Our southwest Minnesota region lost another outstanding leader with the death of founding SWIF board member Elroy Burgeson two weeks ago. He and his wife Nita of Granite Falls were featured in our latest issue of Looking Forward, Giving Back, and I’m so glad we were able to share their story and lift up the incredible impact Elroy had on our organization and region.
Here’s an article from the Advocate Tribune with more “Burgie” memories. He is an inspiration to the Granite Falls community and far beyond.
Southwest Minnesota loses a great one in Elroy Burgeson
By Scott Tedrick, Editor
Granite Falls, Minn. — The City of Granite Falls lost one of its greatest leaders and advocates with the passing of Elroy Burgeson on Friday, April 27. He was 82.
Burgeson, known affectionately to many as “Burgie,” arrived in Granite Falls with his wife Nita in 1960 and over the next several decades either developed or played an integral role in an overwhelming number of community initiatives and institutions that impacted not only Granite Falls but much of southwest Minnesota.
Burgeson would serve as the Director of the Granite Falls Area Vocational Technical Institute –– now the Granite Falls Minnesota West Community and Technical College campus –– was a founding member of the Southwest Initiative Fund (SWIF) –– later renamed the Southwest Initiative Foundation –– and was co-chair of the 1979 Granite Falls Centennial Celebration, which served as the basis for the annual city celebration we know today as Western Fest.
Burgeson would also serve as president of the local Kiwanis Cub, the Chamber of Commerce and the Granite Falls Lutheran Church Council in addition to two terms as a city council member and two terms as Granite Falls mayor.
“Once he moved here Granite Falls was his home, and he cared about it,” said Nita, his wife of 58 years. “I was amazed at all of his energy. He just cared. He was a giver and not a taker.”
Burgeson was born in 1930 in Ladysmith, Wisconin. After attending high school in Mankato he joined the U.S. Army where he served as a medic during the Korean War. In 1955 he graduated from Mankato State College, where he later returned to receive his Master’s Degree in 1962.
For five years Burgeson taught High School Business Education in Butterfield before his move to Granite Falls. In Granite, he taught business classes at the local high school briefly until his acceptance of an administrative post at the Area Vocation Technical in 1963. There, he would remain until his retirement in 1986.
Dick Pooley was a friend and colleague to Burgeson during much of that tenure and would go on to succeed him as director. Together they helped grow the school from around one hundred students to its historic maximum of over 500.
“He really had a love for education, his staff and his students,” he said. “Overall, I think he was just a really good administrator.”
Pooley cited the 27-day teacher strike in the fall of ‘81 as one instance where the unique manner in which Burgeson treated his staff was on display. He recalled how teachers picketed outside the college and how, rather than just drive through the line, the vocational school director made an effort to walk amongst the crowd and hear his staff’s side of things.
“It was a tough time we all went through back then,” Pooley said. “But because of the way he was when we came back to work our staff continued to function really well together.”
His sense of humor was another trait that Pooley said was fundamental to Burgeson’s character. He couldn’t help but chuckle as he recalled one occasion where a school secretary was left to question her sanity when Elroy had his identical twin, Leroy, enter the college, say hello and then go sit in the director’s office––only to enter the office moments later himself and repeat the scene.
And yet, of all his attributes, Pooley said the one that he enjoyed the most was Burgeson’s knack for seeing what was to come. “He seemed to be able to look into the future and see what was going to happen. I really like that about him,” he said.
One might argue as to whether Burgeson saw the future, or just created it. Most likely, it fell somewhere in between.
Sherry Ristau met Burgeson shortly after she moved to Clarkfield in the late 1980s, and has had a front row seat to witness the evolution of the proposal submitted by Burgeson and Mark Loftus of Southwest Minnesota State University to the McKnight Foundation that would lead to the creation of SWIF.
Burgeson was on the board that hired Ristau as a Grant Program Manager. Today, she is SWIF President and CEO.
“He had a huge heart for people and their needs. He was such a positive thinker and always had something positive to say,” Ristau said. “Anybody who ever got to interact with Elroy is a better person today … and I’m not just saying that, I really mean that.”
Ristau went on to discuss the impact of SWIF, and further emphasized how it was the infusion of Elroy’s ideals into the foundation that have allowed it to be such a huge benefit to the community today and in perpetuity.
“It’s not about [me], the staff or the board or any of that. [SWIF] has been established on a set of values possessed by Elroy Burgeson and those like him. His legacy will be felt in southwest Minnesota forever, based on what he did 25 years ago.”
The specific instances and organizations that speak of Burgeson’s contributions go on and on and remain as a testament to the man who so sincerely devoted his life to all those he so deeply loved, which appeared to be everyone he came into contact with.
“He just liked people,” said Nita. “He was interested in them, he didn’t judge them and he listened to what they had to say. If he could offer some advice he would, and if it wasn’t he called for he didn’t. He was just an amazing man and I was lucky to be his wife.