From hometown boy to community leader
Bruce Ahlgren had to chuckle when a woman who was collecting donations to help poor kids in Cloquet told him he wouldn’t understand because he was “born with a silver spoon” in his mouth.
She couldn’t have been more wrong.
Ahlgren was born and raised here, the youngest of seven children. Until he was 8, they lived in a one-bedroom farmhouse on 40 acres north of Cloquet. Mom (Senja Yilokoski before she married his father, George) basically raised all seven children on $15 a month she made from selling the milk from their cows. Dad bought some of the food, but drank the rest of his construction worker wages away.
It wasn’t exactly a privileged childhood.
Nevertheless, Bruce Ahlgren thrived in Cloquet as a student and an athlete and went on to be a player in both local and statewide politics, without really leaving his hometown, except for some short times away in Duluth and up the North Shore in his younger years.
Ahlgren said he thinks his involvement as an adult began when he was about 25 years old and was asked to drive Jim Oberstar in the Cloquet Labor Day parade.
“We had just moved back to Cloquet after living in Duluth and Jim was running for his first election,” Ahlgren said of the longtime U.S. Representative in an interview just after Christmas. “I was thrilled to do it.”
But the biggest thrill came later that morning.
“After the parade, we were milling around in the parking lot by Chicken Rudy's Cafe and then-Senator and former Vice President Hubert Humphrey asked me to have lunch,” Ahlgren said, “There were about a dozen of us but he wanted to sit by me.”
Ahlgren’s foray into public service pretty much started the way it continued: with him taking opportunities to participate and meeting all kinds of people, then using those contacts to help make good things happen for people, places and causes he cared about.
For that, he is grateful.
“I’ve had the good fortune to meet a lot of great people and get a lot of good direction from family members, and the opportunities were there for me — with good friends and family contacts — to get to do a lot of things that most people wouldn’t get a chance to do,” the former mayor said. “I’ve had a great life.”
Now 64, Ahlgren is far from finished, he’s just transitioning. To what, he’s not certain. More hunting and fishing and spending time with family for sure. He’s been a lobbyist, Cloquet School Board member and mayor of Cloquet. He’s coached hockey, volunteered and served on hundreds of committees locally and around the state.
“I’ll still be active in the community,” he said. “And when the right opportunity strikes, who knows?”
subhed: The early years
The Ahlgren home was a busy place growing up with five boys and two girls — George, Arnold, Ronald, Gordy, Bruce, Arlene and Rosie — all basically being raised by just their mother.
Ahlgren recalled sleeping five to a bed when he was small, with Mom in the middle and a sister on either side, while Bruce and Gordy slept at their feet. (Gordy was 15 months older than Bruce.) Eventually they put some beds in the attic.
Money was a challenge.
“We would get a pair of blue jeans one Christmas and a flannel shirt the next,” Ahlgren said to illustrate.
The family didn’t have indoor plumbing until Bruce was 8, just an outhouse at the farm. Every Wednesday and Saturday, these descendants of Finnish settlers would go to one of their uncle’s or their grandparents’ house to take a sauna. There they would heat up the sauna using wood, throwing water on the rocks to make it steamy, around 170 to 180 degrees Fahrenheit.
Directions for cleaning up in a sauna according to Ahlgren? Sweat. Then take a bar of soap and a brush and scrub yourself. Have someone else in the sauna scrub your back. Then rinse off.
When Bruce was 8, Senja got a job as a scrub nurse in Duluth and they moved. A year later, she got a job a Northwest Paper Company and they moved back to Cloquet into a little house on 14th Street across the street from where the library is now.
His mom and dad divorced, something Ahlgren mentions without regret.
“In those days, [the paper company] would only hire single women,” he explained. “My parents got a divorce and we moved back to Cloquet and she got the job. I was 9.”
Rather than going back to Jefferson Elementary School in Cloquet, Bruce went to Washington. He attended Cloquet Middle School and was in the last class to graduate from the old Cloquet High School.
Although he met many important and famous people throughout his life, the ones that Ahlgren specifically names as people he’d like to thank are local, and not so famous outside of this area.
“I want to thank my coaches Rol Bromberg and Bill Kennedy for the life skills they instilled in me that I still use to this day,” he said. “And Don Kronemann, my sixth-grade teacher who had so much influence on my life.”
“Bruce was one of my kids,” Kronemann said in a phone call Tuesday. “He was a great student, a great guy all around. I’m so very, very proud.”
In high school Ahlgren played both hockey (right wing) and football (fullback and linebacker). A good enough football player to get scholarship offers from both Nebraska and the University of Minnesota, Ahlgren chose the University of Minnesota-Duluth instead, because he could play both sports there.
His collegiate sports career didn’t last long, the result of a severe concussion during his first football season under Coach Malowski, when Ahlgren woke up on Wednesday thinking it was Tuesday.
“Evidently I was walking and talking but I don’t remember a thing,” he said.
Despite the fact that his balance was not right, Ahlgren finished the football season without ever going to the hospital or seeing a doctor. But he couldn’t play hockey with his balance still out of whack — he was “too wobbly,” he said — so he had to quit.
Ahlgren graduated from UMD with a teaching degree (like his four older brothers) and got a job as recreation director in Silver Bay. Then the superintendent asked him if he’d go to Two Harbors and teach phy ed and health, which he did. That spring, at the end of the school year, he got laid off, along with all the other first-year teachers because of shrinking enrollment.
Rather than take a job offer in Roseau teaching and being assistant hockey coach, Ahlgren moved back home to Cloquet and became a probation parole officer for the Arrowhead Regional Corrections working in Carlton County.
Then, at the age of 27, he was appointed “Clerk of District and County Court,” a position since renamed to Court Administrator.
