People said it might have been one of the scariest days ever in western Minnesota.
At dawn on April 6, 1997, the Minnesota River was in full flood, threatening thousands of people who lived along its banks. The exhausting work of trying to hold back the river using pumps, levees and sandbags was made even worse by a daylong blizzard.
In the middle of it all was David Smiglewksi, the new mayor of a small town called Granite Falls, situated at a scenic bend in the river.
"I still don't know how some of the things we did managed to work," Smiglewski told the Star Tribune for a story one year after the flood struck two dozen homes and businesses in town.
"In some ways, it was like theater, watching it unfold, not knowing what would happen. The whole thing seemed like it couldn't possibly be happening."
Within a span of about five years, Smiglewski found himself leading the town again through two other disasters — first a powerful tornado and then another major flood. The ensuing recovery efforts shaped his legacy as the mayor of Granite Falls for more than a quarter century.
Smiglewski's community work was wide-ranging. He led a group supporting the nearby state park, served on the board for a local addiction treatment center and volunteered with the local Kiwanis Club for shifts at a downtown popcorn stand.
Smiglewski, 70, was still in office Sept. 22 when he died in a Washington, D.C., hospital after food lodged in his airway during an evening meal. The City Council's vice president will serve out the mayor's term.
"During times of disasters … it takes a leader who can deal with the immediate situation but also look to, 'How are we going to recover from this?' " said Bob Byrnes, a longtime friend and mayor in the nearby town of Marshall. "That's really the lasting legacy that Dave made, in that following the floods — as well as following the tornado — he really worked hard to give assistance and gain assistance."
Smiglewski was born in Granite Falls. After graduating from the local high school, he studied for three years at the University of Minnesota before returning to town for a job on the railroad.
Smiglewski laid ties and track and did repairs before working as a track inspector, said his son Cody Smiglewski of Minneapolis. The job included responding to derailments in the middle of the night.
In 1979, Smiglewski was elected to city council. He served more than 16 years before stepping in when the town's mayor died in 1996.
He shifted careers in 2004, becoming publisher of the Advocate Tribune, a weekly newspaper in Granite Falls.
As mayor, Smiglewski led a flood mitigation project in Granite Falls that required relocating City Hall and removing more than 50 homes and businesses from the flood plain. Key to the effort, Byrnes said, was figuring out how to draw support from public officials and federal agencies.
In time, Smiglewski became known statewide as an advocate for cities and towns through his leadership roles with prominent groups working at the state Capitol.
Smiglewski had two stints on the board of directors at the League of Minnesota Cities, receiving the group's C.C. Ludwig Award in 2020, citing his vision, statesmanship and unwavering commitment to the public good. He served several years as a board member at the Coalition of Greater Minnesota Cities and was president in 2017-18.
"Dave was the consummate people person who believed in the power of conversation," said Luke Fischer, executive director of the League of Minnesota Cities. "His focus on finding the things folks in Greater Minnesota have in common with the metro area made local government stronger across our state."
In 2016, Smiglewski won a Bush Fellowship, which allowed him to finish his bachelor's degree and study methods for promoting civic engagement. Throughout his career, Byrnes said, Smiglewski pushed for improvements to the transportation system throughout southwestern Minnesota — a cause that took him to Washington, D.C., last month along with other regional officials to lobby for highway funding.
Smiglewski kept working after being diagnosed about six years ago with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or ALS, the condition also known as Lou Gehrig's disease. The case was unusual, his son said, for developing very slowly — it hadn't yet brought the disabling consequences that Smiglewski saw come quickly for a friend who was diagnosed at roughly the same time.
"His many friends across the state were drawn to Dave's warmth and indefatigable optimism, which he maintained even after his diagnosis with ALS," said Bradley Peterson, executive director of the Coalition of Greater Minnesota Cities.
The ailment did slow Smiglewski's speech, which he found frustrating at times given his love for public speaking and talking with people. Even so, when a Star Tribune reporter came to town in 2022 for a podcast episode about a historical marker claiming the Granite Falls area is home to the "World's Oldest Rock," Smiglewski arranged a meetup at a local bar where he and others offered commentary.
"There was something about the town and its history and its natural beauty that captivated him," said Cody Smiglewski. "He loved to be involved. Community engagement and discourse was really central to his way of being."
Along with his son Cody, Smiglewski's survivors include his wife, Cindy; daughter Laurel Christianson of Granite Falls and son Seth Smiglewski of St. Paul. A funeral is being planned for later this month.