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Former state representative from Dakota County turns 100 today

Former state representative Walter Klaus is pictured during his 100th birthday party on Saturday morning in Hastings. Klaus represented Dakota County during his political career. He has lived in Hastings for about four years. Star Gazette photo by Chad Richardson1 / 2
This image, courtesy of the Minnesota Historical Society, shows Walter Klaus when he was serving his first term in 1957.2 / 2

Consider this: When the Great Depression began in 1930, Walter Klaus was 18 years old. And, it was 55 years ago that voters in rural Dakota County first elected Walter Klaus as their representative. Today, April 19, that man turns 100 years old.

Klaus, who has lived in Hastings for the past four years, had a birthday party in his honor Saturday at Augustana Health Care Center here. Friends from all walks of life came by to see Klaus, who is still not lacking in ideas when it comes to politics.

Redistricting may not energize many people these days, but for Klaus, it is an endless source of passion. In fact, during that party, he shared his ideas for how things ought to be handled with redistricting.

In between all the political banter, lunch was served as was a big chocolate cake with 100 candles on it. Pictures of Klaus in his younger years were arranged throughout a downstairs therapy room at the care center, and guests pored over them all.

When asked if ever thought he'd get all the way to 100, Klaus paused, smiled and then answered, simply: "Well, that's the way it has turned out."

During the party, Klaus also reminisced about a column he wrote for the newspaper in Farmington for years, titled "Klaus on the House." Many days, he'd arrive at the newspaper there with the typewritten copy - not bad for a man who lost one arm during a farming accident long ago.

The column got started, Klaus said, because he began sending back reports from the legislature.

"I rather enjoyed doing that most of the time," he said.

That newspaper column wasn't the only thing Klaus was known for typing - his annual Christmas letter was many times 10 typewritten pages or longer.

"I used to watch him type it," his longtime friend Connie Knack said. "He was always going at it with that typewriter. Then he got a computer, and he would get so disgusted. It would break down on him every time."

The party was organized in large part by Knack, who got to know Klaus about 30 years ago while he was living on his farm near Empire City, just west of Highway 52 between Hastings and Farmington.

"We used to go up the road when we moved into Empire, and just go for walks and his cows would be out," Knack said. "We'd stop in and say, 'Do you need help putting them in?' That's how we met him."

Eventually, Klaus rented out his farm to Knack and her family. They raised about every animal imaginable there, and he charged her $100 a year for rent.

"He liked having the animals there," Knack said. "We were there every day."

Knack remembers Walter's wife Virginia well, too. Virginia died of cancer in 2005 and as she was passing, she asked Knack to care for Walter, something Knack had no problem committing to doing.

Some physical challenges led to Klaus coming to the Regina Medical Center's senior living community in Hastings four years ago. In January, a bout of pneumonia weakened him, and he's now at Augustana for rehab. Knack visits Klaus just about every day and the two have developed an even stronger bond in recent years.

Connie Knack's husband, Allen 'Nick' Knack, has also been humbled by Klaus.

"He's got the memory of a 30-year-old," he said. "He can remember way back when he was in office, and what happened."

His story

Klaus graduated from Farmington High School in 1928. He went on to earn a Bachelor's degree in English from Hamline University. He helped on his family's farm and began to get more interested in politics as time went on. He first ran for the state senate and placed third out of four candidates.

Undeterred, he ran in 1956 and beat the incumbent, Frank Gallagher, by just 40 votes. Klaus won the 20th District seat, representing Dakota County, with 12,266 votes. Gallagher had 12,226.

Klaus began serving in the Minnesota House in 1957. He served consecutively until 1970, then served for two more years from 1973 to 1974. He represented Dakota County and portions of Goodhue County through all those years.

In the election of 1970, he was defeated by Harry "Tex" Sieben of Hastings.

Klaus, still sharp in the mind, talked about his first legislative session, when John Hartle of Owatonna was the Republican Speaker of the House. It was during an extra session in 1957 that the state shifted toward income tax and away from property tax as the major source of state revenue, and Klaus remembers those discussions.

"That had been very controversial," he said.

After serving, Klaus stayed active, working with redistricting for many years.

"I was just fascinated with doing it," he said of his work on redistricting.

He also worked for many years with the census.

Personal life

Klaus married Virginia Taylor on Jan. 13, 1968, at his farm. She passed away in 2005.

They raised Ayrshire cattle and had an enormous vegetable garden.

"He had a garden every year - it was huge," Knack said. "He would always be out there. He'd hoe it by hand. He loved his flowers and his vegetable garden."

Klaus has one daughter, Caroline Koepp and two granddaughters.