The Al of the Possible

Trustee helps put St. Thomas on the (Minneapolis) map

Al Hofstede is drawing figures on a white board: possible partnerships, calculations of cost-per-square-foot, a grid of downtown Minneapolis. The hourlong conversation between the government affairs consultant and St. Thomas administrators reveals a shifting mosaic of possibilities for further development of the Minneapolis campus, including underground parking, a law school and other academic buildings, green space, affordable housing, student residences and other amenities.

"He has a can-do attitude," said Doug Hennes, vice president of university and government relations, of the former Minneapolis mayor and current St. Thomas trustee. "He never says, ‘No.’ He always says, ‘We’ll try.’"

Hofstede ’64 began his long life in politics — which includes service in Gov. Karl Rolvaag’s administration, four years on the Minneapolis City Council, chairmanship of the Metropolitan Council and two terms as mayor of the state’s largest city — as a student at St. Thomas in the early 1960s.

"While I was in school, I met Father Alan Moss, the priest at St. Anthony of Padua," Hofstede remembered. "They were going to put a highway through northeast Minneapolis, and Father Moss got it moved on the condition that there would be an urban renewal project there instead. That became St. Anthony West."

With classmates Dick Miller and Joe Strauss, Hofstede started working part-time on the project, helping to revitalize his home community. "I was never the type to sit back and watch," Hofstede said. "You have to take action."

Hofstede was in his early 30s when he became Minneapolis’ youngest — and first Catholic — mayor in 1974; he served a second term from 1978 to 1980. "I always felt that there was a lot that needed to be done, and I made a commitment to help change things but also to work within the system," he said when selected to receive the Distinguished Alumnus Award in 1992.

Hofstede views public office not as a job but as a "commitment you make." He was able to move out of the public spotlight gracefully "because it wasn’t my job." Hofstede believes that "there’s a time to come and a time to go. You have to recognize when it’s time to let someone else take the reins."

After 14 years in public office, Hofstede left city hall in 1981 to start North State Advisers, a government relations consulting firm where he uses his political skills and experience to help St. Thomas and other clients work successfully with city and state lawmakers.

"People think of lobbyists as shady characters twisting arms in smoke-filled back rooms," Hofstede said, "but a good share of my time is spent convincing clients that things can’t be done that way." Instead, government relations takes "a lot of conversation, a lot of back and forth." Having held public office himself, Hofstede has a good sense of what elected officials can and can’t do. "Never politically embarrass anyone" is his operating philosophy.

This sensitivity to the concerns and compromises inherent in public life has won Hofstede fans among seated politicians.

"He is one of the most effective lobbyists I know," said Jackie Cherryhomes, president of the Minneapolis City Council. "Al knows when to push you and when to leave you alone."

Hofstede began helping the university navigate the halls of government in the early 1980s as a favor to his friend, Monsignor Terrence Murphy, then president of St. Thomas. "Murphy would call and say, ‘I just want to ask you one question, Al. I just want you to do one thing,’" Hofstede remembered.

Interested in helping St. Thomas expand offerings to working students, Hofstede helped convince the Minneapolis Downtown Council to poll downtown workers on their need for continuing education. The study revealed strong interest in graduate business courses; St. Thomas began offering classes at the former Powers Department Store on the corner of Fifth Street and Nicollet Mall in 1987.

When he joined the St. Thomas board of trustees in 1988, Hofstede already had played a key role in helping the university establish its Minneapolis campus. Things look smooth now, Hofstede said, but "there were a lot of scary moments, a lot of conversations" during the complex negotiations over building the Graduate School of Business home at 1000 LaSalle Ave. The separation of church and state came up, Hofstede said, but "we agreed to disagree" with a few members of the Minneapolis City Council and the building project went ahead.

Hofstede said that it’s too soon to tell how plans for the School of Law building and further expansion of the Minneapolis campus will turn out. Regardless of the outcome, Hofstede thinks that the urban centers of Minneapolis and St. Paul will survive because of universities like St. Thomas and the leaders they produce.

"St. Thomas is a leader in keeping standards high," he said. "Not just academic standards but how you treat people. Because of the Judeo-Christian principles integral to a St. Thomas education, students gain not just knowledge but also an understanding of how to use it in an ethical way."

Hofstede realizes that "government isn’t the only way to help people." Through a church-community partnership, Hofstede was instrumental in establishing Catholic Eldercare, a nursing home and assisted-living facility in northeast Minneapolis. He has chaired the board of directors of the Minneapolis Public Housing Authority and the archdiocesan Catholic Charities. He also has been active with St. Joseph’s Home for Children and recently chaired a study group on teenage prostitution. "Kids and the elderly are the most vulnerable in our society," he said.

"Al’s sense of social justice is spectacular," said Monsignor J. Jerome Boxleitner, recently retired head of Catholic Charities, where Hofstede was a long-serving board member. "He translates his commitment to the Church into his everyday life."

Social issues likely will take even more of Hofstede’s time as he leaves the St. Thomas board later this year, but he intends to remain active. "I want to use whatever talents I have to help enhance this great resource," he said. He has enjoyed his 12 years as a trustee in large part for the opportunity to work with other board members.

"You learn that they are really genuine people. You see how they have come to run the companies and lead the organizations they do. Life’s not a straight line for any of us. There are many a decision, many a challenge, many a sleepless night," he said.

Hofstede has had his own challenges, losing his first wife to cancer when she was 44. Left as the single parent of a 6 and an 8 year-old, he learned the importance of family and of balance in life. Albert Jr. and Emily are a freshman and a junior at St. Thomas, respectively, and Hofstede considers himself blessed to have found a "beautiful woman," his wife, Florence, to share his life. The couple spends considerable time at their cabin in northern Wisconsin.

"Deep down I’m a tree-hugger," Hofstede says, "a true environmentalist. There’s nothing like planting a tree."

Through his life, it appears that Al Hofstede has planted a lot more.

 Albert J. Hofstede and St. Thomas• Earned a bachelor’s degree in biology and chemistry in 1964.• Elected to the board of trustees in 1988, he serves on the Academic Affairs, Board Affairs, Executive, Finance and Institutional Diversity committees.• Received the Distinguished Alumnus Award in 1992.• Member of the advisory board that recommended reopening the St. Thomas School of Law.• Has watched St. Thomas grow "geometrically" and sees the university’s greatest challenge as managing growth without losing the "spirit" of the institution.• Believes that all personal and professional success can be traced back to the "faith foundation that you learn at a school like St. Thomas."