Involved in the nation's politics, the Richters were about community building
While Anne passed away in 1995 and Paul in 1984, the Richter family found saved letters with the politicians to go along with the memories they already had. Although nationally involved, the Richters' caring started right here in the community as they helped build up Wadena from Humphrey Manor to rural electric power.
WADENA — As Wadena residents, Paul and Anne Richter didn’t shy away from being involved in supporting the community. Anne was involved in 4-H, education and politics, attending two national Democratic conventions in the 1960s. Paul was the first general manager of the Todd-Wadena Electric Cooperative, served on the city council for 22 years, and traveled to three different countries with the United States Agency for International Development .
Both of them were friends with vice presidents Walter Mondale and Hubert Humphrey , among other politicians.
“I don’t know how to thank you! The whole day was perfect from beginning to end, and I can’t help thinking how fortunate I am to have friends like the Richters,” Mondale wrote to them after a visit in 1965.
Mondale and Humphrey both visited Wadena several times to tour the area and speak at events, and they'd stay at the Richter house. Other politicians made a habit of staying there, too, when they were in the area.
“How many kids come back from, whatever, and Senator McCarthy’s in your kitchen?" their son Phil remarked. He has many unique memories like that, such as the time he played tennis with McCarthy’s son, or when Senator Paul Wellstone did push-ups in their living room.
“I never got starstruck by these people,” said their daughter, Polly Richter. “It was just like having your uncle (visit), they were just part of the family and they were just treated like part of the family, nothing special and no big fanfare. It was just really special.”
She does attribute her time in catering to the meal she cooked for Mondale in the eighth grade. Mondale was a Minnesota senator from 1964-76, Minnesota attorney general from 1960-64, vice president from 1977-81 and the Democrat presidential candidate in 1984.
While Anne passed away in 1995 and Paul in 1984, the family found saved letters with the politicians to go along with the memories they already had. The letters extend back to U.S. Secretary of Agriculture and Minnesota Gov. Orville Freeman and House of Representatives member Fred Marshall. The letters thank the Richters for their political efforts and leadership and speak of the conversations they had in-person.
Letter writing was as common then as emails are today, with letters written to people who supported the politicians’ campaign or who had inquired about a particular issue, their family described.
Anne also kept letters between her and Paul and wrote lots of educational letters to help people attend military schools. But all this letter writing and working on important topics are attributed to 4-H.
While part of the “big social movement” in the country and valuing progress, the Richters worked locally in the district, state and at the national level, Phil said.
As a Democrat and a woman, Anne broke the mold and fought an uphill battle, Phil said. She often worked alongside community members Joyce Olafson and Dawn Aldrich. Anne was twice a Humphrey delegate at the DFL conventions, became seventh district chairwoman and was invited to the inaugurations of presidents John F. Kennedy and Jimmy Carter. Paul was “very supportive” of Anne’s political involvements, their family said.
Paul was less involved with politics due to his position with the electric cooperative, which was to be nonpartisan. Though, the funding came through President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal. Paul was known as a Democrat, reasonable, moderate and fiscally conservative.
The politicians who came to Wadena didn’t always get elected—though leaders in Wadena did have a way of planning events, creating support and welcoming Democrat and Republican politicians.
“Thanks so much for making arrangements for me to speak at the Wadena event,” Mondale wrote in a 1970 letter. “My goodness, there was more publicity for that than anything I’ve seen in a long time. I’m glad I was permitted to participate.”
On a visit to Washington, the Richters waited for a chance to see Humphrey. He was a Minnesota senator from 1949-64 and 1971-78, vice president from 1965-69 and the Democrat presidential candidate in 1968.
“He spies my mom and dad and he comes directly to them and says, ‘Anne and Paul, what are you doing here? Nice to see you,’” Polly said. She visited Washington with her parents on this trip. “That just doesn’t happen anymore, those personal connections, which is really unfortunate because we’re missing out on a lot.”
The Richters valued helping people considered the 'underdog.' Afterall, the causes of the people were why Anne was involved, not for the attention. While working in small towns with the farm security department, seeing the effects of the Great Depression and learning about the New Deal, she began advocating for people.
“She was seeing the problems and the struggles and so forth that farmers were having and losing their farms,” Phil said.
While Paul and Anne became nationally involved, their caring started right here in the community as they helped build up Wadena. Projects like rural electric power, the first Wadena swimming pool, Humphrey Manor, helping students attend military school and other higher education, tennis courts, the armory and the Rotary club had the leadership and support of the Richters.
"It was just like, ‘Oh, you’re another person that deserves to be treated well.'"
— Polly Richter said about their family’s connections with politicians
While working to help people who needed housing and didn’t have the funds for it, the Richters lead the development of Humphrey Manor. They knew of buildings in other locations and that federal funding was available. But most of all they knew the need.
“They really honored the value of people and wanted everyone to be comfortable and to enjoy their life,” Polly said.
Paul also helped bring inexpensive power to the area. When he became the general manager of TWEC at 30 years old, he remained for the next 37 years. In 1941, when the Verndale substation was energized, over 300 farmers received electric service for the first time ever.
“It all just fit, I think, with what my father’s mission was,” Phil said. “My father was a very kind and very gentle but also very bright man.” The cooperative again brought people into their home as Anne “embraced” the board of directors as family and the two of them shared their value of people, Phil and Polly said.
The cooperative provided another spark for community member LeRoy Ljungren. He operated the phones at night, on weekends and holidays with a special control board designed for him since he was paralyzed from the neck down after having polio. Ljungren also created exquisite oil paintings with a paintbrush in his teeth.
“I wish to salute this determined and courageous individual. And the Todd Wadena Electric Cooperative and Mr. Paul Richter deserve praise for providing encouragement to this unique man,” Humphrey said in a January 1976 addition to the Congressional Record. Ljungren also mailed Christmas cards to Mondale after meeting him in 1965.
Before Rotary International started the Global Polio Eradication Initiative in 1988, Paul served as the Wadena County March of Dimes committee chairman. The March of Dimes began in 1938 for polio and childhood diseases.
“He tried to be as helpful as he could be to people in all walks of life,” Phil said.
Th Richters' legacy lives on in their family's lives, like serving in education and on city planning boards.
As for their legacy in history: “(Anne) did the very best she could in every way possible to make this community a better place in which to live,” Phil said in a 2018 Wadena County Historical Society interview . “I think she succeeded in a lot of ways. And along with my father and his encouragement. I think she absolutely left this world and this town a better place and she made it a more welcoming place.”
"Paul has left his mark on all of us, just because we where here also, and directly and indirectly on our community," Gordy Askew said in a message shared with the Richters. Askew and Paul served on the city council together. "One of his greatest personal satisfactions was being a part of making the lives of farm families more comfortable and productive through rural electrification."