They served their community, sticking their necks out there and leaving themselves open and vulnerable to criticism and worse. Whether we always agreed with their decisions or their politics or their stands or the things they did or said, they still deserve our gratitude and appreciation for service that came to an end this past year.
Duluth City Councilor Barb Russ resigned in May, citing health concerns as she battles cancer.
Duluth schools Superintendent Bill Gronseth attended his last School Board meeting in June to take over as superintendent of St. Peter Public Schools in southern Minnesota.
St. Louis County Commissioner Beth Olson, who represented western Duluth’s District 3 for four years, decided not to seek reelection this fall.
State Sen. Erik Simonson of Duluth was defeated in the DFL primary in August, ending officeholding in St. Paul that included one term in the Senate and two in the Minnesota House.
A Duluth city councilor for eight years, Donn Larson died this past year at age 91. He also was an advertising agency owner; co-author of the book, “The Will and theWay;” and a civic leader, serving on numerous boards.
A state senator from 1971 to 1976, Ralph Doty also died this past year at age 78. He worked, too, as a junior high teacher, community college president, and Budgeteer columnist.
A longtime department head in Duluth City Hall, Dick Loraas died in March at 76. He additionally was a business developer for the Duluth Seaway Port Authority and a leader of both the Greater Downtown Council and Essentia Duluth Heritage Center.
A Duluth School Board member for 12 years, John W. Hawley died in October. He had also served on countless nonprofit agency boards and committees, including United Way and ARC as president. He was executive director of Habitat for Humanity in Duluth at one time and was the founding director of CHUM. The nonprofit CHUM serves thousands of low-income, homeless, hungry, or otherwise-marginalized community members in Duluth
Beyond politics and government, Lee Stuart, executive director of CHUM, announced in March her retirement at the end of 2020. Rick Klun had already retired at the end of last year after 15 years as executive director of Center City Housing. Maude Dornfeld stepped down in 2020 after seven years as executive director of Life House, a Duluth nonprofit that houses at-risk youth. And St. Luke’s hospital President and CEO Kevin Nokels left his post after about 15 months.
In addition, Duluth Superior Area Community Foundation President and CEO Holly Sampson stepped down in June after 30 years and was replaced last month by Shaun Floerke — who himself had to step down, from his position as Sixth Judicial District Judge, to take the foundation’s helm.
In the world of sports, legendary Chisholm boys basketball coach Bob McDonald, who won three state titles and more than 1,000 games, died this past year. So did “Mr. Denfeld” Dick Swanson, the high school’s longtime softball coach; and Mark Sertich, the world’s oldest hockey player, according to Guinness World Records.
Also from Denfeld, retired choir director Mark Overland died in April at age 70.
Additional noteworthy retirements over the past 12 months included Brad Moore as executive vice president of environmental and governmental affairs for PolyMet, Bill Bennett as CEO of the engineering and architectural firm LHB, and William Ulland as CEO of the Duluth imaging technology company Ikonics.
Others from our city and region who died in 2020 included civil rights veteran Sue Sojourner, co-author of "Thunder of Freedom: Black Leadership and the Transformation of 1960s Mississippi;" Bob Powless, for whom the Dr. Robert Powless Cultural Center in the Gimaajii-Mino-Bimaadiziwin building is named; Rosemary Stratioti, organizer of the West Duluth Memorial Day Parade for more than 50 years and devoted fan of Dukes and Huskies baseball; Duluth-area businessman, civic leader, and philanthropist Tom Wheeler, who also was a regular contributor of commentaries to the News Tribune Opinion page; News Tribune editor from 1998 to 2001 David Holwerk; Father Richard Partika, well known for his many years of monthly letters to the editor in the News Tribune in support of life and in defense of the Catholic Church; and Grandma’s Restaurant co-founder Mick Paulucci, son of the late frozen-food magnate Jeno Paulucci.
We all have our lists of those who played roles big and small in our lives and in our communities, who left us this past year, and who we can recall now on the occasion of the passing of another New Year's. Some of the lists were longer this year because of the persistently deadly and not-over-yet COVID-19 pandemic.
It's no small commitment, this taking your turn in the public eye and in public service, whether as an elected official or in some other high-profile leadership role. Our communities depend on and need those who take on the responsibility and who are willing to sacrifice time with family, leisure activities, and other pursuits.
For most public servants, especially on the local level, it isn't the money that calls them. Or the notoriety. It's that need in every great community for great citizens to step up, to lead, and to make their corners of the world better, more prosperous, cleaner, and safer.
May they all be remembered fondly and revered. May they be thanked and appreciated.
And may they inspire others to also step up, to put themselves out there, to be willing — for the good of community.