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In his spare time, GOP legislator writes historical fiction

For Dean Urdahl, his work as a writer sometimes spills over into his work as a legislator.

State Rep. Dean Urdahl
State Rep. Dean Urdahl

Dean Urdahl, a four-term Republican representative from Grove City, is a retired junior high history teacher who writes books in his spare time.

“I write books as historical fiction,” Urdahl said, “because you come to things that you just don’t know. I write the facts as much as I can, but at some point, some things become conjecture.”

The format allows Urdahl to put flesh and bones and emotions on historical figures.

He has completed two historically accurate novels on the Dakota Uprising of 1862 — “Uprising” and “Retribution” — with a third novel in a planned trilogy still in the works.

His work as a writer sometimes even spills over into his work as a legislator.

Last session, for example, Urdahl carried a resolution through the Legislature calling on Congress to repeal an 1863 law that ordered the removal of all Dakota people from Minnesota.

Turned out, getting that symbolic resolution through the legislative process wasn’t easy.

“Had a heckuva time getting it on the floor,” he said. “The first day I was told I could speak on the resolution, another member got up and started talking about the Culligan Man. It had something to do with some sort of plumbing bill. He kept going on and [House Majority Leader Tony] Sertich told me, ‘He took all your time; we’re not doing your resolution.’ We get to the last night of the session and Sertich says to me, ‘You’ve got five minutes for your resolution.’ I sent out a message to my GOP colleagues. ‘I’ve got five minutes. Leave me alone!’ ”

He introduced his resolution. It passed, of course, and was signed by the governor and now . . .

“It’s sitting someplace in Washington,” Urdahl said. “I know it’s symbolic but I’m trying to educate people. That law still is on the books, the 150th anniversary is coming up [in 2012] and there still are open wounds in Minnesota.

His current writing project is a novel based on the extraordinary life and times of the Rev. John Kaiser, who was born in Perham, Minn. He served in the military before becoming a Catholic priest and being sent to Kenya in1964. Father Kaiser became an activist and was considered a problem by the corrupt government of President Daniel arap Moi. He was found murdered alongside a rural road there in 2000, though initially his death was declared a suicide.

Urdahl read newspaper accounts of the Kaiser’s life and times and was moved.

“I kept thinking, ‘This needs to be a bigger story,’ ” he said.

He began researching but wasn’t able to actually begin writing until this fall, after completing a two-week trip to Kenya, where he was able to follow the footsteps of this powerful priest, who carried a shotgun.

Like his novels on the Dakota uprising, “The Collar and The Gun” will be fact-based whenever possible. In that regard, Urdahl believes it will be a honest biography of Kaiser’s life and death.

Still, he writes as he taught junior high history: “I tried to make history a story.”

His junior high teaching experience, where he also coached cross country,

has been almost ideal training for his work as a legislator, it should be noted,. There are times in St. Paul, where chaos trumps civility and impulse tops reason.

“There are days when I don’t notice much difference,” Urdahl said of the two environments. “But I often am reminded that each day I’m at the Capitol, I’m also working with some of the finest people in Minnesota.”

Among Republicans, Urdahl has twitched a little but ultimately cast his vote with his caucus in supporting the governor’s vetoes of both the General Assistance Medical Care bill (which most Republicans initially supported) and the bonding bill.

But away from the group, Urdahl is a soft-spoken, thoughtful man who describes himself as “a traditional Republican.” (The term “moderate Republican” is considered the kiss of death in a party where reactionaries often rule at endorsing conventions.)

There is one other area where his passion for writing and his work as legislator sometimes are similar. Compromise is important if there’s going to be a finished product.

Urdahl’s wife, Karen, is his editor. Typically, he agrees with her suggestions, but at the moment they’re having a classic writer-editor debate. It’s over the first sentence of “The Collar and the Gun.”

“She doesn’t like it; I do,” he said. “We’ve gone back and forth and I finally said, ‘OK, you write it the way you like it. If I like your way better, we’ll go with it.’ ”

The debate is not over yet, but it has to end soon. The book is to be published — by St. Cloud’s North Star Press — in late spring.