Late mayor made his mark
Ahlgren played a large role in city life
November 3, 2023
Former Cloquet mayor Bruce Ahlgren died Friday, Oct. 27, in the hometown he loved and affected in so many ways. Ahlgren's wife, Marla, said he had been waiting to have heart surgery for five weeks, but collapsed and died at home. Their daughter, Angie, honored her "sweet, loving, gregarious father" on Facebook later that day.
Whether it was leading the city as its longest serving mayor, running the court system or the myriad other ways he got involved in public service, Ahlgren was charming, and a force to be reckoned with.
Retired Judge Dale Wolf worked with Ahlgren for decades. He called Ahlgren a good friend and a visionary public figure.
"[It's] hard to capture a guy as meaningful as Bruce was around here, and to me personally," Wolf told the Pine Knot.
Ahlgren enjoyed "schmoozing," according to his wife, Marla, but he also wasn't afraid of conflict.
"If he believed in a cause, such as the indoor smoking ban, he stood his ground, no matter how much flack he got," Wolf said.
"It is funny now, looking back to people - even at our courthouse - telling Bruce he would send all the bar trade elsewhere and put the restaurants out of business."
That never happened.
Ahlgren was a volunteer, a family man, a lobbyist for issues near and dear, and an engaged community member.
He was also a pretty good high school student and athlete - playing hockey and football at Cloquet High School, and at the University of Minnesota Duluth, until a bad concussion knocked him out of collegiate sports.
Bruce Ahlgren shared his life story with this writer several years ago.
He was born and raised in the Cloquet area, the youngest of seven kids. Until he was 8, they lived in a one-bedroom farmhouse on 40 acres north of town with no running water and an outhouse. Mom (Senja Yilokoski before she married his father, George) raised her seven children on $15 a month she made from selling the milk from their cows. Dad bought some food, but spent more of his construction worker wages on drink, Bruce had said.
When he was 9 and after his parents divorced, Senja got a job at Northwest Paper Company. They moved back to Cloquet into a little house on 14th Street across the street from where the library is now. He thrived at school, graduating from Cloquet High School in 1968.
Ahlgren graduated from UMD with a teaching degree (like his four older brothers) and got a job as recreation director in Silver Bay. Then he went to Two Harbors to teach physical education and health, at the superintendent's request. Laid off later that year because of shrinking enrollment, Ahlgren moved back home to Cloquet and became a probation parole officer.
Ahlgren first met his future wife, Marla Maki, when they were both students at UMD. A few years later, he spotted a photo of her teaching school in Carlton in the old Pine Knot newspaper. He asked for a date, and a lasting marriage with three children was the result.
Ahlgren had a long career in the court system. After working in probation, at age 27 he was appointed clerk of the district and county court, a position now called court administrator. It was the start of a 30-year career.
"From my standpoint, the single greatest thing Bruce did was assemble a court staff that was truly second to none," said Judge Robert Macaulay, who worked with Ahlgren as an assistant county attorney then during his early years on the bench.
Ahlgren and that staff took the courts through a lot of changes in his time there. When Ahlgren started, everything was done on typewriter or by hand. All the information from the courtrooms was written down in huge books, weighing 50 or 60 pounds each. He oversaw pilot projects for the state in the transition to modern record keeping systems, moving first from the books to a card system, and finally to computers.
Judge Wolf described Ahlgren as a futurist - hence the early adoption of computers - as well as someone who believed in his staff and believed in a positive, supportive atmosphere at the courthouse.
"He wanted attorneys and consumers to feel attended to," Wolf said. "He felt that we were 'a system' that needed to interact smoothly with all other county offices, including the sheriff's department, the county attorney's office, the public defender's office, legal aid and, of course, his old home, the probation department. He felt we needed to educate and include the legislature regarding not just funding needs, but big picture ideas and issues such as advanced technology and the need to keep a state presence at Moose Lake."
Ahlgren was also active in statewide roles as court administrator. He served as president of the Minnesota Association for Court Management two times and lobbied at the state legislature for funding for trial courts and later for a new Minnesota Supreme Court building.
He shared the credit for those adventures with State Supreme Court Justice Lawrence Yetka, who would invite him in to lunch with him and the other Supreme Court justices.
Ahlgren got involved in politics in his mid-20s, after being asked to drive U.S. Representative candidate Jim Oberstar in a Cloquet Labor Day parade in 1974. But the biggest thrill came later that day when he was invited to lunch by former Vice President Hubert Humphrey, and sat with the longtime U.S. senator and former mayor of Minneapolis.
Ahlgren's journey into public service basically continued the way it started: with him taking opportunities to participate and meet people, then capitalizing on those contacts to help make things happen for things and people he cared about.
In addition to serving as mayor of Cloquet for 16 years, Ahlgren was a Cloquet school board member for 12 years. In his free time, he was a hockey coach, and served on scores of committees locally and around the state.
Ahlgren was defeated by Dave Hallback in November 2013. Looking back, former city administrator Brian Fritsinger said Ahlgren went above and beyond, taking on statewide leadership roles as mayor, and also looking out for folks who were "economically challenged."
He didn't forget where he came from.
One might think he must have been a very busy, serious man to get everything done, but that would be a mistake. Like his wife said, he enjoyed schmoozing and liked nothing better than affecting change by getting people on board.
"He made a lot of friends in the state legislature because he was on these committees for being mayor and court administrator," Marla said. "He loved to talk to people."
He was funny and everybody's favorite uncle and beloved by his grandchildren and children. He started cooking in retirement, although didn't do much cleaning, she added with a smile. He also loved spending time at the family cabin, often going there alone to recharge and take in nature.
But heart disease had plagued Bruce Ahlgren's family, including his mother and two brothers.
Marla, on a visit to the Pine Knot office on Wednesday, said Bruce had been slowing down physically, and discovered he needed heart surgery in September. The original surgery was scheduled three days before he died, but had been delayed because he needed surgical care not available in Duluth.
"The waiting caused both of us tons of stress and affected his heart," Marla surmised. "He said he was going to die before he got it, and he did."
Ahlgren collapsed at home early in the morning Friday. Cloquet Area Fire District responders worked on him for 30-40 minutes, but he was gone. Police and CAFD staff were very kind and respectful, she said.
"He will truly be missed," said Judge Macaulay. "Not only was he a great court administrator, he was a very dear friend."
"Such a tragic loss for us, and this whole region," Judge Wolf said.