He would remain in that position until he retired, 30 years later.
subhed: Changing times
When Ahlgren took over as clerk of court, everything was done on typewriter or by hand. All the information from the courtrooms was written down in massive books, each weighing in at around 50 or 60 pounds.
The first year he was clerk of court, there were 14 felonies filed in District Court.
“When I left, I think there were well over 600 in a year,” Ahlgren said. “There was never a year that went by that we didn’t beat the previous record [for felonies filed],” Ahlgren said.
The court system itself was a maze. There was County Court, District Court, Probate Court and Justices of the Peace. There were “referees,” who basically had the power of judges but weren’t elected, instead they were appointed by the Chief District Judge.
“Now it’s all just District Court,” Ahlgren said, explaining that the state completed its transition to a fully unified, state-funded trial and appellate court system in 2005. He was a part of that transition, working on statewide committees to help plan it.
There were other changes, too.
During Ahlgren’s tenure, Carlton County was one of the first counties in Minnesota to modernize its record-keeping methods, moving first from the books to a card system and finally to a computer system. For both changes, Carlton County was selected to be a pilot project for the state.
“In all, I think we took part in seven or eight pilots,” a proud Ahlgren said. “We were the first courtroom in the state to have a computer — now there’s not a courtroom in the state that doesn’t have a computer. Because we were a pilot program, we got millions of dollars in technology and equipment that the state paid for,” he said.
Ahlgren was also active in statewide roles as court administrator, serving as president of the Minnesota Association for Court Management twice. He also lobbied at the state legislature for funding for trial courts and later for a new Minnesota Supreme Court building, a spectacular edifice that now stands to the right of the State Capitol.
Ahlgren credits State Supreme Court Justice Lawrence Yetka for that success.
“He really took me under his wing,” Ahlgren said of the Cloquet native, describing how Yetka would invite him in to dine with him and the other Supreme Court justices when they were having lunch. “That’s how I got to know so many justices.”
Ahlgren retired from the court system at the age of 57, influenced in part by the deaths of two very different men. One was his older brother Gordy, who died at 55. The other was Judge Litman, who planned to work until he was 70, then go enjoy the cabin he loved so much.
“Then he got a brain tumor and died six months later, at age 69 ½,” Ahlgren said. “I decided I wasn’t taking that chance, and that’s why I retired when I did.”
subhed: Family matters
Bruce met his future wife, Marla Maki, when they were both at UMD. Marla was dating the quarterback of the football team though.
A few years later, he spotted a photograph of her teaching school in Carlton in the Pine Knot newspaper.
“I ran into her one day and asked if she wanted to go on a date,” he said. “She said yes … and we got married eventually.”
They had three children.
Angela, the oldest at age 38, teaches theater at Texas A&M.
Their youngest is Jon, born on Valentine’s Day and now age 32, who works in Duluth at Altec.
Jill, the middle child, was getting a Ph.D from the University of North Dakota when she had her first daughter, Aili (now 6) and then a baby boy, Kai. Jill died last year from an unknown blood disease at age 36.
She left behind two beautiful grandkids, Ahlgren said, fighting strong emotions for a moment.
“Losing an election is nothing compared to losing a child,” he said. “So everything’s good.”
subhed: People and politics
Over the years, between lobbying and his involvement in the court system, Ahlgren met and dined and debated with many of Minnesota’s political and judicial leaders.
He has had “lunch, dinner and cocktails” with every Chief Justice of Minnesota since 1977. He can say the same about the governor from 1980 to now.
Ahlgren said his biggest complaint about politics today is how partisan things have become.
“When I first started lobbying legislators in the old days, people like Munger, Johnson, [Sam] Solon and [Florian] Chmielewski, you didn’t know if they were Republican or Democrat,” he said. “They — and a lot of others — walked down both sides of the aisle. But you’d go there and ask a question when you wanted something and they’d look at you and say, ‘It’s done.’ You’d never have to go back again. They’d take care of it.”
Over the years and often at the same time he lobbied for the courts, Ahlgren also lobbied for other Carlton County causes, like the Fond du Lac Tribal and Community College, the Moose Lake hospital, and even youth hockey.
It was Chmielewski who put him on a sports commission committee for women’s hockey rinks called the Mighty Ducks. Because so many girls were getting involved in playing hockey, there was a statewide shortage of ice time and more rinks were needed.
“I met and argued with people like Herb Brooks, Walter Bush and a lot of other very influential people in the state,” he said. “And Carlton County got some of the first grants.”
Cloquet, Carlton and Moose Lake got $250,000 each toward a new rink. That’s when — with the help of additional fundraising locally — Cloquet built what is now Northwoods Credit Union Arena. (Ahlgren was on that committee too.)
He was also politically active at home.
Ahlgren was elected to and served on the Cloquet School Board for 12 years before he ever ran for mayor of his hometown, a position he held for 16 years.
According to City Administrator Brian Fritsinger, Ahlgren was the longest consecutive term mayor in the history of the city.
Fritsinger said Ahlgren not only took on statewide leadership roles during his tenure, he also looked out for those who were “economically challenged.”
“He consistently defended programs and services that would provide benefit to that sector of our community especially in the area of housing development,” Fritsinger said.
Ahlgren presided over his last Cloquet City Council meeting Dec. 16, the same day that city officials held a well-attended farewell reception for him at City Hall.
The guests were as diverse as Ahlgren’s life has been, ranging from his big sister, to past and present police officers, business leaders, city staff, hockey supporters and more.
Ahlgren said he leaves the office feeling pretty good.
“People he told me I was the most active mayor ever,” he said. “I loved doing it. I love the people of Cloquet. I wish Dave [Hallback] well and hope he will carry on the tradition well.”
Not bad for a poor kid from Cloquet.