Longtime Austin leader rememberedPublished 10:25am Monday, April 4, 2011
When a man dies, family and friends mourn his loss.
Richard P. Cummings died and all of Mower County mourns.
Cummings passed away Thursday, March 31 at his rural Lansing home. He died of complications from a rare form of prostate cancer.
His death has been reported by local media because of his longtime public service: More than three decades as a Mower County Commissioner, perhaps the best known public figure in county government in recent history.
Some say his retirement from public service in 2008 marked the end of an era of long-time, multi-termed county officials.
Garry Ellingson, himself a retired long-time Mower County Chief Deputy Sheriff, served on the county board with Cummings.
“The demographics have changed,” Ellingson said. “I don’t think we will ever see county officials who stay in office for a long time again.”
David Hillier served on the county board for 16 years with Cummings, and he agreed. “The job and the responsibilities have become more complicated,” Hillier said.
While there is the public figure to remember at this time, there is also the private person. Cummings’ family is grieving the loss of a husband, father, grandfather and family patriarch.
Peter Jones, husband of Cummings’ daughter, Gina, recalled his introduction to Cummings. “He was a very religious man and always came up with pearls of wisdom. He was very protective of Gina,” the son-in-law said.
Another Cummings’ family in-law, Amy, wife of son, Wayne, said she was welcomed to a “very warm and friendly” family.
A Michigan native, Amy said her future father-in-law taught her to play cribbage and, she added laughing, how to “count cards.”
After Amy and Wayne were married, they joined Richard and Josie on a cruise. Their way of announcing the birth to come of the first grandchild was to give the grandparents-to-be a Doctor Seuss ABCs book. “He always read it to me,” said Wayne, picking up Amy’s story. “When he saw it, I think he instantly knew we were expecting a baby and his face lit up and there were tears in his eyes.”
Cummings’ only grandchild, Joshua Daniel, will now hear his grandmother read him the ABCs book.
Stories like that underline the family’s intention to push the sadness aside and reach for cause for celebration of a man’s life.
So, too, are Cummings’ peers in public service eager to embrace the past.
Woody Vereide, retired longtime Mower County Auditor, recalled when he and his wife, Marilyn, joined the Cummings at an Association of Minnesota Counties conference.
“After the conference, we all went to a karaoke booth and sang a song,” he said. “I don’t remember what it was, but Marilyn recorded it.”
When Vereide retired and was honored at a party, Cummings presented his friend with a gold record. “I guess he thought I could have been a singer, too,” he said.
Tim Gabrielson, who was elected to fill Cummings’ District No. 1 seat on the county board, was overcome with emotion when asked to comment on his predecessor’s influence.
“He was a gentleman in every sense of the word,” Gabrielson said. “After the election, he would take me on rides in District No. 1 and point out the hotspots. I was interested in learning as much as I could from him and he had a lot to say.”
Duane Hanson, another retired longtime county commissioner, visited the Cummings’ home a week before his colleague’s death.
“We sat around and told stories and laughed a lot,” Hanson recalled. “He was honest and always said what he meant.”
Hillier saw Cummings up-close and personal as a close friend and peer in county government. He remembered the times Cummings would come to county board afternoon meetings and then retreat to the men’s room to change into his Hormel Foods Corp. work clothes; Cummings worked for 41 years at the Austin meatpacking plant.
He saw something in the man others could not see.
“His faith and trust in Jesus Christ was the center of his life. Both public and private,” Hillier said.
Ellingson called Cummings a mentor. “He taught me so much. He was so good at math. By the time the rest of us had figured out something, he had already done the math in his head.”
Craig Oscarson, long-time county coordinator, was as close as anyone to the “public” Cummings.
“He was a very honorable man and really cared about serving on the county board,” Oscarson said.
Cummings was a well-known fiscal conservative on the county board and he never apologized for his stance on spending issues.
“One time, we were in the elevator at the courthouse with a vendor,” Oscarson said. “The vendor said I was being cheap on a spending issue, but Dick told him he was even cheaper than me.”
‘Old boys club’
Bob Shaw (39 years on the county board and Austin City Council experience before that), Bob “Butch” Finbraaten (35 years as a county commissioner), Hanson (15 years on the county board and still serving on the board of adjustment) were dubbed the “old boys club” for their decades-long public service on the county board.
Gary Nemitz also racked up over a decade on the county board before Alzheimer’s disease forced his retirement from public office.
Hillier’s 16 years also put him in that category.
Shaw, Finbraaten and Nemitz are all deceased.
Cummings succeeded Cliff Christianson as the District 1 representative. He was elected in 1976.
Cummings had opposition in every primary and every general election and won them all.
A myriad of issues and decisions shadow county officials: Budgets, personnel issues including labor negotiations with public employee unions, land use issues, roads and bridges and so much more. Another hot issue has been the new Mower County Jail and Justice Center in downtown Austin.
All the while, citizen-taxpayers are watching an official’s every move and decision in the public spotlight.
Cummings put his stamp everywhere without compromise.
Forty-one years working for Hormel, including the bitter labor dispute and strike of 1985-86. Thirty-two years on the county board.
All that and a marriage and two children to raise at home.
“There were very few issues or problems that he brought home to the family,” recalled Josie in a 2008 interview. “He took his work very seriously, but never let it interfere with family life.”
The devoted wife remarked at the time, “Now it’s time for us.”
There were only two years of “us.” Most of that time was filled with caring for her husband as his health steadily declined.
Moments in time
Josie and her children will always have their memories.
“I would leave out homework for him to review,” daughter Gina recalled. “He would get home at 2 or 3 in the morning and look at my homework before I would turn it in.”
“He would call from work just to say hello and check on us. He would always say he loved us,” she said.
“He was a very prayerful man,” recalled son Wayne. “He would always pray for us, whenever Amy and I would drive out here from Ohio.”
When they were children, Wayne and his sister joined their father on campaign trips throughout District 1. The well-known fiscal conservative “broke the rules” of penny-pinching.
“I would have a donut or a bar at one meeting, then when we would get to the next place, I would tell him I was hungry again and wanted some chips or something and he would always hesitate and say ‘Well … I guess that’s all right’ and buy us what we wanted to eat,” he said.
Josie said her husband “never uttered a cross word to me in our life together.”
The couple prayed over controversial decisions the county commissioner had to make and then simply let it be. “I remember he would say ‘It will be there tomorrow. Let’s get our sleep tonight,’” she said.
One man, so much attention. What would the private man turned near public celebrity think of all the scrutiny?
“Dick would not want to be put on a pedestal,” Josie said. “I think he would be honored by the attention he is receiving, but he was so humble, he would want the attention to be on God, so I think he would be embarrassed.”
Her brother agreed. “He would probably say ‘Yeah, that’s okay I guess,’” he said agreeing with his sister’s description of their father’s humility.
Public office-holders are targets, deciders, defenders, crusaders, scape-goats. Chose a label, but remember this: They volunteered to serve. In Mower County, a handful did it longer than anyone else.
Shaw, Finbraaten and Nemitz now have a familiar face to greet, when the old boys club reconvenes above the clouds.
Imagine the stories they will have to tell.
Funeral services for Richard P. Cummings will be held 10:30 a.m. Tuesday (April 5) at Faith Evangelical Free Church in Austin.