FARGO, N.D. (AP) — Fargo, North Dakota, Mayor Dennis Walaker, the man known as the "flood mayor" for leading the state's largest city through several successful fights against the Red River, died Tuesday at his home, city officials said. He was 73.
Walaker had been battling kidney cancer for several months. Deputy Mayor Tim Mahoney said Walaker was hospitalized over the weekend from a reaction to his chemotherapy.
The 6-foot-5 Walaker, who spent most of his career as public works director for the city, became a folk hero during the record-setting 2009 flood when he stood up to public officials who wanted to evacuate the city, which survived the high water thanks to a massive sandbagging effort. Walaker was also known for making crest predictions that usually trumped the National Weather Service.
Byron Dorgan, the former U.S. senator from North Dakota who was in office during three straight years of serious flooding in Fargo, called Walaker "a big man with a big heart" and said it was a sad night for North Dakota.
"He was a tower of strength during very dangerous and difficult times for Fargo," Dorgan said Tuesday. "I saw him make courageous decisions at critical moments when Fargo was threatened by record flood levels. It isn't an overstatement that his good judgment and strong leadership had a lot to do with saving the city."
Walaker is a native of Leonard, North Dakota. He was first elected Fargo mayor in 2006, when flood protection was his campaign theme. He was re-elected twice, including a heated battle this year against former Fargo city commissioner Brad Wimmer.
Walaker led daily morning meetings at City Hall during the 2009 flood, when he tried to lighten the mood each day by telling a joke. One day he told residents they should conserve water by showering together. Another day he told residents that once the flood fight was won, he would buy everybody a beer.
Fargo resident Eva Fredrickson said during the 2009 flood that she felt confident with Walaker at the helm and referred to the mayor as a man of the people.
"He just looks like an ordinary man to me. An ordinary, run-of-the-mill man," Fredrickson said at the time. "He's not highfalutin and acting like he knows more than anyone else. He makes people feel real good. And every once in a while he tells a little joke."
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