Podulke, county board chairman, dies
Olmsted County's smiling servant has moved on.
Mike Podulke, 67, a county commissioner for 24 years and its current chairman, died Wednesday of undetermined causes. He was found dead shortly after 1 p.m. in his car on a frontage road along U.S. 52 near Apache Mall.
"He is the epitome of believing in public service," said Amy Caucutt, the county's lobbyist. "He didn't come into government to make changes or diminish it, he came to really make it work."
Friends in government grieved Podulke's death in the hours after the news became known. He had been meeting with officials at the city-county Government Center a short time before he died.
"He was his same jovial self," said Rochester City Council President Dennis Hanson. "He threw a couple quips in there that made us all laugh."
The city council, which met Wednesday, had a moment of silence in Podulke's honor.
Podulke is survived by his wife, Stephanie, and daughters Laurel and Heather. No immediate plans were announced for a memorial service.
On Facebook, where Podulke had a page, tribute messages poured in. There, people grieved the loss of a community leader, and also a family member, friend, and stained glass artist.
"Thank you for your thoughtful leadership and for all the beauty you have graced our community with," one person wrote. "Miss you already."
Said another: "Your love and wisdom and wit live on through your family and those you've touched and your beautiful art. We'll watch for you in the rainbows and the sunsets."
The county was taking immediate steps to manage the shock, with plans to make grief counselors available for employees and others.
In a message to county workers and others, Richard Devlin, Olmsted County administrator, said, "This is going to be a difficult time for us in the county as we work through our own grief and mourn the loss of a true believer in public service. I ask that you support each other in the days ahead."
Devlin described Podulke as "a Will Rogers-type" who "could speak his mind and take the hard votes."
"He represented the people who were vulnerable: children, the elderly, and those with mental illness," Devlin said. "He's going to be missed by them."
Podulke was last elected to the county board in 2008. He represented an inner-city area in Rochester, different in makeup than most of the other rural-composed county districts.
Characteristic of his district, Podulke often ran politically on a different track than his fellow commissioners.
"Politically, I didn't exactly agree with his ideology, but his word was good. I always respected Mike," said commissioner Matt Flynn.
Podulke was found with his vehicle running and in gear, with his foot on the brake, said Olmsted County Chief Deputy Mark Darnell. His car had not run off the road or collided with any other vehicle. A bus driver found him, authorities said.
The proper method to fill Podulke's seat is being researched by the county attorney's office, but it appears likely it will be by special election. Paul Wilson is next in line to fill the rotating board chairman seat.
Podulke was a customer engineer, diagnostic programmer and international technical support employee for Control Data Corp. for 12 years — four of them in Europe — before he moved to Rochester in 1976. Podulke and his wife purchased a building at West Center Street and 11th Avenue Northwest that now houses their Rochester Stained Glass business.
The Podulkes won Mayor Ardell Brede's Legacy Award in 2003 for being active in neighborhood and civic affairs.
An example of their work can be seen at the Mayo Civic Center. The Podulkes coordinated a community stained glass project to commemorate those who died in the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001.
The 30-feet high, 7-feet wide window shows images of New York's Central Park at the base. Rising from the park is an image of the World Trade Center towers made with hundreds of bits of clear glass. A rainbow-colored ribbon of glass ascends with the towers. A copper border includes stars: 354 star-shaped holes for the firefighters who lost their lives and another 3,000 star-shaped holes were punched for each person killed.
Post-Bulletin reporters Matt Russell and Heather J. Carlson contributed to this report.