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Karl Rolvaag Biography

In March of 1963, Minnesotans awaited the results of a 139-day recount in the race for governor. In the end, Karl Rolvaag came out on top in the closest gubernatorial election in state history by defeating incumbent Elmer L. Andersen by just ninety-one votes out of over 1.3 million cast.

Rolvaag, the state's thirty-first governor, lived in Northfield before fighting in World War II, where he rose to the rank of lieutenant and commandeded a tank. After the war, the son of Norwegian-American author Ole Rolvaag went to Norway to learn about politics before returning home to Minnesota. Once back, Rolvaag became the head of Minnesota's DFL Party and in 1954 ran successfully for the office of lieutenant governor. After serving in that capacity for eight years, Rolvaag mounted his successful campaign for governor in 1962.

Rolvaag was the first Minnesota governor to serve a four-year term, but continuous wrangling between the DFL governor and the conservative-controlled legislature yielded few results. Still, he managed to accomplish some reform in mental institutions where he tried to change the goal from warehousing inmates to treating patients. The populist-minded governor also changed the organization of the state's junior colleges. Formerly, the local school board ran each college separately; Rolvaag designed a coordinated statewide system with the goal of putting each Minnesotan within commuting distance of an institution of higher education. When Rolvaag came up for reelection in 1966, his party denied him its endorsement, opting instead for Lieutenant Governor A. M. (Sandy) Keith. He entered the DFL's primary anyway with a cry of "Let the people decide!" and roundly defeated Keith. He failed, however, to win re-election in November, losing to Republican Harold LeVander.

After leaving office, Rolvaag was appointed U.S. ambassador to Iceland and later served on Minnesota's Public Utilities Commission. He resigned that post in 1977 in order to concentrate on his fight with alcoholism, calling it the toughest battle of his life. Rolvaag stayed out of politics the rest of his life, but he helped others work through their own problems with alcoholism, attending meetings and giving talks in places as nearby as his hometown of Northfield and as far off as Sweden.

Rolvaag and his wife of 31 years, Florence Boedeker Rolvaag, divorced in 1981. He married a high school classmate, Marian Rankin MacKenzie, in 1982. Rolvaag died in 1990.