He was just “Wendell” growing up in Pipestone.
He was “Staff Sgt. Sande” when he flew Cold War missions probing Soviet air defenses.
He’s been “Rusty” for his 31 years in the North Mankato Municipal Building, a name that stuck even as most of the red hair vanished or turned gray.
He is the “tail wagging the dog” according to a critical North Mankato citizen, one of several who have suggested over the years that the city administrator was running the show more than the elected city council members.
He is “the captain of the sports team that everyone wants to play their best for,” said a North Mankato department head, speaking for the city staff on the night he announced his retirement.
After Thursday, Wendell Sande will be trading in “City Administrator Sande” for a moniker that was never used even once at more than 500 city council meetings. For Maya and Kieren Sande, his 4-year-old and 2-year-old granddaughters, the big guy with the mustache and the penchant for building things is “Poppy.”
“It’s bittersweet,” Sande said as he looked ahead to his final three days on the job. “I have enjoyed so much of what we’ve done.”
But the hours were long, he’s 62 years old and he decided it’s time to focus on family and fun.
From his most ardent fans to his biggest critics, there’s no disputing that Sande is leaving a deep imprint on North Mankato. Starting as finance director in 1981, Sande was named assistant city administrator within a couple of years and became the top appointed official in the city upon Bob Ringhofer’s retirement in 1996.
During his tenure, residential subdivisions spread north and west at a rapid pace until the housing crisis hit. Commercial and industrial growth continued even through the recession. New parks, new development, a new library, a new Highway 14 interchange finally under construction, and a new half-percent local sales tax to help pay the bill ... .
There’s been a new recycling center, a new water plant, a new fire station. A new soccer complex is coming, as is new development in the Belgrade Avenue business district.
By the end of the year, there will be a new city administrator.
Whomever is chosen, there’s one quality he or she won’t be able to duplicate: Sande’s astounding ability to immediately provide details about almost any aspect of North Mankato city operations.
He was given an unannounced pop quiz as part of the interview for this story.
Q: What size swath does the city’s biggest mower cut?
A: “We’ve got a 16-footer.”
Q: Do your remember when you bought it?
A: “1989. The guys tell me we need to consider replacing it one of these days, but we’ve got a great mechanics shop.”
Q: How many acres is Spring Lake Park?
A: “It’s about 50 acres. That includes the ball fields north of Webster. Just a little over 50.”
Sande’s brain-power was identified not long after he entered the U.S. Air Force after graduating from Pipestone High School in 1968.
The son of a small-town grocery store manager, there was no reason Sande would be an obvious choice to learn the Russian language and be assigned to an Air Force unit that intercepted Soviet military communications. After the Air Force saw the results of his language aptitude test, however, Sande found himself on the way to Syracuse University for a crash course in Russian, followed by an assignment to the Presidio in Monterrey — home of the Defense Language Institute.
He later served in England, Okinawa and Alaska’s Aleutian Islands. Part of the duty involved flights, ranging from 18 to 28 hours, where an Air Force plane would poke around the edges of Soviet air space, monitoring Russian radio transmissions and the Cold War enemy’s response times.
The flights often ended with MIG fighter pilots getting up-close and personal, warning the Americans they were as close as they were going to get to the USSR.
“You could see their faces, count the rivets on the plane,” Sande said.
By 1973, Sande was a bit weary of Alaskan winters and temperatures that dropped to 50 degrees below zero. So he didn’t re-enlist, using the GI Bill to enroll at Mankato State College.
With an accounting degree behind him and a CPA behind his name, he worked in the private sector for a couple of years before becoming finance director for the city of St. Peter in 1978. The same job in North Mankato opened up three years later.
It was only when Ringhofer made Sande his assistant city administrator that he — for the first time in his life — gave any thought to the idea of a career as the top non-elected official of a city government.
Q: What was the high point for state aid to North Mankato?
A: “We hit $2.4 million. (In) 2008, before the cut. That’s when it all started.”
Q: How much revenue is the local option sales tax generating?
Phil Henry, a persistent skeptic of North Mankato city government who regularly attends council meetings, doesn’t hesitate to praise one thing about Sande: his smarts.
“He’s a very knowledgeable man,” Henry said. “He understands all the ins and outs about everything that has to be done.”
A Taylor Corp. worker, Henry said it was a nerve-wracking experience at first to stand up and ask pointed questions to Sande about city spending decisions.
“When I first started, I think he kind of wanted to run over me a little bit,” Henry said. “But as I keep coming. ... our opinions differ, but I think he respects my opinion.”
Much of Henry’s criticism focuses on economic development efforts pursued by the North Mankato Port Authority, of which Sande is the executive vice president. Some of the harshest criticism of the city — and its administrator — in the past two decades centered on Port Authority projects that didn’t pan out as planned.
