A Man to Remember
By Kathleen Weflen
Oct. 22, 1998, at a private burial service, Joseph N. Alexander, the state's longest-serving Commissioner of the Department of Natural Resources, was laid to rest. His wife had made sure he wore his wood duck tie. A young man had tucked a wild turkey feather alongside his arm. His hand held an Alcoholics Anonymous 24-year medallion of sobriety. Long after the Scottish bagpipes under the oak tree had ceased to play, the small group of family and friends stood, reluctant to leave. Finally, his wife, Shirley, said, "Let's go get a cup of coffee."
The invitation to coffee was quintessential Joe Alexander. "Anyone could have coffee with Joe," said Karen Bowen, an assistant commissioner under Alexander. "He loved people, and he loved to say 'Come on, let's go get a cup of coffee.'"
Alexander began his 33-year DNR career as a game warden in 1957, moving to Bigfork with his first wife, Rose, and their children, Will, Marcia, and B.J. Promoted to Regional Enforcement Supervisor in 1966, he moved his family to Mankato and oversaw operations in 26 southwestern counties. In 1971 Alexander became Assistant Commissioner for Administration in St. Paul. He was serving as Special Assistant to the Commissioner in July 1978 when Gov. Rudy Perpich appointed him Commissioner, a position he held until January 1991.
Alexander's accessibility to DNR employees and constituents was as well-known as his coffee habits. During his 12 1/2 years as Commissioner, he rarely missed a day at the Minnesota State Fair, where he particularly enjoyed challenging local outdoor celebrity Ron Schara to a fish filleting contest and engaging youngsters in conversation with his bear-cub hand puppet. "They'd forget the guy was there," recalled Mike Grupa, DNR conservation officer.
But if all his socializing makes the role of Commissioner of Natural Resources sound like fun, make no mistake: The job is daunting. And Alexander knew that when he took it on in 1978. Perpich appointed him in hopes that he would straighten out a department in disarray.
In fact, Alexander did so well that when Al Quie was elected governor, he reappointed Alexander, making him the only Commissioner to have served under Democrat and Republican governors.
"Joe was a good man because he knew what had to be done," Quie recalled. "He never flipped because of politics."
Yet Alexander established solid ties with the Legislature. "Listen, people who stay by their principles are respected by legislators," Quie said. "Once you start flipping on your principles, you lose respect, and you can't do well with a legislative body. I wish every politician would learn that key principle. Joe knew it."
Keep the Motor Running
Disputes over resource issues sometimes reached the boiling point. Steve Thorne, Deputy Commissioner under Alexander, recalled the fiery controversy over the DNR's effort to inventory and define wetlands for protection under state law. "A lot of powerful legislators were constantly trying to get the Commissioner to drop this or that wetland from the list on the inventory before it was done," he said. When Thorne and Alexander went to public meetings to talk about changes in wetlands law, they often joked that, in case the discussion heated up too much, they'd better "keep the motor running."
The heat about wetlands did reach the governor's office. One of Quie's close friends called to say that a group of farmers in western Minnesota was angry about the state's wetland policy and felt they weren't getting access to air their complaints. The governor invited them to his office to meet with the DNR commissioner. First the policy opponents made their case. Then Quie turned to the commissioner and asked, "Now, what's your position?" Alexander stated it without equivocation: Those wetlands needed to be preserved. Turning to the group, Quie said, "Well, gentlemen, there you have it," then left the room.
Had the governor not backed him, Alexander said he would have turned in his letter of resignation.
No Backing Down
By all accounts, Alexander would have rather quit than back down on other highly controversial natural resources efforts. He fought to create Tettegouche State Park, known as the crown jewel of North Shore parks; the Root River State Trail for biking in the blufflands of southeastern Minnesota; and public accesses to Lake Minnetonka, Christmas Lake, and the St. Croix River.
The toughest battles came over public waters access. The commissioner's strong convictions about public use perhaps stemmed from his own childhood experience. Alexander grew up poor in rural Kentucky. One day he and his younger brother went fishing with their father. When the family got to their intended fishing spot, the man who owned the land around the pond told them to leave. "I know that influenced my dad's work in trying to provide public accesses," said Alexander's son, Will.
