Von Pinnon: We're all a little shaken by Denny Walaker's death
Our giant has fallen.
Dennis Walaker has lost this fight.
And, let’s be honest, we’re all a little shaken.
Though we’ve known for months now that Fargo’s mayor and flood-fighting extraordinaire was battling kidney cancer, we never really expected him to lose this battle.
We’re used to seeing him beat the odds.
When Walaker recently said he planned to finish out the remainder of his third and final term in office – a term he just started in July – there was no reason to doubt his commitment.
He had shown time and time again the wisdom of his predictions.
There were his now-famous drives to the southern Red River Valley, where each spring he would survey the snowpack, the roads, the cattails, coming up with his groundhog-like predictions for the spring melt and the floods to follow.
There were the times he stared down scientists with the National Weather Service and boldly proclaimed that his non-technical local surveys were superior to their big-data computer models when it came to predicting flood levels.
And then there was Walaker’s moment of truth when, in 2009, as the city was under siege by a raging Red River, he stood up to federal officials who thought the best and safest approach was to just have residents leave.
Walaker famously said that if the residents retreated, the city would surely be lost. He said we would stay and beat back the river.
And that’s exactly what happened. It was the community’s finest hour. And he was our leader.
Had Walaker been wrong on any of those fronts, we’d remember him much differently today.
But he was confident, even bold when he needed to be, and he was mostly right, and that set him apart.
He started working for the city 40 years ago. He worked his way up the ladder and, as city operations manager, was one of three instrumental leaders in the 1997 flood fight, at the time the city’s biggest. Mark Bittner was the brains. Pat Zavoral was the general. And Walaker was the face that soon turned into the folk hero.
National media-types loved him. He was big, burly and understated. He had them eating out of his hand. He’d crack jokes in the tensest of situations, and everybody here and elsewhere knew the situation must be OK. He put most people at ease with his slow, low voice.
He was human.
Several years ago, when a young girl died after her teenage sister hit a rut in the road on South University Drive and spun into oncoming traffic, Walaker said the city, not the new driver, bore the blame.
It was a compassionate moment in a horrible situation, and it further solidified his place in our hearts.
That same shoot-from-the-hip style of leadership also got Denny in trouble over the years.
He clashed with state legislators who he felt were unfair to his city. Many times he upset people opposed to his beloved F-M Diversion, which posthumously ought to be affectionately called “Denny’s Ditch.” He didn’t have time for critics of flood protection in general, and he would often publicly call them out.
His job, he often said, was to protect the masses even if it was uncomfortable for the minority.
There’s little doubt that Dennis Walaker put our needs before his. By his own admission, he ate poorly, didn’t exercise enough and loved to sit and watch his beloved Bison football team.
He protected what he valued, and that was Fargo.
It seems appropriate that the night Walaker died, the Red River was at its calmest moment of the year, half-frozen-over and barely moving.
Perhaps it’s the river’s way of telling Denny he can sleep in peace. He’s fought long enough.