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Erwin Rau, former mayor of Willmar, dies at age 101

WILLMAR -- There are lots of ways to remember Erwin Rau. The former mayor of Willmar was also a conservationist, devoted church member, a successful businessman, and always, a gentleman, according to those who knew him best.

Rau might prefer being remembered most of all simply as an American.

Rau died Wednesday at age 101. Rau, who served as Willmar's mayor from 1959 to 62, grew up the son of immigrant parents on a farm north of Appleton. His parents had chosen to make their lives in America but as immigrants from Germany, they experienced the anti-German sentiment that filled the country during World War I, said his surviving son, Dr. Dean Rau, currently an orthopedic surgeon in Ashland, Wis.

Rau said his father did not appreciate those who identified themselves by their European heritage, and encouraged them to think of themselves instead as Americans. It might explain why Rau -- with a head of raven-black hair -- made Bethel Lutheran Church his place of worship, despite the earlier days when many of the sandy-haired worshippers around him often emphasized their Swedish heritage.

Rau was the ninth of 10 children born on the Appleton farm. The farm relied on horse power. Erwin and his younger brother stayed with friends in Appleton on weekdays so that they could attend high school. In the heart of the Great Depression, he put himself through college at the University of Minnesota.

A 'U' wrestling coach noticed the farm boy's strength and invited him to try out for the team. He earned his letter, even though he had not wrestled in high school.

Erwin Rau brought the same "can do" spirit to Willmar, where he arrived shortly after his marriage in 1940.

He owned and operated a tire re-capping business during World War II, when tires were rationed and getting every last mile out of them was so critical.

After the war he opened a clothing and military surplus store at the corner of Third Street and Litchfield Avenue. He later moved what became Rau's Western Trading Post' to Fourth Street north of Litchfield Avenue.

He helped usher in the era of modern city government to Willmar as a north-side alderman for eight years and as a mayor for two terms. He helped the city craft a new city charter befitting its role as a growing regional center. "It allowed us to go from a small-town, good-old-boy type of system to something modern,'' he told the Tribune in 1997.

He was a devoted member of Bethel Lutheran Church and served it in various roles. He also served the American Lutheran Church by taking on a very difficult job in the 1960s and early 1970s of helping rural congregations merge.

He served as chairman of Willmar's Housing and Redevelopment Authority, and promoted the Lakeview Apartment development. He served as the first director of the apartments.

He was a dedicated conservationist. He made possible a number of large, wetland restorations, including a waterfowl production area near Lake Lillian and separate wetland complexes east of Atwater and south of Kandiyohi.

His best-known role as conservationist can be found on the shores of Foot Lake between the Lakeland radio stations and Kandiyohi County Fairgrounds in Willmar. Rau took on the challenge of converting the city's former dump into a popular fishing and picnic area shaded with stately Ponderosa pines.

His intention was to make it a place for local Scout to hold cook-outs and events. He named Rau Park in memory of his son David, who had died of an illness at age 15 in 1959.

Rau was an avid walker who took great care of his health, said Richard Hoglund of Willmar, who knew him as a friend. Hoglund said Rau gave back much to the community he loved, but the thing he remembers most about his friend is how he always treated others. "He was always a gentleman,'' said Hoglund.