Minnesota State Sen. Jerry Relph died Friday of complications from COVID-19. The 76-year-old represented District 14 in St. Cloud since 2016 and is the first Minnesota lawmaker to die of the virus.
Born in Boston, Relph graduated from high school in Michigan and came to Minnesota in 1962 to attend Carleton College and study philosophy. He enlisted in the U.S. Marines and served more than a year in Vietnam. After the war, he earned a law degree from William Mitchell College of Law and practiced municipal, real estate and tax law. A St. Cloud resident since 1984, he also co-owned a small business.
Relph was first elected to the Minnesota Senate when he defeated Dan Wolgamott by 141 votes. The senator lost his November race to Aric Putnam by only 315 votes.
Wolgamott, now a Minnesota House member, tweeted out a photo and condolences, noting Relph’s “willingness to work across the aisle with me.”
Relph was the vice-chairman of the Senate Family Care and Aging Committee, an important issue to him. He also was the lead Senate author of a bill the Legislature unanimously passed in March, earmarking nearly $21 million to reinforce the state’s response to coronavirus.
“Sen Relph was a good man, always accessible and professional, and a giant in his St. Cloud community,” Long-time WCCO Reporter Patrick Kessler tweeted Friday night.
Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka released a statement that read in part: “Senator Jerry Relph was a true friend and colleague loved by so many. For four years, he rolled up his sleeves and tackled tough issues for our state. Senator Relph will always be remembered as a dedicated public servant.”
I met the state senator several times at area events — from a vigil after the 2018 Pittsburgh synagogue shooting to large and small political gatherings. He was an intelligent man with a genial demeanor.
“Jerry was always optimistic and hopeful,” John Dvorak, chairman of Senate District 14 Republicans, told me Saturday morning. “He had a contagious smile that caused you to smile. He was deeply convicted in his beliefs and very passionate and selfless in his service as senator. Jerry would want us to carry on with our lives and live our lives to the fullest like he did.”
Jerry Relph is survived by two children, four step-children, and his wife, Pegi, who said, “he loved serving the people of St. Cloud in the Senate, and he cherished every minute of it. Jerry loved diving into the issues, finding compromise, and working together to solve problems and I have no doubt he would have continued solving problems outside the legislature.”
A.J. Kaufman is an Alpha News columnist. His work has appeared in the Baltimore Sun, Florida Sun-Sentinel, Indianapolis Star, Israel National News, Orange County Register, St. Cloud Times, Star-Tribune, and across AIM Media Midwest and the Internet. Kaufman previously worked as a school teacher and military historian.