Hjalmar Petersen Biography

When the magnetic Floyd B. Olson died in office during his third term, he left his lieutenant governor the unenviable task of succeeding a legend. Farmer-Laborite Hjalmar Petersen rose to the challenge during the 134 days he was governor by making key judicial appointments and helping settle several rancorous labor disputes. By calling a special legislative session to pass an unemployment insurance bill, he guaranteed eligibility for federal aid under the recently passed Social Security Act.

Petersen was born in Denmark and immigrated to the U.S. with his family as an infant. His formal schooling ended at age fourteen, when he became an employee of the Tyler Journal in the community where his parents had settled. His career in journalism culminated in his purchase in 1914 of the Askov American, a weekly newspaper he owned for the rest of his life. After serving as Askov’s village clerk and mayor, he won two terms in the state legislature, where he sponsored the state income-tax law and urged that tax revenues be spent on public education.

Following his short stint as governor (his party did not nominate him for a second term), Petersen tried and failed three times to regain office as a Farmer-Labor Party candidate and had no better luck when he ran a fourth time, in 1946, on the Republican ticket. He made another unsuccessful bid for higher office in 1958, when he sought the Democratic-Farmer-Labor nomination for the U.S. Senate. Between his gubernatorial and senatorial campaigns, Petersen was elected to three six-year terms as railroad and warehouse commissioner while continuing to publish his liberal newspaper.