Longtime Brainerd Mayor James Wallin passed away early Saturday morning.
He was 73.
His unexpected and sudden death created an outpouring from those who worked with him in public service. Wallin was first elected to the city council in 1977. He was mayor of the city since 1998.
"It was a huge shock," said Brainerd Council President Gary Scheeler. "He was very much engaged as of yesterday. I was telling everybody that he'd be back."
Scheeler, who has been covering public appearances and events for the mayor since he had back surgery recently, said he just received an email from Wallin about 6:30 p.m. last night. Wallin was working on a speech he planned to give after his recent selection as 2015 Brainerd Citizen of the Year. Scheeler said Wallin was getting better on a daily basis. Then Scheeler said he heard from the mayor's wife, Minna Wallin, that the mayor suffered a massive heart attack at home and died about 3 a.m.
"The whole city is embracing her and the family right now as much as we can," Scheeler said.
Scheeler plans to meet with city staff and look at the city charter to see what the next step will be in the aftermath of the mayor's death while in office.
"He was one of the greatest mayors this town will ever have," Scheeler said. "He was loved by thousands. I've known him since the 1990s. He knew the town so well and people so well."
Scheeler said he relied on Wallin who helped him as someone new to city politics and he intends to pick up where Wallin left off - focusing on getting those projects important to the mayor completed - such as extending city services to the Brainerd Lakes Regional Airport.
"He was the most honest person you are ever going to meet," Scheeler said. "James Wallin was true honest right through. He was there to help. Every single day he got up and thought about how he could help Brainerd to be a better community. He was so well liked and respected that communities far and wide called on the mayor for many, many things. He was the glue that held our Brainerd City Council together."
Wallin came to Scheeler's wedding four years ago, where "he danced the twist with me, he was a great dancer," Scheeler said.
"That's how I'll remember him, vibrant and full of life," Scheeler said. "We were good friends for a long time."
News of Wallin's death was heard at events early Saturday morning as people remarked the city had lost its mayor. The news also reached the state's elected representatives on the federal level.
"Mary and I were so deeply saddened to learn of our Brainerd Mayor James Wallin's passing on Saturday morning," said U.S. Rep. Rick Nolan, in a written statement. "He was a true leader who devoted so much time and energy to making life better for the people he was proud to serve - even down to watering the plants in Brainerd City Hall. James will be deeply missed and never forgotten. Our sincere condolences to his wife, Minna, and the Wallin family."
Wallin is the third Brainerd elected official to die in office in recent years. In February of 2014, Brainerd Council President Bonnie Cumberland also passed away suddenly at home. In May, Bob Olson, former council member and one-time mayor, died at his home after suffering from lung cancer.
Wallin was recently chosen as 2015 Brainerd Citizen of the Year.
"I was saddened to hear of the passing of Brainerd Mayor James Wallin, and my thoughts and prayers are with his wife Minna, the Wallin family, and the entire Brainerd community," said U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar in a written statement. "James was a kind and passionate public servant who always put the needs of Brainerd and its people first. He loved Brainerd and Brainerd loved him back. He was a good man who will be missed by all."
Wallin was often with his counterpart, Mayor Darrel Olson of Baxter, at area events but they knew each other much longer.
"We go back about 45 years and we met in uniform," Olson said. "We were in the Army Reserve together. ... We never realized we'd be mayors of adjoining cities later on in life."
Olson talked to Wallin about a week ago and thought he was recovering from back surgery. He said he never suspected it would be their last conversation.
"When I got the call I was still very surprised," Olson said.
Even in hard discussions like those as the cities hammered out agreements for the wastewater treatment plant, discussions with Wallin were always cordial, Olson said. In recent years as Wallin faced health issues, Olson said the Brainerd mayor wasn't one to talk about his own struggles.
"When he talked to you it was about his family," Olson said. "He was a hard worker. He came from a hard-working family."
Wallin had other skills than public office. He was an excellent cook, Olson said, and many may not realize the efforts Wallin poured into creating and maintaining public gardens, including the flowers at Kiwanis Park.
"I always respected him. I never met anybody who loved the city like he did. He was all about Brainerd and he told me often he was always honored to be the mayor of Brainerd," Olson said. "So the city has lost a real representative there and the whole community, and I lost a good friend. I enjoyed working with him. It's a sad day."
The city of Brainerd couldn't have asked for a better mayor than Wallin, Council member Kelly Bevans said.
"I don't know if there was ever a man more fit for the job than James Wallin was to be mayor of Brainerd," Bevans said. "He had the ability to make people feel good about themselves and their city."
One of Wallin's more admirable traits was his preference to roll up his sleeves and do the hard work himself, Bevans said. He loved gardening, so this often meant pulling up weeds in flowerbeds in various parks throughout the city.
Wallin's tenure as mayor will be a tough act to follow for whoever follows him as mayor of Brainerd, Bevans said.
"James was, and epitomized, the perfect mayor," Bevans said.
Wallin was also known throughout the area for his bright Christmas light display. Bevans' auto repair business is within a block of Wallin's home, and "it was absolutely wonderful to see car after car coming through there."
The display wasn't about personal vanity or recognition, Bevans said, but like everything else, came from Wallin's love of the city of Brainerd.
"I believe that was a love of Brainerd that drove them to do that," Bevans said.
Brainerd has been, and will be, a much better place for Wallin's impact, Bevans said.
"That is probably the thing that will stick for me, was the man was tireless," Bevans said. "We'll miss James for his positive attitude and his 'we will work it out together' attitude."
Wallin was a "thoroughly likeable man who worked with integrity toward what he thought was best for Brainerd and its citizens," council member Dave Pritschet said. He was a straight shooter who would answer any questions "honestly, whether he agreed with you or not in the end," he said.
"It's a great loss for Brainerd, and a tragic loss," Pritschet said. "And he will be missed."
Council member Chip Borkenhagen knew Wallin for more than 30 years, and they were good friends.
"I don't know that I've ever met a more honest, upright, positive, man in my lifetime," Borkenhagen said. "He just kept giving of himself to make this city a better place, year after year."
Wallin never had a bad word to say about anyone, Borkenhagen said, and his loss "is going to leave a big hole."
Council member Mary Koep was serving on the city council when Wallin was first elected in 1977, and provided the push he needed to run. Wallin wanted to add a four-way stop at the intersection near his home, and while Koep was helping him on the issue, told him "you ought to run for council."
"He finally decided to run, and the rest was history," Koep said.
First and foremost, Wallin was a "good, kind man," who was the "best cheerleader this city ever had," Koep said. Wallin had such a pride in the city of Brainerd that he couldn't help attending every gathering and celebration he could, she said.
"He felt truly honored to have been a councilman and mayor, he said that over, and over and over," Koep said. "And that always came through loud and clear."
Now, it's up to the community to stand with Minna and the rest of James's family, Koep said.
"The family needs this community that meant so much to James," Koep said. "Now the family needs us to give back."
Scheeler said Wallin died much too young as he had so much more to offer.
"I never thought I'd be talking this way," Scheeler said, noting he expected to be filling in for the mayor on a temporary basis and expected to see him back at city hall soon. "I will never fill his shoes or anyone else in this town.
"I think he was doing what he loved - being mayor - and I think he was at peace that he was mayor right to end."
Funeral services for Wallin will be 1 p.m. Saturday at Zion Lutheran Church with Pastor Steve Benson officiating. Visitation will be 4-7 p.m. Friday at Brenny Funeral Chapel and one hour prior to services Saturday at Zion Lutheran Church.