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Minnesotans pay tribute to civic and political leader George Pillsbury

George Pillsbury
MinnPost photo by Jana FreibandGeorge Pillsbury

Minnesotans are paying tribute to George Pillsbury, a respected elder in Minnesota's business, philanthropy and political communities. He died Saturday at age 91.

He served in the state Senate from 1970 to 1982 and was very active in the Minnesota Republican Party, although he did support Barack Obama for president in 2008.

 Pillsbury and his wife, Sally, were very active contributors to many groups, including the Guthrie Theater, Planned Parenthood and Pillsbury United Communities, which was set up by his father and uncle.

His sons told the Star Tribune that “he cared deeply about quality education for Minnesota children, world population control through family planning and women's rights, and producing sufficient food to feed the world.”

Pillsbury came from a long line of civic leaders:

His grandfather, Charles A. Pillsbury, built the Pillsbury Co.; his great-grandfather, George A. Pillsbury, was mayor of Minneapolis in the 1880s; and his great-uncle, John S. Pillsbury, was governor of Minnesota from 1876 to 1882.

We asked Minnesotans who knew and worked with Pillsbury for thoughts about the man:

Former Republican U.S. Sen. David Durenberger, now a senior health policy fellow at the University of St. Thomas:

“George's life reminds us of that unique business legacy that has shaped Minnesota, and which grows rarer with each passing generation. The frugal entrepreneur with a civic conscience who puts community, in its largest sense, ahead of self-interest. Knowing both will succeed beyond our expectations.”

Lori Sturdevant, editorial writer at the Star Tribune, who wrote a book with Pillsbury, “The Pillsburys of Minnesota” (2011, Rodin Press):

 “George’s love for Minnesota was palpable. He had traveled the world over and counted as personal friends the captains of governments and global businesses. But other than a brief assignment by the Pillsbury Co. that sent him to New York City as a young man, he always called Minnesota home. Fittingly, he died a stone’s throw from the place where he was born on Brackett’s Point.

“At the many book events we had in the last 18 months, it was a joy for me to see Minnesotans return the affection George felt for this state. Time and again, people would cluster around him to renew their acquaintance, share a Pillsbury anecdote, or just say thank you for a family’s four generations of devotion to this place. He got a terrific kick out of these encounters.

“But the biggest thrill of the last few months for him was the decision of his grandson Andrew and his wife Melissa to make Minnesota their home. It greatly pleased him to know that after he was gone, there would still be Pillsburys living in Minnesota and contributing to its betterment.”

George Pillsbury circa 1972
Courtesy of the Minnesota Historical SocietyState Sen. George Pillsbury, left, from a photograph circa 1972.

Steven Dornfeld, a longtime government reporter at the Twin Cities dailies who now writes for MinnPost:

“George was a smart, warm and engaging man who had a passion for sound public policy and an ability to relate to people regardless of their background or ideology. Though we disagreed on his proposal to create a unicameral Legislature, we always were able to have lively yet civil discussions on this and other issues. He contributed greatly to the civic dialogue of our state.”

Laurie and Joel Kramer, co-founders of MinnPost:

"George and Sally Pillsbury made their first gift to MinnPost on a leap of faith. It was November 7, 2007, the day before we launched. After that, they became generous and consistent contributors — sponsoring MinnRoast, our Watchdog Journalism Fund, and the statewide poll we did on the 2011 government shutdown. They rarely missed a MinnPost event, even when it was obviously hard for George to get around. When we interviewed political and community leaders, George would head to the microphone with thoughtful questions about tax policy and Minnesota’s future. Right to the end of his distinguished life, he played the most important of all public roles — active, informed citizen."

Jon Pratt, executive director of the Minnesota Council of Nonprofits:

"It is hard to lose such a positive example for community building and civil dialogue. George Pillsbury always found ways to support conversations and people interested in solutions who are essential to a successful small-“d” democracy."

Former Republican Gov. Arne Carlson:

“He had a tremendous amount of courage and stuck by his commitment to human rights. He defended a woman's right to choose through thick and thin; even as the Republican Party moved to the right, George Pillsbury remained firm.

