Steve Sviggum, 68, is a public servant through and through, from the top of his graying head to the tip of his steel-toed farmer’s work boots.
At a time when the word “government” often is treated like an epithet, he continues to toil happily in the fields of community service, government and education — and on his own farm.
He’s a guy who relishes teamwork, aims for balance and looks forward to finding ways to reach across the proverbial aisle and get things done. If most Minnesotans don’t know his name or fully appreciate the contributions he’s made to the state during his 38 years of public service, that’s just fine with Sviggum. He’s not in it for the spotlight; he’s just here to help make things better for the state.
Sviggum is the newly elected vice chair of the University of Minnesota’s Board of Regents, an organization whose board he has served on for three years. It’s an unsalaried volunteer role, but it’s one that’s keeping him busy when added to his day job of farmer: This time of year, Sviggum is spending hours piloting a John Deere tractor on his family’s 1,600 acres in Kenyon, Minnesota.
His latest position with the U of M Board of Regents is just the most recent in a long string of civic-minded accomplishments. Sviggum served in the Minnesota House of Representatives from 1979–2007, including eight years as Speaker of the House. He also was communications director for the Minnesota State Senate Majority, Commissioner of the Minnesota Department of Labor and Industry and Commissioner of the Department of Management and Budget.
Over the years, Sviggum — whose name is pronounced “SWIGG-um” — has made lasting friends all over the state, including some folks in high places.
That includes former Gov. Tim Pawlenty, who served with Sviggum in the Minnesota House of Representatives for a decade. For half that time, Sviggum, a Republican, was the Speaker of the House when Pawlenty was Majority Leader. Pawlenty later appointed him to serve as a member of his cabinet and as the Commissioner of the Department of Labor and Industry.
“He’s the best friend anyone could have,” Pawlenty said. “He’s caring, encouraging, loyal, kind, optimistic — and very funny. One of Steve’s best attributes is his huge heart. He doesn’t just think about issues and causes — he feels them. And his passion and enthusiasm draws people in.”
Sviggum’s easygoing temperament makes him fun and easy to be around, Pawlenty said.
“He’s so good-natured, enthusiastic and encouraging,” Pawlenty said. “He’s also very good at channeling the goodwill people have for him toward getting important things done.”
Working the fields
No matter how many state-level jobs and major accomplishments show up on Sviggum’s resume, he remains down-to-earth, working the family farm with his two brothers, Jim and Dick. In Kenyon, halfway between Rochester and the Twin Cities, the brothers grow corn, soybeans and hay, while raising 150 head of cattle.
The Sviggum farm is in Sogn Valley, named for Sogn, Norway, where his ancestors lived.
“It has hills, valleys and streams, just like back there, and I like to say it’s a little bit of God’s country,” he said. “Of course, when there’s ice on those hills, or a foot of snow falling, it’s more of a challenge.”
On a farm, there’s always one more chore to do, so Sviggum is no stranger to hard work. This time of year, he’s in charge of “ripping” the corn fields after his brother finishes with the combine.
Sviggum received his bachelor of arts degree in mathematics from St. Olaf College. He then taught high school math and coached football and basketball at Belgrade-Elrosa and West Concord high schools in Minnesota. It was while he was still teaching that he was approached to run for a seat in the Minnesota House of Representatives.
“I had never thought about running for office before that. I’d never even taken a political science class in college,” he said, and added with a laugh, “Some friends say that’s what saved me.”
Sviggum ran against a four-year incumbent and won. During that first election, he realized he loved campaigning.
“I’ve always enjoyed engaging with people all over the state, from Warroad to Worthington to Winona,” he said.
His wife, Deb, confirmed that it’s all part of what makes him tick.
“What you see is what you get with Steve, and he’s no different behind the scenes than he is out in public,” she said. “He loves to talk to people wherever we go.”
Back when their two boys and one daughter were younger, the whole family would occasionally be out for dinner when he would be waylaid by a constituent. But Deb remained understanding, even as she occasionally tried to drag him away: “His idea of a great day is when he gets to talk to a lot of people.”
In addition to the joys of the campaign trail, he found he was skilled at finding candidates for office.
“I really enjoyed recruiting good people to run,” he said. “Not only were they more likely to win their election, but, more importantly, they would govern better and in the best interests of Minnesota.”
As much as he liked the door-knocking work of campaigning, Sviggum also reveled in the work that began once the election was over. A self-described conservative, he believes it’s impossible to govern well from either extreme of the political spectrum.
