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Who says religion and politics don’t mix? Erdahl twins celebrate 80th birthday

By Staff | Apr 11, 2011

Arlen and Lowell Erdahl

The person who said religion and politics don’t mix never met Blue Earth natives Arlen and Lowell Erdahl.

The twins, who celebrated their 80th birthday recently, had successful careers in both professions – Arlen in politics and Lowell in religion.

Successful might be an understatement.

Arlen served eight years in the Minnesota Legislature, was Secretary of State, and served four years in the U.S. Congress, representing the First Congressional District.

Lowell served as a pastor, seminary professor and was elected bishop of the St. Paul Area Synod of the newly formed Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA).

While they lived in many places in the world during their careers, the two began their lives in Blue Earth. They were born on Feb. 27, 1931, fraternal twin sons of Chris and Inga Erdahl.

When they were born, their uncle, Absalom Erdahl, who lived in Frost, planted two black walnut trees near each other in honor of their birth.

Over the years the two trees have grown close and the trunks have become almost fused. Some of the branches are intertwined, while others are going in opposite directions.

The trees have become symbolic of their actual lives – close at times, yet going off in opposite directions at other times.

The two Erdahl boys attended a one-room school together through the eighth grade, then graduated from Blue Earth High School.

The two went off to St. Olaf College together, both graduating in 1953.

Then, they began to branch out in separate lives.

Arlen continued his education at Harvard University, receiving an MPA degree, while Lowell went to Luther Seminary, thengaining a master’s in theology degree from Union Seminary in New York.

After a two-year stint, Arlen returned to Faribault County and operated the family grain and livestock farm near Blue Earth. He still owns a portion of the farm.

Arlen married a teacher, Ellen, and they now have four sons, two daughters and 14 grandchildren.

While back on the family farm, Arlen decided to run for the state representative seat from Faribault County.

Vic Johnson, Blue Earth, was his campaign chairman, Arlen says. Others on the campaign committee included Lud Gunderson, Don Birkland, Don Frederick, Oscar Sabin and Hartwick Larson.

“They were an outstanding group of people,” Arlen says. “They gave sound advice and had good connections. We never had much money so we spent more of ourselves on the campaign.”

That means they wrote their own ads, news releases and brochures.

Probably the best known advertisement in Minnesota political history at the time was Arlen’s in 1965. It featured his son Lars’ baby picture.

The caption read; “Who’s Arlen Erdahl? He’s my dad and he’s your man for state representative, and here’s why…”

Years later perfect strangers came up to Arlen and Ellen and said they remembered the ad and loved it.

The campaigning was not easy. Arlen was running against three other candidates at the time.

“All were better known and better financed than I was,” he says. “The key to winning was our going door-to-door to as many homes in the county as we could.”

Except for the city of Frost, near where his family farm is located.“I figured I was pretty well known there, and wouldn’t be able to change anyone’s opinion of me,” he explains.

When the balloting was done, he had all but four of the votes in Frost.

Arlen didn’t believe in – or practice – negative campaigning. His mantra was “mud thrown, is ground lost,” which followed his farming background.

His campaign style was to get his name known, present his record and qualifications and take a stand on the issues.

Campaigning also meant getting his name in the public eye by attending a lot of public events and meeting people.

“The kids and I often went along with to town festivals,” Ellen Erdahl recalls. “They would all wear Erdahl campaign buttons or stickers and ride all the merry-go-rounds and other rides – with their stickers showing.”

By the time the election came around in November, Arlen figured he had done all of the campaigning that he could, so he jumped on his tractor on the farm and put in a long day of plowing.

By the time the polls closed, his wife Ellen relates, he had eaten a big dinner and went to bed after the news with Cedric Adams on WCCO.

“I couldn’t sleep until I knew the results, so I called the county auditors’ offices and checked the vote count every few hours,” Ellen Erdahl recalls. “Then I woke him up and told him the results.”

After that first close race, Arlen was re-elected to the post by margins which averaged 85 percent of the vote in the next three elections.

Next, Arlen ran for the office of Minnesota Secretary of State, was elected, and served from 1970-74.

When Al Quie decided to give up his congressional seat and run for governor, Arlen decided to run for Congress in 1978.

He won another close race and was elected to Congress and was easily re-elected in 1980.

However, his bid in 1982 saw him suffer his first election defeat.

Redistricting threw him into an endorsement battle with Second District Congressional representative Tom Hagedorn. Erdahl lost to Hagedorn by a narrow margin, then Hagedorn lost in the general election to State Sen. Tim Penny.

After Penny’s retirement, Erdahl sought the nomination for his old seat again, but was defeated in the primary by State Rep. Gil Gutknecht, the eventual winner.

The loss did not signal the end to Arlen Erdahl’s career in public service.

He spent six years as an administrator with the U.S. Peace Corps. Half of his time he was the country director in Jamaica and half as associate director in Washington, D.C. There he did recruiting, training and placement of Peace Corps volunteers.

His last federal appointment was as principal deputy and acting assistant director for international affairs and energy emergencies, Department of the Energy, in Washington.

In 1995 he returned to Minnesota and became executive director of Minnesota International Health.

His work has taken him to places such as Jamaica, Japan, Kenya, Uganda, Nicaragua and other points in Europe, Asia, Africa and the Caribbean.

His twin brother Lowell hasn’t been as world traveled, but has moved around Minnesota at times.

From 1958 to 1968 he was pastor of the Farmington Lutheran Church.

From 1968 to 1973 he taught homiletics (preaching) at Luther Theological Seminary.

His next move was serving as pastor of University Lutheran Church of Hope in Minneapolis, from 1973 to 1983.

It was in 1983 that he was elected president of the Southeastern Minnesota District of the Evangelical Lutheran Church (ELC).

When the ELC merged with the Lutheran Church of America (LCA), in 1987, Lowell was elected bishop of the St. Paul Area Synod in the newly formed ELCA synod.

He retired from that position in 1995.

Lowell is also the author of 11 books, including “Winsome Wisdom,” “The Lonely House,” “Joyful Living,” “Be Good to Each Other,” (written with his wife Carol) and “Sexual Fulfillment” (written with Herbert Chilstrom).

Lowell and Carol Erdahl, who met on the St. Olaf College debate team, have been married for 56 years.

They are the parents of three children, and have four grandchildren.

Both Lowell and Arlen are the recipients of so many awards over their careers that is hard to track them all.

But, they do have one in common. Both have received the Distinguished Alumni Award from St. Olaf College.

One for excelling in politics and one for a career in religion.

Two trees fused together at the base, but with definite different branches later in life.