Former mayor looks back

Published 12:25 pm Saturday, September 27, 2008

Austin is losing a friend. Bob Enright and his wife, Eileen, are moving away.

After Monday, they will take up residence at New Brighton, Minn., where they will be near a daughter, Cynthia.

“We’re in our 90s now,” Bob said. “We’ve got a car that I haven’t driven in 10 years, because I’m legally blind and Eileen’s eyesight is worsening and she shouldn’t be driving either.

Email newsletter signup

“It’s just the right time for us to move,” he said.

Enright is one of Austin’s five living mayors: Tom Stiehm, who currently holds the position; and Bonnie Besse Rietz, John O’Rourke and Roger Svejkovsky are the others.

Enright grew up on a farm near Rose Creek before moving into Austin, where he graduated from St. Augustine (now Pacelli) Catholic High School.

He served four years in the U.S. Army Air Force during World War II, including three years overseas.

When he was honorably discharged from the U.S. Armed Forces, he returned to Austin and went to work at Hormel Foods Corp.’s Austin flagship plant.

He retired 46 years later. “I’m a lifer,” is how Enright explained his Hormel Foods employment.

He and his wife, Eileen, have five children — four sons and a daughter — and 10 grandchildren.

The eldest child, Michael, is a retired teacher. Cynthia at New Brighton is a retired flight attendant. John, who once worked at the Austin Daily Herald, is a retired Washington D.C. journalist.

Jim works for UPS in the Twin Cities area and Joe works for Mayo Clinic at Scottsdale, Ariz.

“It’s not a happy decision to leave Austin, but it’s a necessary one,” Enright said in an interview at Chauncy Apartments, where the couples has lived for 7 1/2 years or since it opened.

“It’s a great town and we’re going to miss it. I have a lot of memories about this place,” he said.

Nearly a half-century working at Hormel, a loyal UFCW union member, charter member of Queen of Angels Catholic Church, raising five children and a host of other day-to-day connections with Austin are evident of the deep roots Enright nurtured.

So is his public service. It runs deep also.

Enright represented Austin’s 3rd Ward for eight years before becoming the at-large council representative.

He was elected mayor in 1968, sat out of local politics until 1974, when he was returned to the mayor’s post and served until 1982.

A conversation with Enright about his public service begins with a volatile chapter in the city’s recent history: the decision to allow Austin Utilities to join Southern Minnesota Municipal Power Agency.

“That became a very emotional issue,” he recalled.

There were marathon Austin City Council meetings; some lasting until midnight. “My practice was to let people talk in order to air their grievances and hear their opinions before making a decision,” he said.

Enright remembers petitions piled against the council chambers’ walls and one particular phone call. “A meeting had lasted until midnight over the SMMPA question,” he said. “When I got home and went to bed it must have been 2 a.m. and the phone rang.”

“It was a woman who said she was so upset over the SMMPA controversy that she couldn’t sleep and if she couldn’t sleep she wasn’t going to let me sleep either,” Enright chuckled at the memory.

The battle waged over a quarter century ago involved militant meatpackers and, some observers say, was a prelude to the labor dispute and strike at Hormel Foods facilities in the mid-1980s.

“It was about Austin’s energy future and where we would get electricity,” Enright said. “We had to think about the future and what the demand for energy would cost.”

Enright was also there, when Hormel Foods considered where to build a new plant: in Austin or away from the company’s birthplace.

That battle left scars also, but the decision — build a new flagship plant in Austin — was the right one, Enright said he believed then and still does today.

“It was crucial to Austin’s future,” he said.

The mayor’s position in Austin city government is that of a figure-head some say. The mayor has no voting privileges except to break a tie vote of the council.

But the mayor is arguably the “face” of the city: The image more people know than any other.

“I remember the former publisher of the Austin Daily Herald, Ed Smith, and how I got into trouble with him one time,” Enright recalled. “In those days, there were proclamations to sign for this and that. I couldn’t turn anybody down. If it was important to them, it must be important to the city, I thought.”

“Well, there got to be so many that finally one day Ed (Smith) called me and said, couldn’t I slow down on the proclamations a bit. They were having to take so many and run them in the paper,” Enright recalled. Again, he chuckled.

A street-widening project in Austin’s northwest was no laughing matter.

“When I took office, the city’s streets were in terrible shape,” he said. “I just had to do something about them.”

According to the former mayor, one example of the controversy caused by a comprehensive street improvement plan was Eighth Avenue Northwest.

“The problem was, the engineers said we had to widen what was a state aid highway at the time from 32 feet to 40 feet,” Enright said. “That meant having to cut down a lot of lovely maple trees in the neighborhood along the street.”

“You wouldn’t believe the controversy that caused in those days. I got plenty of calls at home over that,” he said.

When Enright looks back on his public service, he unabashedly praises the Hormel Foods’ presence in Austin.

“They have been good for the town,” he said. “Whenever I needed someone with the know-how, I could call upon them. Engineers, lawyers, you name it.”

On the eve of the dedication of the newly renovated and expanded Hormel Institute in Austin, Enright also has kind words to share.

“That’s the city’s future: medical research and science. That and the continuing presence of a Fortune 500 company like Hormel,” he said.

Enright said former Hormel Foods president and chairman of the board I. J. Holton should be credited as the driving force behind the new Austin Public Library as much as another Hormel Foods top executive, Richard L. Knowlton, is credited with the Austin High School renovation and Hormel Institute growth project, to name only two.

“Holton and Knowlton and how many other Hormel people have helped this city,” he said before listing Hormel Foods executives who served on the Austin Utilities board of commissioners. “How many organizations in this city have benefited by the presence of Hormel Foods? It will be a long list.”

The memories flow from one to another.

Names roll of his tongue and their own claim to city history: police chief Bob “Boomer” Nelson; fire chief John Tobar; city engineers Bob Peterson and Dick Murphy; appointees (He was only turned down twice in asking citizens to serve and made over 100 appointments during his years in office); public figures; such as the Reverand Paul Nelson from St. Augustine Catholic Church; city council; and reporters too numerous to mention.

Of course, there are “war stories” of conflict in city government, but they are noticeably few.

Redistricting and the one-man, one-vote remapping of political boundaries. Discussion of an all-volunteer Austin Fire Department decades ago. Downtown revitalization.

Issues old, that are debated today.

Naturally, city-county “fussin’ and fightin,’” too.

Enright said he believes the city should have a “stronger” presence on the Mower County Board of Commissioners. “We have most of the population living here in Austin,” he said matter-of-factly and without future explanation.

His wife, Eileen, said the family discussed “politics” and city issues around the dinner table at home, but it didn’t intrude on the couple’s raising their children.

The interview with the former mayor touches all the bases of public service or as many as his memory allows.

Asked what advice he would give to a candidate for mayor today, Enright thought before answering.

“Most importantly, I would tell him to learn as much as you can from the veterans. People who have worked in government and have experience,” he said.

Warming to the subject, Enright added, “Everyone has to remember, when you get elected to office, you’re not going to change the world. That doesn’t happen.”

But one can make a difference and that’s what Enright did.

Being so deeply involved in community life is making the relocation harder to accept.

“I’m not completely happy about having to leave Austin. It’s a great town and it’s been good to us,” he said. “When we get to New Brighton and go to a coffee shop, nobody will know us and we won’t know anybody like we do here.”