“You have to be willing to compromise and cooperate to get the job done,” he said.
That open spirit and willingness to accept alternate viewpoints has made him friends of all political persuasions.
One example is Peggy Lucas, who served with him on the Board of Regents and on the search committee for the new University of Minnesota president.
“We come from different parties and sometimes different points of view, but I find him to be very open to hearing other points of view,” she said. “Steve is a good listener and a good communicator.”
Describing himself as “100 percent Norwegian,” Sviggum embraces all aspects of his ancestry, including the decidedly aromatic ones. He’s an unashamed lutefisk lover, which he diplomatically describes as “an acquired taste.” The Norwegian delicacy, cod that’s been treated with salt and lye, is just one part of his church’s annual lutefisk and Norwegian meatball supper, where his mother, 88, is still one of the cooks. (This year’s event is Oct. 9. See the sidebar with this article for details.)
Food, even that of the non-lutefisk variety, is a big part of Sviggum’s life.
Lucas said: “He loves to see that people eat something, and he often provides the eats. I remember when we were working together on the search committee for a new University of Minnesota president, he once brought a homemade apple pie to share with everyone at the meeting.”
While Sviggum may be best known for his career accomplishments, he takes even greater delight in talking about his family, including his 40-year marriage to his high school sweetheart, Deb, his three children and his 13 grandchildren. (No. 14 is on the way this fall.) Everyone in the family lives within driving distance of the Sviggum farmstead.
The strong family bonds and the children’s successes, he said, should all be credited to Deb.
“She sacrificed so much for our family and for my career,” he said. “She was a better campaigner than I was. I remember her pulling a wagon with the three kids in it when it was 95 degrees. She’d be with them evenings when I was out or when I was gone on overnights in the cities.”
As he considers the additional duties he’ll be facing as vice chair of the University of Minnesota’s Board of Regents, Sviggum acknowledged that the job will change his life significantly.
And while he’s a strong believer that staying active is the key to being healthy, it’s still his goal to allow for plenty of relaxed “grandpa time,” too: “I love pitching them balls, tickling them and reading to them,” he said.
Pawlenty said that while it’s a good idea to acknowledge all that Sviggum has done, it’s not time to count him out any time soon.
“Steve’s body of work over the arc of time no doubt makes him one of the most impactful and important leaders in Minnesota’s modern history — and he’s not done yet, as his remarkable service continues on.”
Eat lutefisk, lefse & more!
What: Attend the Annual Lutefisk and Norwegian Meatball Supper, also featuring mashed potatoes and gravy, corn, cranberries, coleslaw, rolls, fruit soup, lefse and a country store selling Norwegian baked goods.
When: 11 a.m.–7:30 p.m. Wednesday, Oct. 9; reservations are required for the 11 a.m., noon and 1 p.m. timeslots.
Where: Vang Lutheran Church, 2060 County Road 49, Dennison, Minnesota
Cost: $17 for adults, $6 for ages 5–10, free for preschoolers and younger
Info: Call 507-789-5186 or write [email protected] for reservations and takeout options.
Cream & milk lefse
“This is my mother’s recipe,” Steve Sviggum said. “Our family prefers this type of lefse to the more common potato lefse.”
- 1 cup whole milk
- 1 cup whipping cream
- 1 tablespoon vegetable shortening
- 3 cups flour
- Pinch of salt
- 1/2 tablespoon sugar
Combine milk and cream in a saucepan and bring to just a boil. Remove from heat and add vegetable shortening into the hot mixture. Set aside to cool slightly.
Whisk flour, salt and sugar in a large mixing bowl.
Pour cream/milk mixture into the bowl and stir well.
Lay a pastry cloth over a cutting board and lightly flour. By hand, pull off pieces of dough and roll into 12 balls.
Use a rolling pin to roll each ball into a flat, thin, round sheet, about 1/8 inch thick. Use a rolling pin to transfer each sheet onto hot griddle or lefse plate. Cook until bubbles form and brown spots form on both sides, then turn over, about 1 minute each side. Be careful not to overcook it, because the rounds must be pliant enough to be rolled up.
Remove from heat and place rounds between moist towels, trimming edges as needed and allowing them to cool slightly.
Spread lefse rounds with a choice of topping, roll up and place on platter.
*Topping options include butter, sugar, cinnamon-sugar, jam, peanut butter, Nutella, cream cheese, cold cuts, cheese and more.*
Julie Kendrick is a contributing writer for many local and national publications. She lives in Minneapolis. Follow her on Twitter @KendrickWorks.