Little Falls native decides to run for governor

Tom West

With more than two dozen Minnesotans running for governor, it’s difficult for any of them to stand out. However, each of them has a unique background, quirks and talents.

That’s why I became intrigued with John Uldrich, one of the Independence Party candidates. Uldrich is of interest to Morrison County because he grew up here, graduating with the Little Falls High School class of 1954.

Uldrich isn’t the first person from Morrison County to run for governor, but he may become the first one to go so far as to be on the ballot. Mary Warner, director of the Morrison County Historical Society reports that C.A. Lindbergh, father of aviator Charles Lindbergh, made a run for the Republican gubernatorial endorsement after serving 10 years in Congress from 1907 to 1917. However, after meeting with incumbent Republican Gov. J.A.A. Burnquist, who was seeking re-election, Lindbergh dropped out, throwing his support to Burnquist. Burnquist served as governor from 1915 to 1921.

Uldrich was born in Grand Rapids when his parents were teachers on the Leech Lake Indian Reservation.

His parents separated in 1939, and his mother moved John and his two older sisters to Little Falls.

His parents later divorced, and once John graduated from high school, his mother moved away, so you won’t find any Uldriches in the Little Falls phone book.

However, John, who was called “Tom” in childhood (for his middle name), has nothing but fond memories of his years here.

He played varsity football and ran track. He also played basketball up to the B squad. Because his mother was a social worker, John jokes, “I had to be careful I was not adding to her caseload.”

Uldrich also recalls that Camp Ripley had some effect on his upbringing. When he was in high school, he said, so many soldiers had been sent to fight in the Korean War, that the Camp recruited high school students, him among them, to do some of the work that needed doing. “I know that camp like the back of my hand,” he said.

At one point, the Uldriches lived across the street from the secretary to Col. Ray Rossberg, who was the commandant at Camp Ripley. Uldrich no longer remembers her name, but does remember that she organized and arranged many parties for the colonel. The secretary was also a good friend of Laura Jane Musser, and because of that, Uldrich said he met famed singer Marian Anderson and pianist Van Cliburn when they came here to visit Laura Jane.

After attending St. John’s University in Collegeville for two years, Uldrich went to Europe for six months, where he says he was recruited by the CIA to participate in two covert actions in Yugoslavia and the Soviet Union.

He then returned to the United States and joined the U.S. Marine Corps, before returning to St. John’s, where he graduated in 1960.

From there, he took an in-house staff position with Prudential Insurance in Minneapolis, working on public relations, advertising and sales promotions.

From 1965 to 1968, he did similar work for Northwestern National Life Insurance of Minneapolis.

Along the way, however, an entrepreneurial bug bit him, and he was the co-founder of Vexilar Inc., which developed sonar equipment, primarily for fishing, although it eventually expanded into other uses. He was a CEO from 1968 to 1980, driving sales up to $4 million with 65 employees. He developed business, he says, in Japan, South Korea and other Pacific Rim countries.

The company was sold in 1980, and he then became a marketing consultant. Dovetailing off his experience, from 1986 to 1989, he served as executive director of the Range Business Assistance Center in Hibbing, and then spent two years leading the Owatonna New Business Incubator in Owatonna.

In 1992, he became executive director of the Japan-America Society of Pittsburgh, Pa.

From there he went back to college, studying national security and military issues, became an author of three books, and learned the Japanese and Chinese languages.

From 1996 to 2000, he says, he taught marketing and management at several universities in China. Returning to Minneapolis, he then worked as a patient advocate at the Veterans Medical Center.

I first met him a few years ago, when he came to Little Falls to make a presentation to the Linden Hill Board of Directors. He said that he had made enough money over the years to take care of his wife and children, and that he wanted to give back to Little Falls in some way.

Nothing came of the meeting, and Linden Hill has not heard from him since, but it was only an exploratory visit.

Most political observers in the state believe that Tom Horner, former chief of staff to Sen. Dave Durenburger, is the favorite to win the Independence Party nomination. Uldrich has yet to decide if he will take his candidacy all the way to the primary.

Still, long shot or not, Uldrich’s fascinating life story gives some credence to his candidacy. As he says, he has actual experience in world trade and job development. He says, “I am probably the most qualified person to lead the state back from the financial precipice.”

With the political class, Republican and Democrat alike, stuck in paralyzing partisanship, candidacies like Uldrich’s don’t seem so far fetched as they once did.

Tom West is the editor and general manager of the Record. He can be reached at 632-2345 or by e-mail at

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