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Mourners pay tribute to former Sen. Nancy Brataas

Brataas funeral
Gayle Winegar, left, and Nancy and Denis Wegner look at images of Nancy Brataas Saturday at Ranfranz and Vine Funeral Homes in Rochester. Denis Wegner maintained an elaborate garden at Brataas' home for more than 35 years.

Community leaders, political colleagues and longtime friends gathered on Saturday in Rochester to remember the life and legacy of former state Sen. Nancy Brataas.

The Rochester Republican died April 11 of chronic lung disease. She was 86.

During the visitation, guests had the opportunity to look over documents, photos and other memorabilia telling the story of Brataas' long life in politics and public service. She was the first woman elected to the Minnesota Senate in her own right in 1975. She went on to serve 17 years in the Minnesota Senate, where she became known as a champion for her community.

Former Senate Minority Leader Duane Benson recalled Brataas' independence and willingness to challenge her own party if she felt it was in the best interest of her district.

"She knew who her boss was. It was Rochester, and she got that," he said.

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And while plenty of people knew her to be a dedicated and driven lawmaker, Benson said she also had a lighter side.

"She was a lot of fun. She had a wicked sense of humor and loved to laugh," he said.

During the memorial service at Ranfranz & Vine Funeral Homes, former Supreme Court Justice Sandy Keith recalled how he and Brataas had engaged in "political dialogue" for more than 50 years. She became active in the Independent Republican Party starting in the early 1950s. Keith was an aspiring liberal politician. She became chairwoman of the local Republican party in 1957 and would later become the state party chairwoman from 1963 to 1969.

She also worked in Washington on President Richard Nixon's re-election campaign in 1972. In addition, she established Nancy Brataas and Associates, which helped other gubernatorial candidates, like Elmer Anderson, Harold LeVander and Al Quie, win election.

"There is no question in my mind she is one of the most effective state and local political leaders in the history of our area," Keith said.

Former First District Congressman Gil Gutknecht said two words come to mind when thinking about Brataas: energy and resilience. Having worked with her in the Minnesota Legislature, he said he got to see her unwavering dedication to the job of serving her constituents.

"She was a force. And in many respects, I think an inspiration to a lot of people," Gutknecht said. "When she got a hold of an issue, it didn't matter what that issue was, whether it was workers compensation or university center here in Rochester, she was just tenacious. She wouldn't quit."

Former Rochester Area Chamber of Commerce President John Wade recalled how the night before then-Gov. Tim Pawlenty was slated to give his State of the State speech in Rochester in 2005, Wade was sending Brataas portions of the governor's script. Wade said the governor wanted to make a strong statement about higher education in the city and Wade was confident they had found the right language. But Brataas made it clear that it was not strong enough.

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"I realized I had not succeeded. I was on the border of failing and that was not acceptable. Go back and get it done," Wade said.

So he reached out to the governor with some stronger language and Pawlenty agreed to it. In his speech, the governor ended up calling for a four-year university to be built in the city.

Wade said Brataas deserves the credit for that major announcement.

In addition to politics, Brataas had a passion for gardening. During the memorial service, a slide show of her verdant garden in her old Pill Hill home played for the audience. Brataas' longtime friend Dennis Wegner remembered when he first got to know Brataas in 1973. He was then working for the city of Rochester's Forestry Department and Brataas was looking for someone to mow her law. They soon became gardening buddies and would go on road trips throughout Minnesota, Iowa and Wisconsin looking for new varieties of hostas and clematis. All told, her garden had more than 140 varieties of hostas and 100 varieties of clematis.

Wegner said the same attention to detail and precision she put to use in politics was also applied to her garden.

"She was the type of person who would sit and study something for hours on end," he said. "I'd put in a plant, she'd look at it and say it was not quite right."

Memorabilia on display included signed frame photographs of Brataas with former Minnesota Gov. Harold Levander and President George H.W. Bush, along with a framed letter dated 1972 from President Nixon thanking her for her work on his campaign. Also on display were plenty of pictures of her from her youth, along with newspaper clippings documenting her time in the Senate. There was a pillow with the following phrase embroidered on it: "A woman's place is in the House and the Senate."

Brataas' daughter, Anne Brataas, said her mother believed strongly in public service.

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"She expected everybody to have an interaction with public life in whatever capacity," she said. "That doesn't mean holding office necessarily — that could mean picking up litter on Earth Day. But I think she wanted people to have a place in the public sphere and find it."

During the memorial service, the Rev. Nicklas Mezacapa reflected on Brataas' long life.

"Nancy had a great ride," he said. "No one in this room would deny that. She served, she cared, she loved and she acted."

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