For Roy Terwilliger, a lifetime of community service – most of it in Eden Prairie – was sparked by his family’s involvement in a tiny town in South Dakota.
“One of my most vivid memories – I was 4 or 5 – was of an old guy who lived by himself in a tarpaper shack in town,” Terwilliger recalls. “His house caught on fire. The town fire truck wouldn’t start. My dad went over with his truck, his gas truck, (and) pulled the fire truck to the fire, so they could use the pumping mechanism and pour water on the fire. I didn’t go to the fire – I was with my mother. But my dad then came and got our car, went and put the guy in the back of the car, and drove 13 miles to the hospital. Had to stop and get gas in the car. I saw the guy – a terrible mess. You could see how burned he was.
“So, you witness that kind of community involvement – I get teary-eyed thinking about it – when you see that, that’s what it’s all about. That’s the kind of example I had for parents.”
Terwilliger’s contributions over his 85 years may be less dramatic, but important nonetheless.
He helped launch institutions like Eden Prairie Rotary, the Eden Prairie Community Foundation, and the Eden Prairie Crime Prevention Fund. He helped grow the Eden Prairie Chamber of Commerce and hire its first staff. He founded Eden Prairie’s first bank. He represented Eden Prairie in the Minnesota Senate for 10 years.
And, this fall, he will end his involvement as a founding board member of the nonprofit Eden Prairie Local News (EPLN), resurrected from the ashes of a 46-year-old community newspaper, the Eden Prairie News.
Humble to a fault, Terwilliger credits responsibility for making Eden Prairie one of the best cities in America to a circle of people that could be found at just about every meeting in the late-1970s and ’80s, as Eden Prairie was beginning its rapid growth: Paul Redpath, Sidney Pauly, Jerry McCoy, Billy Bye, Dean Edstrom, Don Brauer, Roger Ulstad, and several others.
“We moved here because of the community,” Terwilliger says, “and I was able to contribute in some small way.”
Terwilliger likes to joke that that town he grew up in, Winfred, S.D., was so small that ranking sixth in your class meant last place. Its 2020 population was 68 people; today, it’s 38. The nearest “big town” is Madison, population 7,249.
The fourth of four sons raised by Harold and Alice, Roy was exposed to his parents’ wide involvement in the community, including his father’s roles as school board clerk, political activist, and timekeeper at sporting events. He says his mother was also involved in many things.
“It was just kind of the thing to do,” says Roy.
Terwilliger would earn a bachelor’s degree in business administration from the University of South Dakota and a master’s in public administration from the University of Iowa. He served as a first lieutenant in the U.S. Army, helping provide security for missile sites in the Twin Cities, where he would meet his future wife and soulmate, Mary Lou.
He thought public administration would be his career, and he initially worked in Golden Valley for City Manager Roger Ulstad – who later became Eden Prairie’s city manager. Terwilliger led the South Dakota Chamber of Commerce, then worked for the American Bankers Association (ABA) in New York City and Washington, D.C.
But the ABA travel – to Europe and elsewhere – was a killer, especially since Roy and Mary Lou had started their family, eventually raising three children. In his last year with ABA, he traveled 33 weeks out of the year.
He considered opening a bank in South Dakota, but the towns he and Mary Lou considered didn’t have the strong school systems they craved.
A bank charter became available in soon-to-develop Eden Prairie – which had no bank at the time – and he jumped on the opportunity. It took two years to organize the bank, but fortunately, there was also a delay in building Eden Prairie Center that helped accommodate the opening of Suburban National Bank in the mall in 1976.
“The bank took off pretty good,” says Terwilliger. “People were looking for convenience.”
Sidney Pauly, who served on the Eden Prairie City Council and later represented EP in the Minnesota House, recalls a ceremony to “christen” the new building erected by Suburban National Bank, now home to U.S. Bank, which later purchased Terwilliger’s bank. Three bottles of champagne were hung with ribbons near a corner of the building, and Pauly and two other dignitaries were anointed to christen the bank’s new home.
“The first person swings his bottle at the post. Nothing,” Pauly recalls. “He swings the bottle several times, sometimes missing entirely, before finally cracking the bottle, some champagne oozing out.
