Retired DFL state Rep. Joe Begich, who died on Saturday at 89, is being remembered by a newspaperman, by a fellow legislator and by his wife of more than six decades as a loyal champion of the people and a man of his word.
Former longtime Mesabi Daily News Executive Editor Bill Hanna, who writes a Sunday column in the MDN editorial section, talked about Begich in a telephone call. "When I first came to the Mesabi Daily News in 1985, one of the first Range politicians I met was Joe Begich. I knew the Iron Range was home to a lot of characters and had a lot of character. Joe was a fantastic character who embodied the Iron Range character of resiliency, loyalty and a fighting, never-give-up attitude."
Hanna said, "The stories about Joe are legendary in the halls of the State Capitol. Many of them will be shared among friends and colleagues in the coming days, over a beer or two. Heaven has gained one helluva man."
Retired DFL state Sen. Doug Johnson said by phone from his Lake Vermilion home, "The Iron Range has lost a true champion. I worked with Joe for many years, and his main focus was how could he help others and not himself. He was a true fighter for people."
Johnson, who retired in 2003 after serving five years as Cook mayor, six years in the Minnesota House of Representatives and 26 in the state Senate, added, "I also had many memorable fishing trips with Joe which I will never forget. Hopefully other legislators will follow in his footsteps to help the Iron Range."
Carolyn Bastianelli and Begich were married when he was still in the Army, 67 1/2 years ago, she said in a phone conversation. "He lived a good life, he did what he wanted to do. He always liked helping people."
Begich served in the Korean War and was recommended for a battlefield commission, but his major told him to decline. Begich took him at his word, and when he was getting off the ship, he heard the news of the deadly Battle of Heartbreak Ridge, Carolyn Begich said. "His regiment was nearly wiped out."
Her husband was known for keeping to his convictions. "People knew when he gave his word... and if he told you no, he meant no." Sometimes she and the wife of the late DFL state Rep. Dave Battaglia of Two Harbors would attend legislative sessions and she'd find herself wondering, "Joe, why did you do that?" And if she would later bring it up to him, he'd say, then she should run for office.
"People knew they could trust him," she said. She thought it ironic his longtime DFL colleague in the House of Representatives, Tom Rukavina, should die in the same year.
"He was an excellent husband and a very good father," Carolyn Begich said. They have a daughter Rebecca Heye, married to Robert Heye.
Joe Begich's parents immigrated from Croatia, and Joe's father was very proud to become an American citizen and he liked to carry the American flag, Carolyn Begich said. And Joe Begich was proud that his relatives in Alaska have carried on the tradition of Begiches being in politics.