl and Naomi (Dewey) Doty. He graduated from Duluth Central in 1959 and later earned degrees from Minnesota Duluth, Notre Dame and the University of Minnesota.

Doty married Diane Mary Gooder on August 18, 1962, and Diane was by his side until the end.

Doty taught in Duluth at Washington and Woodland junior high schools (1965-1966) and St. Scholastica (1968-1976) and even taught Gary Doty’s wife, Marcia.

“I’ve heard it from several people, and Marcia said the same thing, ‘I’ve never had a teacher like that,’” Gary Doty said.

Ralph Doty went on to serve as college president at Vermilion Community College in Ely (1977-81), Meramec Community College in St. Louis (1981-1988) and Lakeland Community College in Cleveland (1988-2001).

“His whole life was dedicated to education, and politics was one way of furthering that,” said Grant Doty, who retired after 20 years in the U.S. Army and is now a lawyer. “The No. 1 thing I got from him was public service, absolutely.”

Grant Doty, 54, is the oldest of Ralph and Diane’s three children and lives in St. Louis. He last saw his dad in person over Thanksgiving. They communicated via Zoom meetings. Ralph could give a thumbs up or the I-love-you sign until a couple weeks ago.

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Grant Doty planned on returning to Duluth in March for spring break and to run Grandma’s Marathon next week, but those plans were called off due to the coronavirus.

“It just didn’t happen, it just didn’t happen,” Grant Doty said. “Yeah, it’s just very sad.”

While in Duluth, the Doty family lived in Lakeside. Some of Grant Doty’s first memories of his father were campaigning up the North Shore. Ralph Doty served as a DFL state senator from 1971-76 and served on national boards and commissions and community and state boards in Minnesota, Missouri, and Ohio. He was a member of Rotary International and other organizations.

“We were proud of him,” Grant Doty said. “He was a serious father. You talk about a person being a good role model, and I remember him being a very hard worker. With everything he did, he just threw himself into it.”

And that included radio, his first love.

Ralph Doty started his radio career at WKLK in Cloquet in 1959 followed by “Doty on Duty with a stack of wax on the back of the racks” on WEBC in Duluth. He also worked stations in Superior, Indiana and Ohio and was a KBJR television news director and anchor in Duluth. He also enjoyed being a columnist for the Duluth Budgeteer News and the News Herald (Ohio).

“He was kind of like (former Duluth television anchor) Denny Anderson in that if he said it, it was true," Gary Doty said. "He was good at engaging you and was believable. He had credibility.”

Ralph Doty, the oldest of eight Doty siblings, also loved old-time radio. He grew up in an era when radio was huge, and he relished the fact that with a radio show you had to use your mind to picture what you were hearing. It required deeper thought and imagination.

Doty had a collection of more than 6,000 shows, including “The Shadow,” “Gunsmoke,” “Fibber McGee and Molly” and “Jack Benny.” He would introduce these shows while providing historical background for more than 250 of them as part of his program “Radio Memories.”

“Public service was his vocation, was his calling, but the thing he really enjoyed was radio,” Grant Doty said. “I have fond memories of that.”

While his career took him away from the Northland for two decades, he was always a Duluthian at heart. After retiring in 2001 he returned to the Zenith City, something that proved rather fitting.

“He loved Duluth, absolutely loved Duluth,” Gary Doty said. “This was his home.”

“While his passing is sad, the fact his life bookended in Duluth is important,” Grant Doty added.

And Duluth will be his final resting place.

A celebration of Ralph Doty’s life and his interment at Calvary Cemetery will be held at a date to be determined due to the coronavirus.

“He suffered, and this is a blessing for him,” Gary Doty said. “We’re a family of faith, and we believe he’s in God’s hands now. That’s a celebration for us. We’re sad, but it’s a celebration for us in that he’s in God’s hands, and we know that.”

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Jon Nowacki joined the News Tribune in August 1998 as a sports reporter. He grew up in Stephen, Minnesota, in the northwest corner of the state, where he was actively involved in school and sports and was a proud member of the Tigers’ 1992 state championship nine-man football team.

After graduating in 1993, Nowacki majored in print journalism at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, serving as editor of the college paper, “The Aquin,” and graduating with honors in December 1997. He worked with the Associated Press during the “tobacco trial” of 1998, leading to the industry’s historic $206 billion settlement, before moving to Duluth.

Nowacki started as a prep reporter for the News Tribune before moving onto the college ranks, with an emphasis on Minnesota Duluth football, including coverage of the Bulldogs’ NCAA Division II championships in 2008 and 2010.

Nowacki continues to focus on college sports while filling in as a backup on preps, especially at tournament time. He covers the Duluth Huskies baseball team and auto racing in the summer. When time allows, he also writes an offbeat and lighthearted food column entitled “The Taco Stand,” a reference to the “Taco Jon” nickname given to him by his older brother when he was a teenager that stuck with him through college. He has a teenage daughter, Emma.

Nowacki can be reached at jnowacki@duluthnews.com or (218) 380-7027. Follow him on Twitter @TacoJon1.
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