They sometimes called him The Bürgermeister – which translates to “town master,” or mayor – as a nod to Wolfgang Penzel’s Eden Prairie elected role and his German heritage.
“I used it affectionately and humorously,” recalled Dean Edstrom, who served on the Eden Prairie City Council when Penzel was mayor. “He was a really good mayor, in my view. A strong mayor. He would exercise his authority to the max, and I think that was good.”
Penzel, who served as Eden Prairie mayor in the late-1970s and early ‘80s, passed away on Oct. 7 after struggling with kidney and heart failure. He was 82 years old.
A funeral was held on Oct. 16 at Rainbow Springs Village Church in Dunnellon, Fla., where he lived in retirement. A public memorial service for Wolf Penzel will be held in Eden Prairie on Saturday, Nov. 12, at 1 p.m. at Prairie Hill Evangelical Free Church, 17200 Valley View Road.
Penzel was Eden Prairie’s mayor from 1976 to 1984, according to the city’s website, and a city council member prior to that. He helped lead Eden Prairie during the front end of its development and population boom. The suburb grew by about 10,000 residents in the 1970s and by more than 23,000 residents in the 1980s, according to the U.S. Census.
Eden Prairie was the Twin Cities region’s fifth-fastest growing city, in population, between 1970 and 2015, according to the Metropolitan Council, and it occasionally ranked No. 1 in the 1980s.
Public hearings on development proposals were both numerous and lengthy during council meetings held in what is now the Eden Prairie Senior Center, and Penzel was known for running the proceedings briskly but orderly.
One of Wolf’s favorite stories about Eden Prairie’s development, according to his son Rolf, was that developers would bitterly oppose the city’s requirement that they help pay for parks, trails, and other amenities, then ironically market their commercial or residential projects by touting the beauty of nearby parks, trails, and open space. Edstrom finds the anecdote “wisely accurate.”
Roy Terwilliger was an Eden Prairie banker and civic leader during the Penzel era. His bank provided loans to developers of more than 30 subdivisions, Terwilliger estimates, so he gained a view of Eden Prairie’s development from a non-city angle.
“I thought Wolf did an excellent job” as mayor, he said. “He was firm in his opinions. But at the same time, he was fair.
“I developed a real unique relationship with Wolf. He was a kind soul.”
Influenced by his upbringing
Wolf was born in Berlin in World War II, according to his son Rolf, and was the son of a conscripted German army soldier, without Nazi Party affiliation, who had fought on the Russian front during the war. The family settled in the American sector of Berlin following the war, and threats of Russian takeover of Berlin convinced the family to emigrate to the United States in 1959. Wolf would have been 19 years old. He soon attended the University of Minnesota and became a chemist.
Soviet aggression combined with having family living in communist East Germany influenced Wolf’s conservative philosophy, said his son.
“It also bred in him a strong pro-capitalist, do-it-yourself mentality. He worked and served tirelessly to support his family and also the community through various organizations such as the Jaycees, city Planning Commission, Christian schools, and the churches he attended,” noted Rolf.
His conservative beliefs translated into him becoming deeply involved in politics in the early 1960s, working on political campaigns for the Republican Party, according to his son. After moving to then-rural Eden Prairie in 1967, he volunteered to serve on the city planning commission. Wolf decided to run for office in 1969 and was elected as a councilman beginning in 1970, his son added, later serving as mayor until losing an election to Gary Peterson, an Eden Prairie minister.
Penzel’s conservative philosophy was opposite from that of Edstrom, but the two found common ground. “When it came to city stuff, we were just in agreement, practically all the time,” recalled Edstrom.
Among the city’s accomplishments under Penzel’s leadership was the construction of the Eden Prairie Community Center. Penzel presided over its grand opening in February 1982, dedicating the pool with waters from the Atlantic and Pacific oceans, according to the local newspaper of the time, the Eden Prairie News.
Penzel and other leaders of that era also settled a lawsuit between the city and Eden Prairie Schools over the future alignment of Valley View Road as the boundary between Round Lake Park and the new Eden Prairie High School.
“What he was most proud of was creating something unique, which is a city that has a multitude of parks, green spaces, trails, and maintained the existing beauty of woodlands and prairies while creating a diverse infrastructure that included commercial and residential areas without them interfering with each other,” son Rolf wrote in an email. “In addition, it provided for the needs of both by including a new city center (Eden Prairie Center and the surrounding businesses) and partnering with Chanhassen and Chaska to establish the best public transportation in Minnesota with SouthWest Metro Transit.”
It was, says Edstrom, “a period of great accomplishment.”
After Penzel left office, he continued to serve the community. He was a school board member of Chapel Hill Academy and helped build and maintain Prairie Hill Church, his son noted.
In 2005, Wolf and his wife Alleene moved to Silver Springs, Fla. Wolf was a longtime admirer of recreational vehicles (RV’s); he and Alleene spent much of each year driving a 40-foot-long RV coach across the country until Alleene fell ill with cancer in 2012.
Until his passing on Oct. 7, Wolf continued to serve others in many capacities, including as a deacon and church elder.
Editors note: Read the Wolfgang Penzel obituary published Oct. 18 by Eden Prairie Local News.
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