FARGO – Mayor Dennis Walaker died unexpectedly at his home Tuesday night after a months-long battle with kidney cancer.
He was 73.
The three-term mayor, known to some affectionately as “Denny,” inspired public trust in his ability to protect the city since his decision in 2009 to not evacuate Fargo in the face of historic flooding.
Deputy Mayor Dr. Tim Mahoney, who grew to know Walaker well during the 2009 flood, said the late mayor was “the flood fighter of Fargo.” He had become widely known during the previous record-setting flood of 1997, when he was the city’s operations manager.
“He’s the master at it, and I think a lot of people will remember him as that,” Mahoney said. “He has the skill set that very few of us possess.”
“The community is mourning,” said Moorhead Mayor Del Rae Williams, who got to know Walaker after she was elected in 2013. “The thing about Denny is you know he will always be considered a hero.”
Walaker died about 7 p.m., Mahoney said. Because of the sudden nature of the death, Mahoney said he did not know the cause.
Emergency medical personnel were called, but weren’t able to save Walaker, Mahoney said.
Via a statement from a city spokeswoman, Walaker’s family declined to comment Tuesday night. He is survived by his wife, two grown daughters and two grandchildren.
The late mayor was hospitalized over the Thanksgiving holiday weekend because of a bad reaction to his chemotherapy treatment and was expected to return home Tuesday in better health. He was diagnosed with renal cell carcinoma, a common form of kidney cancer, sometime after his re-election in June.
Walaker kept up many of his mayoral duties despite the illness. While he missed several public appearances and was sometimes represented by Mahoney, he attended recent City Commission meetings.
He said last month he felt he was improving and looked forward to finishing his term.
‘A people’s mayor’
Gruff, funny, shy, stubborn, street-smart, respectful: all adjectives that could be used to describe Walaker – some of which seemed contradictory.
He built consensus, but was also known for going his own way when he believed he was right.
He was deeply shy and quiet, but loved to crack a joke and had an unforgettable laugh.
He could be brusque but was personable and fun to talk with.
But what endeared him most to his city was that he was “just kind of a regular guy,” Williams said.
“He spoke his mind and you knew where things stood,” she said. “I think people really liked that.”
Walaker had an extraordinary sense of what people wanted from their city’s leader, said City Administrator Pat Zavoral.
“He had just a sixth sense as to just exactly what they expected of him and what he would be doing,” Zavoral said. “It was just amazing. A lot of times we would have staff meetings talking about certain things and he’d make a decision and not really give any reasons for it.”
Later, Zavoral would discover that the decision was “just right.”
Former Moorhead Mayor Mark Voxland, who worked with Walaker from 2006 until his retirement in January, said Walaker focused on “what the people needed and wanted.”
“I really thought he was a people’s mayor,” Voxland said.
In his 25 years knowing Walaker, Zavoral saw many shades of a man who was once a city worker under him, but later his boss as mayor.
“He could be stubborn, but then he could also be somewhat self-reflective,” he said.
Walaker also had a great sense of self-deprecating humor and had a “tremendous laugh,” but was also “terribly shy.”
“A lot of times he would just sit back and listen, and then just see where people were coming from,” Zavoral said. “Then he would open up.”
If there was one subject the shy Walaker loved talking about, it was his family.
There were “two things he loved,” Zavoral said – his city and his family.
He was also well-known for his support of North Dakota State University athletics.
Clyde Staus worked with Walaker for 30 years in NDSU TeamMakers, a Bison booster club. They tailgated together before every Bison football game and both had seats in the front row at the 50-yard line.
He last spoke to Walaker at 11 a.m. on Tuesday, when Walaker was checking out of the hospital.
“He said that he was gonna go home and give me a jingle and stop over, but that never happened,” Staus said. “He sounded really good. He didn’t sound like he was feeling bad.”
Protecting the city
Walaker, a 6-foot-5 native of Leonard, attended North Dakota State University for two years before quitting to work for the North Dakota Department of Transportation in Valley City.
He joined the city of Fargo as a civil engineer in 1974 and was promoted to operations manager in 1989. He worked through three major floods – in 1979 and 1989 and then again in 1997, which at the time was the worst flood on record in Fargo. He gained wide acclaim in 1997 for his handling of the flood.
He was elected to mayor for the first time in 2006.
In 2009, he fought off a record-setting flood of more than 40 feet and resisted pressure from federal officials to evacuate the city.
He won re-election handily in 2010 and again in June 2014, when he faced off against City Commissioner Brad Wimmer. It was his final term, due to city term limits.
Mike Williams, who was a city commissioner when Walaker was first elected, said he and the late mayor always shared the motto, “We got to protect this city.”
“He did an amazing job,” Williams said. “The city staff, the city itself, the citizens are amazing and he was a big part of that.”
Gov. Jack Dalrymple also lauded Walaker in a statement released Tuesday night.
“Denny has been an outstanding mayor for many years, and has overseen his city during a period of remarkable growth,” Dalrymple said. “He will always be remembered for his leadership and skill in holding back the Red River during major flooding.”
Mahoney will take over temporarily as mayor. He said there will be a meeting on Monday to discuss next steps.
The city’s Home Rule Charter requires a special election to fill an empty seat.
Forum reporter Grace Lyden contributed to this report.