“Second person; same thing. Another dud. I am watching and learning, so when my time comes, I lean way back, then swing that champagne bottle as hard as I can – and it literally explodes, spraying fizzy, wet champagne and pieces of glass over everyone!”
Active during EP’s boom years
Local involvement is pretty much a requirement of community banking, but Terwilliger’s peers say his work to help build Eden Prairie was a cut above. Pauly remembers Ulstad giving local leaders a “heads-up” that a gentleman and a joiner would bring more than a bank to Eden Prairie.
Almost immediately, Terwilliger became part of a group of community leaders, probably fewer than two dozen in number, that created and grew organizations like Eden Prairie Rotary, the chamber of commerce, the community foundation, and the Crime Fund – sometimes using nearby Edina as a model.
He became part of a citizens committee that helped coordinate rapidly increasing development and served as a liaison between the city and large companies already in Eden Prairie, such as Eaton Corp. and Rosemount.
“The community leaders really worked well together. I guess I thought that was unusual,” he says. “They really had a common goal: Work together to make Eden Prairie a model community.”
Don Brauer, an Edina resident who helped charter Eden Prairie A.M. Rotary, was hired to help provide the city with a long-range plan for its commercial area – loosely called the Major Center Area – surrounding the shopping mall.
Jerry McCoy was hired as superintendent of Eden Prairie Schools, embarking on an enviable record of positive community referendum votes to build new schools and fund the district. Community events like the Foundation Ball tied together residents and businesses. Terwilliger’s bank organized an annual recognition of community leaders and volunteers.
The late-1970s and ’80s were heady times for Eden Prairie.
Terwilliger’s role in many of those activities cannot be overestimated.
“His legacy is the fact that he was always available and always trying to build to make things better,” says McCoy.
Politics and more
Terwilliger also served Eden Prairie in elective office. He won a special election and took office in January 1992 to fill a seat in the Minnesota Senate formerly held by Don Storm, who had been picked to lead the Minnesota Public Utilities Commission.
A moderate Republican, Terwilliger would continue to serve Eden Prairie and Edina, where he lived through 2002. He sought his party’s endorsement for election to the U.S. Senate in 1996 and made a bid for governor in 1998, unsuccessful in both attempts.
These were busy times, but it didn’t feel like Roy’s time with his wife and three kids suffered, says son Mike Terwilliger, now an Eden Prairie school teacher and coach of the high school boys hockey team.
Mike played collegiate hockey in New York state, 18 hours away from home, but remembers that his dad drove relentlessly to attend 19 games over four years.
In 2003, Terwilliger was picked by then Gov. Tim Pawlenty to lead the Metropolitan Sports Facilities Commission. He laid some groundwork for the new Vikings stadium, built after Ted Mondale was named Terwilliger’s successor in 2011.
After political life, Terwilliger continued to be involved in Eden Prairie civic organizations like A.M. Rotary, where a legacy fund was started in his name, and the Eden Prairie Community Foundation, which he helped in raising a $600,000 endowment fund, as well as working for the Minnesota Bankers Association.
He is a founding member of the nonprofit news start-up Eden Prairie Local News (EPLN). In October, he will complete his term as EPLN Board director.
Now a widower and having endured a number of health scares, Terwilliger spends a lot of time with his children and grandchildren.
He still believes the strength of Eden Prairie is people working in harmony.
“I know that he’s loved being part of the EP community since the 1970s,” notes son Mike. “He’s proud to have worked with so many people and proud of the friendships he’s formed during those times.
“I think he takes particular pride in how Suburban National Bank helped get a lot of small businesses in town off the ground and helped a lot of families get a new home. I’m often stopped by people who tell me that my dad and the bank supported their business or family many years ago and how that helped them get to where they are today.
“He’s pretty humble about his accomplishments and doesn’t talk about all he’s achieved,” adds Mike. “It’s that good ol’ small town South Dakota upbringing.”
“As I look at the things I can feel best about, it’s being at the scene to help,” says Roy, hearkening back to that childhood tragedy that is seared in his memory.
“It’s been a great community, great people. I’m just pleased I could be at the table.”
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