The Saint John’s University community notes with sympathy the passing of distinguished alumnus and former U.S. Senator Dave Durenberger, a 1955 SJU graduate who died Tuesday, Jan. 31, at his home in St. Paul at age 88.
“Today our country lost a patriotic American, Minnesota lost a skilled statesman, and Saint John’s lost a great Johnnie,” said Dr. Brian Bruess, president at Saint John’s and the College of Saint Benedict.
Durenberger’s visitation will be at 8:30 a.m. Tuesday, Feb. 7, at Saint John's Abbey and University Church in Collegeville, followed by the funeral Mass at 10 a.m. and a private burial. The funeral will be live-streamed.
“Senator Durenberger’s life and legacy (were) centered on public service and civic engagement,” said Matt Lindstrom, a political science professor at Saint John’s and Saint Bens and director of the schools’ Eugene J. McCarthy Center for Public Policy and Civic Engagement. “In his numerous events with the CSB and SJU community and around the world, Senator Durenberger inspired others to work for the common good in a pragmatic, bipartisan manner. He encouraged students to be actively involved and treat others with grace and dignity.
“As much as students would light up with enthusiasm after speaking with him, he also loved meeting and mentoring students. He will be deeply missed on campus, but his legacy of practical political moderation will remain forever.”
Durenberger grew up on the SJU campus as the son of George Durenberger ’28, who served as the school’s athletic director from 1931-72, and helped hire legendary coaches John Gagliardi and Jim Smith to lead SJU’s football and basketball programs.
Dave graduated from Saint John’s Prep in 1951, then went on to SJU where he was part of the school’s first ROTC program, being commissioned as the top cadet in his class.
After graduating from SJU cum laude, he went on to attend the University of Minnesota Law School, embarking on a legal career following his graduation in 1959.
He served as chief of staff to Gov. Harold LeVander from 1967-70, and as counsel to former Gov. Elmer L. Andersen at HB Fuller from 1970-78.
It was in 1978 that Durenberger became a candidate for the U.S. Senate in a special election to fill the remainder of Minnesota political icon Hubert Humphrey’s term following Humphrey’s death from cancer in January that year. Durenberger defeated DFL candidate Bob Short, the former owner of the Minneapolis and Los Angeles Lakers, in an election that saw Republicans claim both of the state’s U.S. Senate seats and the governorship.
Durenberger remained in the Senate until January 1995, becoming the longest-serving Republican U.S. Senator in state history.
He served as chair of the Senate’s Select Committee on Intelligence during the 99th Congress and compiled a record filled with bipartisan legislative accomplishments on such issues as civil rights, environmental protection, healthcare, education and tax reform.
After leaving the Senate, he spent 20 years as a faculty member at the Opus College of Business at the University of St. Thomas before retiring in 2014. He also served on numerous boards and commissions, including as chair of the National Institute of Health Policy.
In 2018, along with co-author Lori Sturdevant he published When Republicans Were Progressive, a book looking back on the changes he witnessed in his party over his decades in public service and after.
But despite his record of achievement, Durenberger said it was the individual relationships he built over the years that he looked back on most proudly.
“I don’t know how many times I’ve told my former colleagues who all worry about the legislation they pass and all that sort of thing. That’s not what you’re going to be remembered for,” he said while taking part in the 8th annual Eugene J. McCarthy Lecture at SJU in 2014.
“You are going to be remembered for all those relationships you build one person at a time, one incident at a time, one problem at a time, one challenge at a time. I really have little reason to doubt that’s the best way for anyone who wants to go into public service – whether it’s the Mayor of St. Cloud, the Stearns County Commissioner or a Congressman or U.S. Senator. You want to be remembered for how solid those relationships were and how faithful you were to the commitments that you made.”
Senator Durenberger served on the Saint John’s University Board of Regents from 1987 to 1996. In 1983, Durenberger delivered the Saint John’s commencement address and in 1985, he received an Alumni Achievement Award from his alma mater. A few days before his passing, on Jan. 27, 2023, Durenberger received the President’s Medal, the highest honor bestowed by Saint John’s University.
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At the request of the Durenberger family, memorials are preferred to the Dave Durenberger Legacy Fund at Saint John’s University, supporting students participating in the College of Saint Benedict and Saint John’s University Washington, D.C., Summer Internship Program.