Lake Minnetonka was pivotal in the struggle to ensure public access. Attempting to create an access in the early '80s, the DNR faced strident local opposition, voiced at many public hearings. Bowen, then metro regional administrator, said the opposition cited "every reason in the book" not to allow access. But Alexander "was not going to back down, no matter how tough the politics got," she said. "He believed the public had a right to be on one of the finest bass lakes in Minnesota."
In an address to a legislative subcommittee in 1982, Alexander cited the statute that prohibits fish management on lakes without public access. He added, "The law does not go far enough. I believe no user-generated fees should be used on waters without adequate public access."
In the end, the DNR prevailed on Lake Minnetonka and out of that victory came guidelines for determining the future of public access on the lake.
Array of Constituents
During his career Alexander amassed a vast array of constituents--all of whom appreciated his sense of fairness. Conservation officer Grupa identified three groups of Alexander's constituents. First, he said, "Joe saw the resource as his constituency. He really saw it as the reason he went into this business." Second, Alexander appealed to the hunting and fishing crowd--the sports license buyers--which he knew well from his days afield as a conservation officer. An avid angler and hunter, he belonged to that crowd. His third constituency was "people who have either somehow been disadvantaged or not treated fairly. Joe was what you might call the champion of the underdog."
As assistant commissioner, Alexander helped negotiate a settlement with the Leech Lake Band after it brought suit against DNR commissioner Robert Herbst for exclusive rights to hunt, fish, and gather on reservation lands. Unlike bitter battles in the Northwest and Wisconsin, this potentially explosive situation soon reached a peaceful accord.
Joe Day, executive director of the Indian Affairs Council, credits Alexander with "opening the door and recognizing that tribal government could manage resources as well as the state."
"It didn't take the tribal governments long to recognize Joe's sincerity. He usually put on the table what he could deliver," Day said. "He was always straightforward, and his word was good."
Alexander's sphere of influence extended to DNR employees, more than 2,500 around the state. "He was the heart of the DNR," Bowen said. "He put people in management positions, and then he let go. But we always knew who the boss was."
"He interacted with employees at all levels," said Day, who served under Alexander as the DNR's Indian community affairs liaison. "He made you feel that your job was important to accomplishing the department's mission."
Alexander did his best to bring women and minority group members into DNR positions, especially management. Kathleen Wallace, a DNR regional administrator hired by Alexander, said the commissioner actively monitored managers' position requirements to see that skill as well as experience would count. And she recalled that Alexander made it clear to supervisors that if they missed an opportunity to hire a qualified female or minority job candidate, they would have to justify their decision not only to the DNR affirmative action officer but also to him.
Alexander, who earned his bachelor's degree in public administration from Metropolitan State University in 1975 at age 52, freely offered career advice. One man told the commissioner he was considering going back to school, but he was hesitating because he'd be 37 years old by the time he finished. Alexander asked, "And if you don't go back to school, how old will you be in five years?"
Guided by his own recovery from alcoholism, Alexander offered counsel to others in need. Knowing that Alexander had helped others, a desperate DNR employee called him at home one night. Fearful and ashamed, she confessed her drinking problem to him. "Great!" he said. "You want some help." And he gave it.
Alexander cared for his wife Rose at home until she died in 1988. After his retirement in 1991, Alexander continued to help people and volunteer on behalf of natural resources, but he also took time to fish.
"First, foremost, and always at the top of his list was fishing," said Shirley Hunt Alexander, who married him in 1989. "He loved to catch sunnies. He even liked to clean and cook them. I never had fish like the fish Joe cooked."
An active conservationist who served on DNR advisory committees and worked with Sen. David Durenberger's office, Shirley Alexander described their lives together as a joy. "The compatibility and contentment I felt with him was incredible," she said. "We saw things the same. We believed in making the political process work." Joe Alexander helped work for passage of constitutional amendments in support of hunting and fishing and the Environment and Natural Resources Trust Fund, which voters passed overwhelmingly in the November election.
Last September Alexander spoke at the conservation officers' annual awards at Fort Snelling State Park. Toward the end of his speech, he thanked the officers for inviting him, thenthis man who seemed always to have time to acknowledge othersadded, "It's really nice to be remembered."
Kathleen Weflen is Editor of the Volunteer.