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Holocaust prompted political scientist Ted Mitau to make a difference

25December 2021

Like other Jewish kids growing up in Germany in the 1930s, Gunter Theodore Mitau was forced to wear a Star of David and attend a segregated school in Berlin. He was 13 when Adolf Hitler assumed power in 1933, but secured a student visa to the United States in 1937 — narrowly escaping the Holocaust that claimed his mother among its 6 million Jewish victims.

During the next four decades, Mitau became a Macalester College student and then a longtime political science professor at the St. Paul school, mentoring countless colleagues and students including future vice presidents Hubert Humphrey and Walter Mondale.

Appointed chancellor of the Minnesota State Colleges and Universities system in 1968 at 47, Mitau reshaped the state’s higher education landscape during what he called “a middle-age fling.” The network when Mitau took over included six colleges in Winona, Mankato, St. Cloud, Moorhead, Bemidji and Marshall, with a total enrollment of 33,000 students. Today, Minnesota State serves 340,000 students, with 30 colleges and seven universities at 54 campuses.

Mitau was most proud of his vision for Minnesota Metropolitan State College, now known as Metropolitan State University — originally a college without walls, grades or terms, aimed at working adults who could leverage real-world experience to earn their degrees.

It was considered “a utopian experiment of the first order,” according to Monte Bute, a recently retired Metro State sociology professor who has written extensively about Mitau’s role in creation of the school — which celebrated its 50th anniversary this year and now boasts a campus in St. Paul.

The Minneapolis Tribune in 1973 described Mitau as “a nervous, energetic, fast-paced individual with a tremendous drive to achieve, [who] coaxes, cajoles, needles and encourages officials … without being too pushy about it.”

Mitau’s father, Alexander, worked a high-level job at a Berlin telephone company but died when Gunter was about 10. A bicycle accident killed his brother, Werner, a few years later. That left Mitau and his mother, Rosel, who chose not to join her 17-year-old son on his journey to New York — never dreaming the fate that would befall her fellow Jews.

“Imagine this young child knowing he had to leave Germany and his mother not believing it,” his widow, Charlotte Mitau-Price, told Macalester’s alumni magazine in 1998. They’d married in 1941 and had two children. The family learned years later that Rosel had died at the Theresienstadt concentration camp in Czechoslovakia.

Andrea Mitau Kircher said her father “buried” his memories of Germany and seldom spoke about his childhood, according to Rebecca Gonzalez-Campoy, who interviewed family members for the 1998 article.

“Because he was the sole survivor of his family, he may have struggled with guilt, like many Holocaust survivors,” Kircher said. “It made him that much more determined to accomplish something, to try to make the world a better place.”

Mitau connected with relatives upon arriving in the United States in 1937, studying at New York University, attending movies to improve his English and washing dishes for money. Standing only 5-foot-6, he was made to climb into large cooking pots to scrub caked-on spots — his rationale for later refusing to wash dishes at home, he told his family.

One of his English language teachers in New York with roots in St. Paul encouraged Mitau to transfer to Macalester, where he taught German to offset tuition. After graduating in 1940 and serving in the U.S. Army, he began teaching at Macalester, adding master’s and Ph.D. degrees from the University of Minnesota and eventually becoming chair of the political science department. He went by Ted rather than Gunter, considering his first name too hard for Americans to pronounce.

Sharing a faculty office with fellow instructor Humphrey, Mitau enlisted student volunteers in 1948 to help his colleague wrest control of the early DFL Party from its Communist faction and win election to the U.S. Senate. Among those students was Mondale.

When Mitau became state college chancellor in 1968, he drove his beat-up Volkswagen to visit rural legislators before the budget-setting session began. “I felt it was absolutely essential for me to meet these people on their home grounds before they ever got to the Capitol,” Mitau told Robert Whereatt of the Minneapolis Star in 1979.

In that interview just a few months before his death, Mitau said something that resonates as prophetic today.

“I like politicians,” he told Whereatt. “I’m one of these people who respects politicians. I don’t belong to this cynical school of politics. … When we deride our politicians, demean our politicians, we demean ourselves. And when we demean ourselves, we will have a cynical, a narcissistic society that is far from the democratic ideal.”

Said then-Vice President Mondale in 1979, shortly before Mitau died at 59 from pancreatic cancer: “Looking at the tapestry of Ted’s accomplishments, it’s hard to believe that one single person could have a career so diverse and with so profound an impact.”

Curt Brown’s tales about Minnesota’s history appear each Sunday. Readers can send him ideas and suggestions at mnhistory@startribune.com. His latest book looks at 1918 Minnesota, when flu, war and fires converged: strib.mn/MN1918.

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