Sandy Keith had stepped away from public life in recent years, but his influence continues to be felt in Rochester and across the state.

Keith, a Rochester native, former state senator, Minnesota Supreme Court justice and chief judge, and perpetual community leader, died Saturday at age 91.

“It’s hard to measure his impact on this town, or even this state,” Sen. Dave Senjem said Sunday. “We’ve lost a giant.”

After earning a law degree from Yale in 1953, Keith served in the U.S. Marine Corps in Korea.

He returned to Rochester and joined the legal team at Mayo Clinic. Despite his father’s reservations, Keith entered politics, representing Rochester in the Minnesota Senate as a member of the DFL party. (Keith’s father, Norman, moved from Canada to practice medicine at Mayo Clinic.)

Newsletter signup for email alerts

Keith practiced family law in Rochester and returned to the state Capitol after winning election as lieutenant governor in 1962. He served in that position until 1967.

In 1966, he made a bid for the DFL nomination for governor. His candidacy split the party. , Senjem said many saw the youthful Keith’s candidacy as a Minnesota manifestation of John F. Kennedy’s face of the party. Others, he said, saw incumbent Gov. Karl Rolvaag as the rightful placeholder for the position.

“He was young and fit, and many people in the party thought he would appeal to voters,” Senjem said.

Keith lost an exciting primary race, which became the subject of a book.

In 1989, he was appointed to the Minnesota Supreme Court and was elevated by Gov. Rudy Perpich to chief justice. Keith later made a ruling allowing Arnie Carlson, Republican challenger to Perpich, to be on the 1990 general election ballot after Republican nominee, businessman Jon Grunseth, dropped out of the race.

Carlson won the election, creating a lifelong rift between Keith and Perpich.

“He put his view of the law ahead of a deep, personal friendship,” Senjem said. “It was a painful, painful thing for him.”

But John Wade, a longtime Rochester business leader and former president of the Rochester Area Chamber of Commerce, said Keith stood by the decision.

“That speaks volumes to his integrity,” he said.

After Keith retired from the Minnesota Supreme Court, he and Wade worked closely together, promoting Rochester when Keith later helped establish the Rochester Downtown Alliance.

“We can all be grateful that Sandy did retire to Rochester,” Wade said.

'A champion for human rights'

Keith's community leadership varied from humanitarian to business to political and even environmental.

He established an informal Saturday downtown breakfast with local leaders, started a housing program for former parolees returning to the community, and campaigned against a plan by DM&E Railroad to run large-unit coal trains through the heart of Rochester.

“He didn’t care what race, religion, sexual preference you were,” Wade said. “He was a champion for human rights.”

Despite being a strong supporter and booster of Rochester, Senjem said he always had an eye on St. Paul.

“He was keenly interested in what was going on in the state,” he said, adding that Keith would call to ask for the “inside scoop” from time to time, and was supportive of Rochester’s representatives at the Capitol.

He also would lend a hand directly once in a while to lobby on behalf of Rochester, Senjem said.

“He never had to have an appointment to meet with anyone there,” he said. “He’d walk by an office, and they’d just invite him in.”

The two would occasionally get an afternoon “bump” — a vodka drink and conversation.

His wife, Marion, did not allow alcohol to be kept around the house, Senjem said.

That Keith would confine drinking to a social outing with friends and colleagues to honor Marion’s wishes was one example of the love and respect he showed his wife, Wade said.

“His love for her was omnipresent in his life in whatever he did,” he said.

Senjem said once the pandemic has abated, he hopes to bring people who knew and worked with Keith together for one last “bump” in his name.

Photos: Remembering Sandy Keith