Remembering Lynn Stauss — a heroic leader through unimaginable disaster

Lynn Stauss
Lynn Stauss.
Dan Gunderson | MPR News 2007

The former mayor of East Grand Forks, Lynn Stauss, died this week. Being a small city mayor means you are a jack of all trades. You need to be prepared to handle a little of everything. But how can you be prepared for a historic flood and fire — all on the same day?

That's what Stauss had to deal with on April 19, 1997. On that day the Red River rolled over its dykes, inundating the town and sending nearly 61,000 people fleeing from their homes. It was the largest single evacuation in U.S. history at the time.

Then a raging fire that afternoon burned down 11 buildings in downtown Grand Forks.

Stauss was considered a true hero for his leadership during this incredible disaster.

Steve Gander, current mayor of East Grand Forks, spoke with Cathy Wurzer about former mayor Lynn Stauss and his legacy.

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Audio transcript

CATHY WURZER: Being a small city mayor means you are a jack of all trades. You need to be prepared to handle a little bit of everything. But how on Earth can you be prepared for a historic flood and fire all on the same day? That's exactly what East Grand Forks mayor Lynn Strauss had to deal with on April 19th, 1997.

On that day, the Red River rolled over its dikes, inundating the town and sending nearly 61,000 people fleeing from their homes. It was the largest single evacuation in US history at the time. Then a raging fire that afternoon burned down 11 buildings in downtown Grand Forks. It was unreal.

So why am I talking about this today? Well, because the mayor of East Grand Forks at the time died this week. Former mayor Lynn Strauss was considered a true hero. And we wanted to remember the leadership he showed during this incredible disaster. Here he is, in 1998, reflecting on his role during that emergency.

LYNN STRAUSS: We always try to use the words bigger, better, and stronger than ever. Those are things that we've been using positive words for rebuilding our community. But sometimes, when you mention, we actually have been elevated to a different level of mayor than it has been in our community from the past.

And sometimes, it really-- it is almost embarrassing at times because Pat or myself do not look upon ourselves as heroes. We feel we're part of the whole communities and the whole communities are the heroes of this flood.

CATHY WURZER: That was a lot of humility there. In that clip, Lynn Strauss was talking about Pat. Well, that was then Grand Forks mayor Pat Owens. Joining us now to remember former mayor Lynn Strauss is the current mayor of East Grand Forks, Steve Gander. Mayor Gander, welcome.

STEVE GANDER: Thank you for having me today.

CATHY WURZER: I understand you were in East Grand Forks during the flood and the fire. Gosh! What do you remember of that day?

STEVE GANDER: Yes, it was-- to say it any other way would be just not true. It was a very surreal time. I remember where I was at the time when the whole city started to go under. And I'd have to back it up one day to the 18th of April. And I was helping guide a sandbagging effort along a certain section of town. And the air raid sirens went off once again and the choppers were flying over from the National Guard.

And right then, someone walked up and said, do you hear those sirens? And I said, yeah, don't worry about it. It's been-- they've been going off all day. And it was someone from the Guard, saying, no, you don't understand. This one's different. We've got a 10-foot wall of water coming out the back of the dike, where the dike was breached at the bridge about a mile-and-a-half up the river. And so you need to evacuate this area immediately. It will fill with water in minutes.

And so I went to where my vehicle was parked on supposed high ground and ended up being taken out that hour by a deuce-and-a-half over a bridge through several feet of water. And that vehicle ended up totaled in a part of town that, again, was supposed to be the high ground, but there was no way off that section of town. By then all the bridges had failed. And on we went.

So indeed, it was a surreal time. Oh, by the way, the next morning, my parents in their 70s were airlifted off by chopper from the same area. So for our whole community, it was quite a time. Today, we're here to talk about Mayor Strauss. And I appreciated those words. We actually were moved hearing his voice after-- knowing that he's not with us any longer.

He really is-- I like to think of folks who've passed in the present tense. He is a hero for our community. He's a hero for our country. He came out of the University of North Dakota and was right away drafted and sent to Vietnam, where he served in a medical group that helped pick people up from the battlefield.

And he came back home and schoolteacher for elementary kids, and helped coach the youth hockey, and on into serving on the city council. This is a man who's dedicated his life to service of this country, of our community, of really everyone that's anywhere near by him. And we've all been recipients of his kindness, his optimism, his energy, his enthusiasm. And it's all contagious. I love it.

