Alex Smekta was DMC before DMC
Story by Mike Dougherty and Steve Lange
Photos courtesy Post-Bulletin archives
A doubling of the city’s population in just 20 years. A downtown redevelopment. New shopping centers and a Mayo Civic Center expansion and an annexation that increased the city’s footprint by 9 square miles.
Alex Smekta—the Polish immigrant who served a record 17 years as Rochester’s mayor, who has been called “the most important Rochesterite no one talks about”—was DMC a half-century before DMC.
Alex Smekta literally worked his way through high school.
Born on May 6, 1906, in Ruda, Poland, Smekta’s family emigrated to the United States—first to St. Louis, then Wisconsin, then Floodwood, Minn (northwest of Duluth)—when he was a young boy.
After graduating from Floodwood’s 8th grade in 1920—the town’s highest level of school available at the time—Smekta went to work in the local lumber industry, and eventually landed a job helping build the town’s first high school. As soon as those first rooms were built and opened, a 17-year-old Alex started attending school during the day. Then walked out of that last class of the day to help build that high school.
He graduated at age 21.
He intended to become a teacher, studying at Mankato State University. Brawny, but agile, Smekta excelled on the football field as a guard, and was one of the initial members named to the college’s athletic hall of fame.
Instead of teaching, Smekta found a job with Standard Oil. The job brought him and his new bride, Naida, to Rochester. When the company wanted to transfer him to Mankato, they moved, but soon decided they wanted to live in Rochester. Smekta quit the job and came to the city for good in 1944. After a job in sales at a transfer company, he convinced his brother to help him open Master Cleaners and Upholsterers in 1948. They ran the business until it was sold in 1972.
Once established in business, politics found him.
Smekta was elected mayor for the first time in 1958 to fill out the unexpired term of Claude McQuillan, who died in office. When Smekta retired from office 20 years later, he left a legacy that included 17 years in office (he retired briefly from the mayor’s post in 1969, for health and political reasons, and reclaimed the office in 1973), and 10 successful elections without a single defeat.
The mayor was good at gauging the temperament of crowds and was an adept public speaker, serving at one time as the president of the International Toastmasters organization.
His evaluation of the electorate was factored in when he chose not to seek re-election in 1969 after suffering defeat of one of his key issues: Rochester voters rejected a federally-funded, 22-block downtown urban renewal project—a project that sounds very much like the talk describing Destination Medical Center—that Smekta had pushed for years.
“We need to strengthen everything about downtown, and I am still not happy with the progress we’re making,” he told the Post-Bulletin in 1968. “We have a growing need for the downtown urban renewal project. This project will come to fruition, and it will give visitors to Rochester more reasons to come to Rochester.”
After time off and the sale of his company, Smekta won the mayor’s post again in 1973, beating incumbent Dewey Day, the man who’d succeeded Smekta in 1969, by 308 votes out of 11,614 cast. He was re-elected in 1975, beating John Bumgarner (4,959 to 421 votes). In 1977, Smekta faced his toughest challenge, defeating Jessie Howard—a homemaker and doctor’s wife who was the city’s first female mayoral candidate—by 31 votes out of 11,300 votes cast. He didn’t announce his plans to retire until 1979.
Smekta is credited with helping govern the city through its growth when Rochester went from 38,000 people to nearly 70,000. During Smekta’s two tours as mayor, Rochester’s footprint more than doubled, from 8 square miles to 17 square miles.
His work included the move of the public library to a site on Broadway and First Street Southeast, development of Quarry Hill Nature Center, consolidation of school and city elections, and a program for downtown redevelopment through tax increment financing.
The park and recreation department also tripled its amount of leisure space during his terms. Among his many efforts was his work in the mid-1960s to gain state approval for the sale of several hundred acres of unused Rochester State Hospital farmland. Eventually, the land was converted to parks and Eastwood Golf Course.
He spent his final term in office dealing with the aftermath of the 1978 flood that inundated the city on that July 5th night, killing five people and flooding hundreds of homes. It was a costly cleanup and served as the impetus for city leaders to begin a long fight for a federal flood control project of the Zumbro River and Bear Creek in Rochester.