“And as a legislator, he was a big advocate of a unicameral [one-house] Legislature. He was an old-fashioned legislator himself and thought that every legislator should read a bill and understand it before voting on it. And if you go along with that point of view, you have to agree that there's no need for a second body. The problem, though, is that too many legislators don't read the bills and delegate their vote to their staff or the caucus.

“He was also a very good bridge builder; he wouldn't get into name-calling. He just focused on the public policy and its impact.”

Former Vice President Walter Mondale:

“George Pillsbury was one of Minnesota's remarkable human beings. He had a long and effective public career, and worked at nudging Minnesota towards a more moderate, sensible course. He was a Class A example of a moderate Republican in Minnesota and helped bring us together. We will miss him.”

Minnesota Gov. Mark Dayton:

“A great Minnesota family has lost a wonderful man and a tremendous leader of our state.”

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Comments (3)

George Exemplified Civility

I was on the other side of the Senate aisle from George, but he exemplified civility, thoughtfulness, and courage when it came to legislative controversy. His unflinching support for women's choice and LGBT rights was remarkable. And his spirit of "giving back" was once the standard of which Minnesotans were proud. His willingness to serve in the Marines during WWII was another example. I only wish that today's new leaders who were born with the cards stacked in their favor would learn from George's example. Perhaps one event spoke volumes: after the death of his partisan adversary, former Majority Leader Nick Coleman, George and Sally held a benefit at their home in Wayzata to raise money for research on the cancer that had ended Nick's life. Above all, George was a friend.

A Leader and Mentor

George reperesented the highest standards that we expect in a leader. He was honest, dedicated and sincere in his efforts. He was a man who displayed loyalty, duty, respect, self-less service, honor, integrity, personal courage, compassion, competence, commitment and served as a role model and mentor to those in public service.

As a Republican he reflected the party of Lincoln with passion. Perhaps, the words of another Republican leader, Teddy Roosevelt, best describe his style that will be missed.

“It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood, who strives valiantly; who errs and comes short again and again; because there is not effort without error and shortcomings; but who does actually strive to do the deed; who knows the great enthusiasm, the great devotion, who spends himself in a worthy cause, who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement and who at the worst, if he fails, at least he fails while daring greatly. So that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who know neither victory nor defeat.”

My deepest sympathies for all his family and friends. He wil be remembered.

My George Pillsbury Stories

When I was a kid, back in the 70s, for a time, my mom worked as a $4/hr bookkeeper for the MN State I-R office in downtown St. Paul. I remember taking the bus in the summer with my older brother to visit her workplace, the triple nickel, 555 Wabasha. She told me one time she was near George when he got off a frustrating business phone call, and he turned to my mom and casually remarked, "You have no idea how easy it is to lose a million dollars these days." My mom just laughed with him when she said "Yes, you're right, I have no idea."

One night my schools science fair (a big event for a nerd like me) conflicted with a big Rebublican event my mom felt obligated to attend. When she discussed it with me, I asked if George Pillsbury would be there. She quizzically responsded "Yes". Then I told her I would be fine with her missing my science fair if she could get my plastic Pillsbury Dough Boy and Girl statues, signed by Mr. and Mrs. Pillsbury. (What can I say, I was a tough bargainer back then.) I loved my Dough Boy and Girl, they were pliable, making the poking of their bellies, just like on the commercials, possible and they even had their own stands so the could be prominently displayed standing in my room. My mom agreed to try.

Well apparently word got around and Mrs. Pillsbury discreetly approached my mom at the event and asked my mom something like, "You have something for us to sign?" She got George to sign the Dough boy, "George Pillsbury", and I believed she signed the girl, Sally, but the coup-de-grace was that she drew a smiley face on the blue circle on the pocket of the Dough Girl, as a kid, that really made me smile. I still have those statues, I foudn them in an old bin just a few weeks ago. George's signature has sort of blurred with time and Sally's is gone, but you can still see the smiley face on the Dough Girl's pocket.