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goldie
22-12-13, 17:02
http://www.duluthnewstribune.com/event/article/id/286779/
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In his youth, Warner Wirta was one of the famed “Flying Finns” at Embarrass High School, a state champion in track and cross-country running.

Later on, Wirta was a teacher, a counselor to veterans, a leader in establishing the Duluth American Indian Commission and a frequent voice on the News Tribune Opinion page.

In athletics and in life, Wirta — who died Thursday at St. Luke’s hospital in Duluth at age 80 — was a very driven person, recalled high school teammate and longtime friend Marvin Lamppa.

“He was never a quitter. He was always in there, always game” as a runner, said Lamppa, an Iron Range historian who lives near Babbitt. After leaving close-knit Embarrass, Lamppa recalled Saturday, Wirta “saw a lot of injustice, and he felt everybody should have a fair deal.” That would fuel decades of civic involvement and frequent letter-writing.

Warner Wirta was born in 1933 in Embarrass; his father, Samuel, was Finnish and his mother, Clara, was Ojibwe. Family stories recount young Warner running from the time he took his first steps, and in high school he joined the track and cross-country programs founded and led by pioneer coach Niilo “Ed” Hendrickson.

“All we knew about those sports was from running on deer trails, cow trails and gravel roads,” Wirta told the News Tribune in 2008. “Ed put us together and, under his watchful eye, made us a well-oiled machine. We had this in ourselves and he brought it out.”

In an era when all schools in Minnesota, large and small, competed in a single class, the Flying Finns held their own against the big schools down south. In 1950, Wirta was second in the state cross-country meet. He won the state cross-country title in 1951, and in 1952 he won a state track title in the mile run.

The attention he received from running helped him make the connections needed to get to college. He graduated from Emporia State in Kansas after helping the school win consecutive NAIA cross-country team titles in 1958 and 1959.

Wirta returned to Northeastern Minnesota to teach — and gained increasing awareness of social injustice.

“When he started teaching in Orr in the 1960s, they didn’t expect Indian students to graduate,” Wirta’s widow, Martha, recalled Saturday. That didn’t sit well with Warner Wirta, a member of Bois Forte band. He joined efforts to improve opportunities for American Indian students at local and state levels.

After 13 years as a teacher, Wirta earned a master’s degree in social work at the University of Minnesota Duluth and went to work with fellow veterans in the Twin Ports at what was then the federal Veterans Administration.

In the early 2000s, Wirta took a leading role in creating Duluth’s American Indian Commission to serve as a voice for the city’s American Indian community. He was a founding member of that board.

And over the years his name became familiar to readers of the News Tribune through his frequent letters to the editor, on a wide range of local, national and international topics.

Wirta’s interest in news stemmed from his childhood during World War II.

“His folks talked (about current events),” Martha Wirta said. “That was their dinner conversation, what was going on in Europe. From then on he just stayed interested.”

“From the first time I knew him he was straightforward with his opinions, but not blunt,” Lamppa recalled. Wirta “had a wonderful sense of humor. We laughed a lot together over the years.”

Wirta had had some health problems in recent years; his last letter to the editor ran in the News Tribune in September. He was proud of his accomplishments and raising awareness of issues, Martha Wirta said, but “it wasn’t important that he had done it. Just that it had happened.”

Wirta is survived by his wife, three children, nine grandchildren and three great-grandchildren. A complete obituary will run in Sunday's News Tribune.