CATHY WURZER: I remember covering that flood and, of course, talking to Mayor Lynn. And thinking, boy, this guy really is a humble person. Just a real down to Earth guy. And I know you just mentioned you were on the city council during the time with Mayor Strauss. How would you describe his leadership style?

STEVE GANDER: He was, I'd say, a very, very effective leader in the fact that he counted on everybody to give their best. He didn't try to spoon-feed anybody or drag them along. Occasionally, you'd butt heads, which is a very good thing. When we're doing the people's work and you have an honest disagreement or difference of opinion, you'd butt heads. But his method, his whole mood, and his whole approach to things was very cooperative, but also really dedicated to accomplishing a vision.

He would take the time to establish a proper vision for the direction that we would want to go. He would take the input of every relevant stakeholder, and then we'd bring it together. And he would be tenacious then to accomplish the vision that we'd all agreed to. And he wouldn't stop with his intentional drive until that vision had been accomplished.

So that combination of optimism, of being very visionary, of being very group minded as to establishing and guiding to the vision, and then pushing right to the end, boy, those are the hallmarks, in my view, of what made him so effective.

CATHY WURZER: Have you taken some of those hints, that learning, those lessons into your own time as mayor?

STEVE GANDER: Absolutely yes. I have a ton of admiration for Mayor Strauss. Now, I'm sure I've had a few departures as to going slightly different way because we're two different people. But clearly, really if you want to partner with people and everybody contribute the best they have, it's a foolish thing to browbeat them. It's a foolish thing to badger them and yet we do hold them accountable.

So there's that nice middle area where we want to be as we partner with one another. And I saw Lynn do it well. And occasionally, I saw him drift off the rails just a little to one side or the other. And that's-- I mean, I'm sure I'm doing the exact same thing. You want to hit that sweet spot. But inevitably, you do bump the rails and wake up and realize, oops, I guess I could have done that a bit better.

CATHY WURZER: What was his vision for the town after all that devastation, the flood and the fire? Did he see that vision come to fruition?

STEVE GANDER: He absolutely did. And I have to say that his connection with Joan Kroc, the heiress of the Fortune of McDonald's Corporation, and Joan and Lynn developed a partnership. They became fast friends. And Marjorie Strauss, last name Strauss, Marj Strauss and Lynn actually traveled to visit Joan in her home in California.

And Joan helped Lynn, I think, cast a broader vision, a greater horizon of what our community could be. I think when you hear Lynn talk about, let's make it better. Let's not just put it back how it was, but we have an opportunity here to reframe our community to really see it in a new way. And sure enough, he did.

So the key components, you will know if you come to visit, our downtown has turned into a real Mecca of activity. Bringing Cabela's, now Bass Pro into the downtown was huge. And from there, we developed a big movie theater complex. And from there, a really nice restaurant business has come up all around there and multiple restaurants.

You probably know Molly Yeh of the Food Network is opening a restaurant in our downtown in the next couple of weeks now. So that's going to be the latest addition. The Girl Meets Farm individual, so she'll be opening a new restaurant there. And then the state campground came in. It's one of the top reserved campgrounds in all of the state of Minnesota right adjacent to all of the stuff that's happened.

And so our downtown-- oh, by the way, we're connected to 40 miles of recreational trails into East Grand Forks and Grand Forks across recreational bridges, Ted bridges, that have been put in as part of the core project. We have protection to 60 feet elevation. We had a flood of 54. We can top these dikes at 64, 65 if we need to. So you talk about, what was Lynn's vision? His vision was, first of all, protection. We needed to be protected. Nobody's going to invest in a community that's vulnerable to repeat flooding.

Thank the good Lord and the US of aid because this corridor levee project to Grand Forks and East Grand Forks is amazing. It's engineered to a 500-year flood event with a 500-year rainfall and everything, worst case scenario. And that's how our corps designed and certified levee system is. Then you have the freedom to go ahead and invest back into the community. And sure enough, it's happened pretty good.

CATHY WURZER: I appreciate everything you said. I thank you so much for taking time, Steve Gander, to talk about Mayor Lynn Strauss. Thank you so much and best of luck.

STEVE GANDER: My pleasure. Thanks for taking the call.

CATHY WURZER: Absolutely. Steve Gander is the mayor of East Grand Forks, Minnesota.

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