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Margaret Langfeld was 10 when U.S. Sen. Hubert Humphrey stepped into a meeting and greeted her father by name.

She often said "the bug to serve" bit right there, watching a big-time politician remember a small-town farmer and call out, "Hiya, Billy!"

Never mind that good-old-boy networks dominated city halls and county boardrooms when she made her first foray into politics in 1976. Langfeld broke gender barriers, first on the Blaine City Council and later on the Anoka County Board, eventually becoming its first chairwoman.

Langfeld, a pioneer for women in local politics and an advocate for the needy, died April 6 of melanoma at her Blaine home, her husband, Jim, said. She was 76.

Family and colleagues say her deep Catholic faith guided her work. Early in her career, Langfeld huddled around a kitchen table with a group of women and helped found Alexandra House, Anoka County's first home for battered women and children.

"She was definitely a force to be reckoned with," said Connie Moore, executive director of Alexandra House, which provides shelter, advocacy and support services to victims of domestic and sexual violence.

Margaret Casey grew up on a farm in the tiny west-central Minnesota town of Darwin, and married her high school sweetheart, Jim Langfeld, in 1963. The couple moved to Blaine with their young children in 1970, and Langfeld soon turned her eye to City Hall. She beat an incumbent in 1976 and became the only woman on the Blaine City Council.

"She had a lot to prove, and she proved it," said longtime Blaine Mayor Tom Ryan.

Early on, it meant going to council meetings even when she felt ill, despite her family's objections. "She said, 'I can't [stay home]. They will think that women are weak. I have to go,' " recalled her son Joe, of Blaine.

Langfeld won a seat on the all-male Anoka County Board in 1982, joining Natalie Steffen as the first women to do so. The two spoke by phone on election night, trading congratulations and wondering how their new colleagues would receive them.

Even the most skeptical commissioners soon decided the newcomers' minds "worked just fine," Steffen said. "We showed up for meetings prepared."

Langfield often talked about pouncing on life's "strategic moments." There was the time several houses in Blaine were marked for demolition near a road project. Langfeld said it seemed a great waste and proposed turning them into transitional homes for the homeless instead.

The lesson stayed with County Administrator Jerry Soma: "You wait until that strategic moment when all the stars align … and then you go for it."

When current Anoka County Board Chairwoman Rhonda Sivarajah first eyed public office, she — like many other women — turned to Langfeld for advice.

"You think, if another woman could do it, maybe I could, too," Sivarajah said.

Relatives at first worried about Langfeld retiring. But the soft-spoken leader who had met with U.S. presidents naturally kept busy, especially at the Church of St. Paul in Ham Lake, where she was a founding member.

On the cusp of retirement in 2006, Langfeld noted, "There's so much to do. Maybe I'm just getting started. I guess you never stop feeling like you're a pioneer."

Besides her husband and son Joe, Langfeld is survived by daughters Michelle Samuels of Plymouth and Danielle Udean of Lino Lakes; sons Jim of Princeton, Adam of Belle Plaine and Tom of Shakopee; brothers John and Bill Casey; a sister, Claire Matthews; 14 grandchildren and 12 great-grandchildren. Services have been held.