During a Depression-era summer, a state highway patrolman drove Gov. Floyd B. Olson 55 miles south to Zumbrota, Minn. The socialist-leaning governor wanted to talk to his foil, state Sen. A.J. Rockne — the powerful, tightfisted chairman of the Senate Finance Committee.
The governor found Rockne sitting on a car fender, visiting with friends — chewing both tobacco and the fat. When Olson asked to speak privately, Rockne remained seated and said, "Governor, anything you've got to say to me, you can say in the presence of my friends."
Their spirited clashes defined state politics in the economic grind of the early 1930s. Olson, Minnesota's first Farmer-Labor Party governor, favored public relief, unions and expanded government. Rockne, a hard-core Republican, was known as the "Watchdog of the Treasury" during a 44-year legislative career that spanned from 1903 to 1946 and included a stint as House Speaker and a record 36 years in the state Senate.
"If the state passes half of what you want, we'll be broke," Rockne once told Olson. Rockne even opposed federal New Deal grant money Olson insisted would cost the state nothing. "Governor," Rockne replied, "just where do you think the federal government is getting this free money from?"
Paul Rockne, A.J.'s 84-year-old grandson, is the third of four generations of lawyers still holding court in Zumbrota — a chain that started when A.J. earned $5 a week as manager of the Gophers football team in the early 1890s to support his studies at the University of Minnesota Law School.
Rockne successfully defended three murder cases and sometimes sued the governor as a private citizen while serving in the Legislature.
"He told his lawyer sons: 'Never wear clothes different from the jurors,' " Paul Rockne said. "He was a die-hard Republican, as were most of the voters in Goodhue County … who believed government should live within its means. He was basically a man of the rural people who was on the cusp of defining the role state government would play in daily lives."
Anton Julius Rockne was born in a log cabin in 1868 in the southeastern Minnesota hamlet of Harmony — an ironic hometown for a lawmaker known for sewing disharmony. His parents were Norwegian immigrant Lutheran farmers.
A.J. hung his lawyer shingle in Zumbrota in 1894, perhaps because he'd run out of money halfway home from the "U" to Harmony, his son said. A.J. was first elected to the state House in 1902 and moved to the Senate in 1911. A failed 1928 run for the U.S. Senate was his lone campaign defeat and Rockne is tied for the second-longest career in Minnesota Legislature history.
He and his wife, Susie, were married in 1899 in Zumbrota, and raised three children. Family members recall their frugal lifestyle, which featured an old-fashioned ice box and wood-burning cook stove after World War II. A.J. often took the bus to the Capitol.
"Though there were naturally some who disagreed with his policies, no one could say that he was not honest, independent and courageous in the performance of his public trust," Gov. Luther Youngdahl said when Rockne died in 1950 at 81, four years after retiring from the Capitol.
One early Rockne profile described him as "a stoutish man with an old-fashioned face, a stern look … a wry smile, a firm jaw and a pair of piercing blue eyes" who dressed plainly, used homespun grammar and possessed "a heart and soul for the common run of people."
The story went on to call Rockne "a devil-may-care, tobacco-chewing politician with a nose long enough to smell a rat that is rotting; a plain, corrugated, hard-spoken, soft-voiced, flinty-hearted gentleman of the old school."
A large portrait of A.J. Rockne still hangs in the hallway of the family law office in Zumbrota. That's where his grandson remembers him as an elected official who felt too much of the tax burden was being shouldered by rural people — a rift between outstate and metro officials that continues to cleave like a chasm. Paul Rockne insists his grandfather wasn't as heartless as some remember — championing early workers' compensation laws, senior care and a bonding bill for World War I veterans.
Befitting his no-nonsense lawmaking style, Rockne threatened to kill that $20 million bonding bill unless lenders relented on their 20-year-payback demands. His grandson says he got his 10-year payback, which saved the state millions in interest dollars. "Believing engineers working on state highway projects were incompetent," Paul Rockne said, "he shot down another $20 million bond issue by one vote."
Under a headline proclaiming " 'Rock' is Gone," a Minneapolis Star editorial published after A.J. Rockne's death said that "for half a century he was the chief personification of hard-headed politics in Minnesota. He was a steadying influence" who earned his watchdog nickname "not by penny-pinching parsimony but by following the sound principle that every tax dollar should do its real duty."
Curt Brown's tales about Minnesota's history appear each Sunday. Readers can send him ideas and suggestions at email@example.com. His latest book looks at 1918 Minnesota, when flu, war and fires converged: strib.mn/MN1918.