Fargo mayor remembered as flood folk hero

Share story

Fargo mayor Dennis Walaker in 2009
During the flooding of the Red River in 2009, Walaker resisted the recommendations of public officials to evacuate the city.
Stephanie Hemphill / MPR News

Updated 4:04 p.m. | Posted 7:33 a.m.

When a record flood hit Fargo in 2009, Mayor Dennis Walaker used humor to help the city survive potential disaster.

Walaker, who died at his home Tuesday after battling kidney cancer, routinely used humor to cut the tension of flood meetings. He once joked about finding an old construction vest for a visiting member of Congress.

Those moments of levity were part of Walaker's calculated plan to show residents he knew how to handle things, Fargo Deputy Mayor Tim Mahoney said.

"We found that really worked well," Mahoney said. "And I think for a lot of people, they thought he was very confident if he could laugh and joke during those meetings."

NewsCut: Remembering Dennis Walaker

Walaker is best known for leading many successful flood fights against the surging Red River. He was a city employee for 32 years before he retired and won election to the mayor's job mayor in 2006.

Fargo Mayor Dennis Walaker
Walaker boarded a bus at the Fargo Armory in north Fargo on March 22, 2010. Walaker and other officials toured the flooding Red River by bus.
Ann Arbor Miller / MPR News

Protecting the city from ever more frequent floods was a theme of his career in public works and became his passion as mayor.

The jokes he made during meetings could come at the expense of the National Weather Service. Walaker often made his own flood forecasts based on observations and his experience with previous floods.

But behind the scenes, there was no animosity between Walaker and professional forecasters, National Weather Service Forecaster Greg Gust said. The mayor's background as an engineer and public works director carried weight.

"Denny had fought all these darn floods," Gust said. "So he knew what went in to making up that forecast."

In a 2009 meeting where federal officials encouraged a full evacuation of Fargo, the forecaster said Walaker's response was typically clear and direct.

"He just simply said, 'No. We can't evacuate,'" Gust said. "'We can have some people leave, but we need to have people there to man the dikes — otherwise the dikes will fail.'"

Media attention
Fargo Mayor Dennis Walaker received a lot of media attention during the flooding in 2009, including being network TV news team.
Stephanie Hemphill / MPR News

Fargo survived the 2009 flood, but the experience convinced Walaker a flood diversion was critical to future city growth and he threw his energy into backing the project.

Former Moorhead Mayor Mark Voxland, who led his city through that 2009 flood, worked with Walaker to lobby for the flood diversion project.

"He knew how to get things done and that was the key thing," Voxland said. "Yeah, he might be a little gruff, but he was really kind of a big teddy bear too and I think everybody knew it. So he might be gruff at you but they kind of took that with a grain of salt."

Voxland said Walaker's legacy is a much improved flood protection infrastructure for Fargo.

Walaker considered not running for another term as mayor this year. But Mahoney says Walaker's passion for flood control kept him going.

"He said, 'Tim, I just want to do this one more time and push the diversion. And it's my dream to be there and put a shovel in when we start digging,'" Mahoney said.

Congress has approved the diversion, but it awaits federal construction funding.

Walaker was 73. He's survived by his wife, two daughters and two grandchildren.

Before you go...

MPR News is dedicated to bringing you clarity in coverage from our reporters across the state, stories that connect us, and conversations that provide perspectives when we need it most. We rely on your help to do this. Your donation has the power to keep MPR News strong and accessible to all during this crisis and beyond.