Karl F. Rolvaag Biography

In March 1963, Minnesotans awaited the results of a 139-day recount in the race for governor. In the end, DFL candidate Karl Rolvaag came out on top in the closest gubernatorial election in state history, defeating incumbent Elmer L. Andersen by just ninety-one votes out of over 1.2 million cast.

Karl Rolvaag, the son of Norwegian-American author Ole Rolvaag, lived in Northfield before fighting in World War II, where he rose to the rank of lieutenant. After the war he went to Norway to study politics before returning to Minnesota. Rolvaag became the head of Minnesota’s DFL Party and in 1954 ran successfully for the office of lieutenant governor. After serving for eight years, he mounted a successful campaign for governor in 1962.

Rolvaag was the first Minnesota governor to serve a four-year term, but continuous wrangling between the DFL governor and the conservative-controlled legislature yielded few results. Still, he managed to reform the State’s mental institutions by improving treatment options for patients. The populist-minded governor also reorganized the administration of the state’s junior colleges. Rolvaag designed a statewide system with the goal of putting each Minnesotan within commuting distance of an institution of higher education. When Rolvaag ran for re-election in 1966, his party denied him its endorsement, opting instead for Lieutenant Governor A. M. (Sandy) Keith. He entered the DFL’s primary anyway with a cry of “Let the people decide!” and roundly defeated Keith. He failed, however, to win re-election in November, losing to Republican Harold LeVander.

After leaving office, Rolvaag was appointed U.S. ambassador to Iceland and later served on Minnesota’s Public Utilities Commission. He resigned that post in order to concentrate on his personal battle with alcoholism, calling it the toughest fight of his life. Rolvaag never returned to politics opting instead to helping others with alcoholism. He attended meetings and gave talks on the topic in places as near as his hometown of Northfield and as far away as Sweden.

Rolvaag died in Northfield in 1990.