Those We Honor

You’ll find more than just fishing celebrities in this list. One can make a significant impact
on the lives of many without ever being well known. It is important to honor all of
those who had a great influence on the great sport of fishing, whether famous or not.
Corporate advances tend to be much more visible to us. For it’s their products that
shape the evolution of the sport of fishing.

Joe Alexander

Joe Alexander

Inducted 2000

Joseph N. Alexander took a 50 percent pay cut in 1957 to become a Minnesota conservation officer and served a record 12 years as commissioner of the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources.

Alexander battled game poachers in the 1960s, kicked a drinking problem in the 1970s, and deftly negotiated out-of-court hunting and fishing settlements with several American Indian tribes. He was DNR commissioner from 1978 to 1990. He is remembered as a pleasant, plain-spoken man, a student of Indian cultures who cherished Minnesota’s forests, waters and wildlife.

“His retirement dinner was held at the Minnesota Zoo, right out there with the critters,” said his wife, Shirley Hunt Alexander of Edina. “One of the Indian tribes presented him with a blanket. They prepared walleyed pike and fried-rice bread for the dinner. It was touching.”

Alexander was born in 1923 to a poor family in Kentucky. He hunted and fished to help feed his family. He was a combat infantryman in the U.S. Army, serving in France and Germany in 1944 and ’45. After the war, he traveled to St. Paul to marry a woman he had met while in the service. His first wife, Rose Alexander, died in 1988. The Alexanders, who had three children, settled in Albert Lea where Joe was the manager of a Coca-Cola bottling plant. Meanwhile, he fell in love with streams and woods of Minnesota. In 1957, Alexander passed the DNR examination and took a job near Bigfork in Itasca County, for about $3,600 a year, said his daughter, B.J. Alexander of Minneapolis. “He had a passion for that life,” she recalled. “He had pressed shirts and spit-shine on his Red Wing boots. He was professional and friendly, and people liked him. We were involved in our church and our community.” Alexander, generally easygoing, also could strap on a .38-caliber pistol and a game-day glare, and blow into a armed encampment to seize game and handcuff illegal hunters, former associates recalled.

He never fired a weapon while on duty. He was proud of that. “I don’t think he was scared of the devil himself,” said John Guenther, the DNR’s regional administrator in northeastern Minnesota. “He was also a truly sensitive and caring man.”

As a deputy commissioner in the early 1970s, Alexander was debilitated by alcoholism. He completed treatment and served as a counselor and volunteer for the chemical dependency unit at Abbott-Northwestern Hospital in Minneapolis for the rest of his life. “He would talk about his struggle with alcoholism and he would help anyone at any time,” Guenther said. “Also, for about the last 20 years of his life, he’d say, ‘If I’d known I was going to live this long, I would have taken better care of myself.’ ”

Alexander is a legend for having survived a dozen years at the helm of an agency often caught in controversy among sportsmen, ardent environmentalists, Indians and others. He was particularly proud of negotiating treaties with tribes in northern Minnesota. He sought to balance tribal entitlement and domestic needs with the concerns of sportsmen and resort owners. In the mid-1970s, then-commissioner Robert Herbst made assistant commissioner Alexander point man on talks with the Leech Lake Band of Chippewa and charged him with setting up a tribal enforcement arm, recalled Phil Olfelt, a retired assistant state attorney general who worked with Alexander.

Then-Gov. Rudy Perpich appointed Alexander commissioner in 1978, replacing an unpopular earlier appointment. Republican Gov. Al Quie, impressed with Alexander’s managerial and dispute-settling acumen, kept him on in 1979. Alexander decentralized decision making and launched a series of open meetings between the DNR and the public. “We learned to listen, too,” Alexander said in a 1990 interview. “If I take any credit, it’s because God gave me the ability to select good people. I learned early to dictate responsibility and let people do their job.”

Alexander once said, “only once did I think I had to quit. I was called to Gov. Quie’s office to meet with legislators who wanted the DNR to reverse its policy on public wetlands. They asked the governor to change the policies or fire the commissioner. The governor turned to me and said, ‘What’s your answer?’ I said we were on the right track. Those wetlands needed to be preserved and if he [Quie] wanted to reverse that policy, he’d have to get a new commissioner. Gov. Quie turned to the legislators and said, ‘Gentlemen, you have your answer, and I’m busy.” Alexander smiled and added, “whew!”