A major hotel proposed for the site of the abandoned Marigold Dairy on Belgrade Avenue fell through when the developer — following the 9/11 attacks — failed to come up with the necessary financing. The Port Authority had already completed expensive site preparations at its own expense.
And efforts to subsidize development of a supermarket in upper North Mankato also soured when the store closed and failed to pay back the city’s contribution.
Most of the projects have gone as planned — bringing construction and jobs in return for city subsidies. But Henry still doesn’t like the subsidies.
“He wants to take care of the corporate people rather than the taxpayers,” he said. “And that’s kind of where we differ, I guess.”
Henry saves much of his criticism for the council, though, saying they’ve given Sande too much leeway.
“I think the tail is wagging the dog,” he said. “There’s a couple of council members there who wouldn’t need to be there. They could probably just have a couple of bobbleheads. Because as soon as Wendell starts talking, their heads start bobbing.”
Henry doesn’t appear to be alone in his opinion. A decade ago, Lowell Sieberg ran for mayor partly on a pledge to reduce the city administrator’s sway.
Sieberg won the election, unseating incumbent Mayor Nancy Knutson who’d worked closely with Sande. But Sieberg found himself outnumbered on the council and had little impact on city policies.
In 2006, Kenny DeWitte was elected to the council on a pledge to “rein in Wendell Sande and his exorbitant spending.” By the end of DeWitte’s four-year term, he was an unabashed fan of Sande and praised the way the city was being managed. He lost his re-election bid.
Sande’s supporters are also not hard to find, and they showed up in force when Sieberg was pushing the council to consider not renewing the city administrator’s contract in 2003. The majority in the packed council chambers — including a healthy contingent of city employees — praised Sande and he easily survived the challenge.
With his retirement announcement, Sande has heard plenty of praise again from city staff and members of the council.
“We will all miss him, and the city of North Mankato will be a lesser place without him,” said Library Director Lucy Lowry, who compared Sande to the captain of a sports team.
Mayor Mark Dehen called him “a true professional” and “the city’s No. 1 best advocate.”
City Clerk Nancy Gehrke, who spent nearly a quarter of a century working beside Sande, paid tribute at his final council meeting on Monday: “He’s been a wonderful boss.”
Councilman Billy Steiner has been on the council during Sande’s entire 16 years as city administrator.
“I don’t think you can say enough about what’s been accomplished under Wendell’s leadership,” Steiner said. “... The citizens are better off because of you.”
Q: What size is the sewer pipe under Range Street?
A: “Well, you know we rebuilt Range Street in ’92 and primarily it’s an 8-inch sanitary sewer.”
Q: How many truck loads of muck did city crews haul from the bottom of Spring Lake?
A: “We took 120,000 yards, give or take. So that’s 12,000 to 13,000 truck loads. Six winters. I give the guys great credit. I kid them, ‘They spent the winter at the lake.’”
Sande can talk a long time about the job creation, the growth in the tax base and the impact on school enrollment that have come from his — and the Port Authority’s and the council’s — unending push for economic development.
But Spring Lake Park might be an even better example of Sande’s tendency to think big.
Spring Lake had essentially become Spring Swamp as years of sediment build-up shrank its depth. So Sande suggested draining the lake during winter months and using city crews to dig the muck from the bottom and haul it away. The council ultimately agreed and — after six winters of trucks hauling muck — it’s a lake again, complete with a healthy population of pan fish.
Sande then came forward with a plan for a fishing pier — and not just a floating dock or a standard timber structure. It was a $100,000 pier with an 80-foot walkway and a 30-foot-diameter circular deck made from ironwood.
He suggested it be named in honor of Jacob Thompson, a North Mankato native who had fished the lake as a boy before growing up to join the Army. Thompson rose to the rank of staff sergeant and died while leading his squad on a mission in Iraq at age 26.
The gratitude of Charlie Thompson, Jacob’s father and constant fishing buddy, was overwhelming when he saw the completed pier. He told Sande and the council that he hadn’t been able to bring himself to fish since his son’s death but that the beautiful pier named for his son might be the thing to bring him back.
“I hope, after the dedication, I’ll be able to take my two grandchildren down there and do that,” he said in 2010.
Sande said the project is probably the one that means the most to him.
“Honoring a veteran and a kid who grew up fishing on Spring Lake. And now if you go down there, you see kids and grandparents on the pier catching fish,” he said. “And I like to think it’s not unlike what (Jacob) would have done.”
Sande lives a short walk from the lake, so “Poppy” might be one of the retired grandparents on the Thompson Pier in coming weeks. And there are still some construction projects in his future. A woodworker, he likes to build small furniture for Maya and Kieren.
He’s already completed a playhouse for them.
And, yes, the precise dimensions of the playhouse are on the tip of his tongue.
“It was eight by 10.”
He was just “Wendell” growing up in Pipestone.
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