A public servant. An optimist. A traveler. A farmer.
That's how family members and past and present elected officials remembered Arlen Erdahl, the former Republican congressman and Minnesota secretary of state who died Sept. 21. He was 92.
Born in 1931 and raised on a farm near Blue Earth, Minn., Erdahl served as Faribault County's representative in the Minnesota House between 1963 and 1970. In 1967 and 1968, he served in a congressional fellowship in the U.S. Capitol offices of Gerald Ford, then-congressman from Michigan and eventual president, and he was Minnesota's secretary of state from 1970 to 1974.
He was elected a U.S. representative for Minnesota's First Congressional District in 1979, where he served until 1983.
His policies emphasized agriculture, the environment, foreign affairs and supporting the disabled, a passion he developed after watching his twin brother, Lowell, with whom he attended a one-room school in their formative years, struggle with polio.
In a statement, Minnesota Secretary of State Steve Simon said Erdahl had a lasting effect on the state.
"Arlen Erdahl was a dedicated public servant of tremendous reach whose positive influence was felt for decades at the office of secretary of state," he said.
Tim Penny, a former Minnesota state senator who also served as congressman for the First Congressional District, said Erdahl was a good man who "had the heart of a public servant." Penny, who interned in the St. Paul office where Erdahl worked as secretary of state, admired him for his good judgment, for being moderate in his politics, and his reputation for getting things done.
"He was cordial. He was considerate. He evoked trust," Penny said. "I think people today yearn for that kind of political leader, someone that even if you might disagree, you do so in a civil and respectful manner and you listen and you learn from one another. That was who he was."
Erdahl didn't win his re-election bid for Congress in 1982, but he never let disappointment linger.
"He didn't dwell on what would have or could have or should have been," said Lars Erdahl, one of Erdahl's four sons. "He considered himself between exciting opportunities."
After his congressional career, Erdahl was appointed by then-President Ronald Reagan to serve as director of the Jamaica Peace Corps and associate director of the U.S. Peace Corps. Former President George H.W. Bush appointed him principal deputy assistant secretary for international affairs in the Department of Energy in Washington, D.C.
His interpersonal skills made Erdahl unique, friends and family said. He had an innate ability to drum up conversations with anyone, from Saudi Arabian leaders to custodians in government buildings, said Rolf Erdahl, the eldest of Erdahl's children. While stationed in Japan during his time in the Army, Arlen Erdal befriended a couple from Hamada, whom he remained in close contact the past 60 years.
"He really found commonalities with people," Rolf Erdahl said.
The man who shook hands with presidents in Washington was the same man inside his Minnesota home, his sons said.
"He was an authentic person and didn't have hidden agendas," Lars Erdahl said. "My dad had a lot of impressive titles over the years, but I think he was never that impressed with titles, especially his own."
After serving in the military, Erdahl returned to Minnesota to work the family farm. He married Ellen Syrdal in 1958, now deceased, and they raised six children. He was a standout athlete at St. Olaf College, and he made several visits to Norway, his mother's ancestral home.
Erdahl had a love for poetry, and would recite from memory lines by Robert Frost. He enjoyed the outdoors and cross-country skiing. He was known for his wit and humor. He'd often borrow the closing line of his favorite entertainer Red Skelton, "Goodnight and God bless," Rolf Erdahl said.
"He knew how to enjoy life," Rolf Erdahl said.
Along with sons Rolf and Lars, survivors include sons Eric and John Erdahl, daughters Laura Weinberg and Kari Hagen, and 14 grandchildren.
Funeral services will take place Oct. 14 at Bethlehem Lutheran Church in Minneapolis.