Allan Spear, a former University history professor and longtime state senator, died unexpectedly Saturday evening.
He was 71.
For nearly 30 years, until 2000, Spear legislated on behalf of the Minneapolis campus area.
When he announced that he was gay in a 1974 interview with the Minneapolis Star, Spear became the first openly gay state legislator in the country.
Meanwhile, he also taught history and left an indelible mark on many students, among them Vice President for University Services Kathleen O’Brien.
“Not only was Allan a leader of our community and our state, and even our nation on civil and human rights issues, but also he created leaders,” she said. “He helped literally hundreds of people understand their potential and challenge them to step up and be a leader.”
O’Brien, who studied history under Spear as a graduate student, was with her teacher and friend on Saturday afternoon, when he appeared to be in relatively good health and spirits following heart valve replacement surgery on Thursday.
A steadfast liberal, Spear discussed the upcoming election and was already thinking ahead to the 2010 gubernatorial election, musing about who he could encourage to run.
“He was totally alert, reading the New York Times for the day, thinking about issues and talking just the way he always did,” O’Brien said. “It’s very hard to have someone be so there and go so quickly.”
From 1964 until 2000, Spear lectured at the University. Shortly after his retirement, the University’s Steven J. Schochet Endowment for Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual and Transgender Studies and Campus Life honored Spear by naming a lecture series after him.
Such prominent figures as openly gay U.S. Reps. Barney Frank, D-Mass., and Tammy Baldwin, D-Wis., have spoken as part of the series.
A political crusader, longtime friend and former state representative Lee Greenfield said Spear “played a role to help all people who did not have a strong voice politically.”
Spear should be remembered, Greenfield said, “not only as somebody who was gay that fought for gay rights but somebody who was a political leader who fought for all people’s rights, including his own.”
Greenfield’s wife was one of Spear’s graduate students and the three maintained a strong friendship for decades, sharing a similar view of the world.
In his 1972 election bid for state senate, his first successful run after losing a spot in the House as the DFL nominee in 1968, Greenfield was Spear’s campaign manager.
Six years later, Greenfield himself became a representative from Spear’s senate district. Spear went on to be Senate president.
The Greenfields and Spear spent plenty of time together over the years, often enjoying fine dining, as was one of Spear’s pleasures in life.
An avid traveler, Spear had visited nearly every continent and always came back with photographs.
“He would take pictures of every course of every meal served when he was traveling and then could describe them to you,” Greenfield said.
But his interest in travel extended beyond his dinner plate, in accordance with his passion for people.
“His interest in travel was what the people were doing, what was going on in their culture,” Greenfield said. “It was more than just physical sites.”
A favorite spot was Japan, where Spear’s life partner, Junjiro Tsuji, was from.
Spear is survived by Tsuji, his brother Richard Spear of Washington, D.C.
Recently, the Minnesota Historical Society named Spear one of 150 Minnesotans who shaped the state, in celebration of the Minnesota’s 150th anniversary.
University President Bob Bruininks in a statement e-mailed to the Daily called Spear, who was known for his exceptional speaking ability, “a transformational leader,” committed to the University, the state and civil rights.
“There is probably no greater honor for any leader than to have those who follow you say you made a difference in their lives and the life of their community,” Bruininks said. “That can certainly be said of Allan Spear.”
There will be a private internment, but public memorial service plans will be announced.