Charlotte Helgeson, the director of East Grand Forks' library, said she felt like she's always known Henry Tweten, the longtime politician, lawyer, prodigious speaker and passionate advocate for the city and region.
Tweten died Sunday at age 97 due to complications from COVID-19. He leaves behind a lengthy resume of civic accomplishments and a reputation for being a vigorous and seemingly ever-present force in East Grand Forks politics.
Minus three years fighting in World War II, Tweten lived in East Grand Forks for the entirety of his life. He was a fixture at East Grand Forks City Hall, serving on the City Council for six years in the 1960s and another 18 in the 2000s, plus stints on the city’s library board. He helped put together the city’s economic development authority, and was a prominent leader and fundraiser for the Democratic-Farmer Labor party in northwestern Minnesota.
“You couldn’t escape Henry,” said Warren Strandell, a Polk County commissioner and former owner of The Exponent, the city’s weekly newspaper. “If you didn’t know him or he didn’t know you, he’d find out. He was very committed to his thoughts and principles, and he would go at lengths to work on those and to get them adopted. Whether you agreed with his party or not, it didn’t make a difference.”
Tweten won the East Grand Forks/Grand Forks Chamber's Henry Havig Award in 2014 for his contributions to the city, and the military history section of the Campbell Library is named after him. He earned a Silver Star for Gallantry and a Purple Heart in World War II, and he kept the bullet that punctured his knee.
Known for expounding forcefully and at length about his civic plans and political beliefs, Tweten could also be a fierce political opponent. Strandell remembered a county push about 20 years ago to turn an old elementary school into a corrections facility. Tweten opposed the idea, and organized the neighborhood against the idea, ultimately leading Polk County administrators to choose another spot, which is now the site of the Polk County Social Services Center.
“It got to be quite a turmoil,” Strandell recalled. “Sometimes I think he really overstepped his purpose there, but he got it done.”
Steve Gander, East Grand Forks' mayor, said he met Tweten for lunch every few months.
"Henry was one of the most optimistic people I know. He always had a plan to grow East Grand Forks and make it better. I really thought he would reach his goal of living to see our population go over 10,000 people. I guess that’s left for us to do," Gander wrote in a prepared statement he planned to read Tuesday evening at an East Grand Forks City Council meeting. "I will miss him a great deal. The whole community will miss him. I hope we can all up our game a bit to make up for the positive force we no longer have — this great man in our midst."
Tweten told the Herald in 2012 that his biggest contribution to the city was getting a vocational school built there in the 1970s. Tweten served on the Minnesota Board of Higher Education, and he cajoled other members into approving the idea. That school later became Northland Community and Technical College.
It’s an echo of the moment that first put Tweten into politics: an early 1950s plan to expand an existing Eastside K-12 school. Tweten organized opposition to that plan and, ultimately, got a brand new elementary school built instead.
And education, broadly speaking, was crucial in Tweten’s eyes, according to Helgeson, the library director.
“He had always and repeatedly said that the best way to help any community is to educate them,” Helgeson told the Herald.
Tweten, she remembered, would read a book from the library, gush about it to Helgeson, and then push her to write a review of that book for the newspaper.
“Henry was a person who guided others,” Helgeson said. “And he felt that that would be my strength and so I should put that out because he really wanted each of those he considered ... part of his team to make sure that the world knew that they had strong skills and that they should be used to benefit the community. Everybody had something to offer; he wanted to make sure they were doing it.”
A private funeral service is scheduled for 10:30 a.m. Wednesday at Our Savior's Lutheran Church. A stream of the service is set to be available at dandahlfuneralhome.com.