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Former State Rep. Robert (Bob) McFarlin, now a resident at Ecumen Lakeshore in Duluth, was a rarity in the Minnesota Legislature. He was a bridge builder — in both his primary occupation and his political life.
Chances are if you’ve driven around the Twin Cities or Duluth, you’ve crossed several of the bridges he designed. He has hundreds of bridges on his resume, across several states — so many he’s lost count. His children have given him the project of compiling a list of all of them, which he guesses will total about 250.
Bob’s design of the Snake River Trail Bridge, a single span bridge in Minnesota’s Pine County, is a national award winner.
Now 85, Bob is a retired consulting engineer who served three terms in the Minnesota legislature — 1967 to 1968, 1968 to 1970, and 1973 to 1974 — representing the St. Louis Park area in the Twin Cities. He says he was the first professional engineer elected to the legislature.
Back then, the legislature was nonpartisan and things got done in a much friendlier and relaxed way, Bob recalls. “It’s nice to think back on it,” he says. “I had an awful lot of good friendships and relationships.”
What does he think of the current partisan bickering in the legislature? “I don’t like it. They should get along better. But they will get things done eventually.”
Bob says he still keeps up with politics. “But I don’t get upset about it anymore.”
When asked about his accomplishments, his cooperative spirit is evident. “You don’t do things in the legislature by yourself,” Bob says. “You have to have allies.”
One of his legacies, which he recounts with a wry smile, is the extremely close election for his third term — so close that it led to the automatic recount law we now take for granted.
In the 1972 election, Bob, a Republican, won by just two votes in the first count. His opponent, DFLer Pete Petrafeso, asked for a recount and eventually had to file a lawsuit to get it. “In the recount,” Bob recalls laughing, “I picked up 19 more votes and won by a landslide of 21 votes.”
Even though he fought the lawsuit at the time, he says the recount was the “right and fair decision” and he fully supports the automatic recount law that came along as a result of his election. And he remembers what happened next.
“Here I sat, the target of a lawsuit for recount. I had knocked off one of the rising stars of the DFL majority, and they had no reason to like me or want any success for me. But none of the bad things you hear about ever happened to me in that session. There were many DFLers, people I respected, who watched my back.”
Another career highlight Bob recalls fondly was his role in saving what is now the Landmark Center in Saint Paul, the city’s historic courthouse and post office building. He was the chief mover of the legislature’s petition to the U.S. Congress to save the building from demolition. “It had become an urgent matter. We had two days to get this done,” Bob recalls. “And we did. That building is still there. It’s not an earthshaking accomplishment, but I like that story.”
After his third term, Bob says, “the real world had to have its attention.” At the time, legislators were part-time and made $400 a month.
In 1997, Bob and his wife Alice retired to Florida. When she died in 2012, Bob moved to Ecumen Lakeshore to be closer to family. “The way we tell the story,” Bob says smiling, “is that my daughter Nancy, who lives in Duluth, drew the short straw and I was the prize.” He has three other children who live in Minnetonka, Florida and England.
These days at Ecumen Lakeshore, Bob is best known as a highly accomplished joke-teller. Every day a group of eight or 10 residents gather eagerly in the dining room to hear his Ole and Lena joke of the day. He hams-up the jokes with a not-bad Norwegian accent for a guy whose ancestry is Scottish and Irish. He says he’s been doing the Norwegian accent so long that he can no longer muster other brogues. “I quit telling Irish jokes,” he says, “because they started to sound more and more Norwegian.”
When you see Bob, ask him to tell you the one about Ole getting a haircut and going to visit the Pope.