It’s quite a legacy for a part-time mayor.
“They say this is a part-time job,” Smekta told the Post-Bulletin in 1978. “But you can’t ever let it go. You’re mayor every single minute, which is just how I want it.”
Smekta described his own style as “consensus through diplomacy and compromise.”
“A mayor,” he told the P-B, “must work behind the scenes to be effective. Oftentimes it’s better to keep quiet than to speak out. Although, admittedly, I have found it difficult not to express myself.”
One story of Smekta’s style comes from 1966.
Here’s the P-B’s take (from 1968, and then-News Editor Bob Retzlaff): “Nearly two years ago the oft-announced but unstarted Sheraton Hotel project hung in the balance as a result of an unpublicized dispute over parking facilities between hotel developer Cortland Silver of St. Paul and Rochester Auto Park. Smekta, in the background of the negotiations and fearful the city would lose the $6.5 million project, announced when the dispute did finally break open that his office would investigate. A public inquiry was possible, the mayor said, if the dispute wasn’t settled.”
“I’m convinced,” Smekta told the P-B in 1968, “that the resulting public uproar—demanding the Sheraton project be fulfilled—helped resolve things.”
Even after retirement in 1979 (when he said he planned to travel and enjoy retirement), Smekta continued to serve.
Within months of leaving office, a call came from then U.S. Sen. Dave Durenberger, R-Minn., who was looking for a legislative aide to serve many of the counties in southeastern Minnesota. Smekta signed on. So much for retirement. He spent the next 15 years, from age 70 to 85, talking with constituents for the senator and attending meetings in his place.
In just the same way he had gotten to know the city of Rochester inside and out, he got to know southeastern Minnesota in his new role, working the region as the pulse-taker for the senator, stopping by the implement dealer in Blooming Prairie, or placing an order for pork chops at the meat cutter in Dodge Center.
Smekta credited Toastmasters, an international organization that promotes public speaking skills, for boosting his speaking skills and, therefore, his political career. From 1963-64, he served as president of Toastmasters International, which took him on over 100,000 miles of travel. And as mayor, he never missed a chance to tout his hometown to visitors whether he was hosting them in Rochester or meeting them during his travels.
Smekta also shaped city politics in Rochester through a group of business leaders—nicknamed The Dirty Dozen—who recruited (and helped campaign for) area candidates.
“But an even greater force in Rochester might have been a group known by opponents as the ‘dirty dozen,’” wrote P-B reporter John Hughes in 1993, just after Smekta’s death. “They weren’t ‘dirty’ and they didn’t number 12, but this group of business leaders played a crucial, informal role in recruiting and electing area candidates.
In addition to Smekta, ‘The dozen’ included business leader Cliff Johnson and former council member Frank Wilkus. They were credited with recruiting and helping elect Mayor Chuck Hazama, former school board member James Carroll, former council member Robert Larson, and several others.
The group stopped meeting in the early 1980s, when they felt their services were no longer necessary. Most group members have long since faded from the spotlight of public service.
When Smekta died at age 87, his obituary noted many of the famous people he encountered in his career: “Mr. Smekta, as official city greeter and as a world traveler, met many presidents and foreign heads of state such as Charles De Gaulle, the king of Nepal, the president of Poland, and the prime minister of Australia. He was acquainted with West Berlin Mayor Willy Brandt, former First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt, former Vice President Nelson Rockefeller and Sen. Hubert Humphrey.”
Long after his Toastmasters term, Smekta’s speaking prowess and wit kept him in demand as the master of ceremonies at civic and sporting banquets throughout the region. Indeed, a number of stories in the Post-Bulletin archives include pictures of Smekta at a podium speaking before an athletic organization or civic group.
Smekta’s connections were what attracted the eye of Sen. Durenberger. He called Smekta his “eyes and ears” in the region and respected his rapport with people not only in Rochester, but throughout the area.
“Long before he became my friend, Alex Smekta was a unique brand of civic leader,” Durenberger said at the time of Smekta’s death in 1993. “It’s hard to imagine coming to Rochester and not having Alex as my host. His wisdom and his humor were as familiar and welcoming to me as the Mayo Clinic or the Kahler Hotel.”