Dennis Walaker, the mayor of Fargo, N.D. who led his city through several years of near-catastrophic flooding of the Red River, died Tuesday at his home after a battle with kidney cancer. He was 73.
The Fargo Forum reports that Walaker was in the hospital over the weekend due to a reaction to his chemotherapy, and checked out of the hospital earlier in the day. He died unexpectedly at home about 7 p.m., according to Deputy Mayor Tim Mahoney, who was with Walaker when he died.
Walaker first began working for the city of Fargo in 1974, when he was hired as a civil engineer. He was the city's operations manager in 1997, when the Fargo-Moorhead area suffered through the worst flood on record at the time. Walaker was widely praised for his handling of the flood then.
He was first elected mayor in 2006, and became somewhat of a folk hero for his leadership during the record-setting flood in 2009 when he resisted pressure from federal officials to evacuate the city.
Former U.S. Sen. Byron Dorgan called Walaker “a big man with a big heart,” according to the Associated Press.
“He was a tower of strength during very dangerous and difficult times for Fargo,” Dorgan said. “It isn’t an overstatement that his good judgment and strong leadership had a lot to do with saving the city.”
North Dakota Gov. Jack Dalrymple released a statement expressing is condolences.
“Denny has been an outstanding mayor for many years, and has overseen his city during a period of remarkable growth," said Dalrymple in a statement. "He will always be remembered for his leadership and his skill in holding back the Red River during major flooding. Our prayers are with his family and his many friends.”
Walaker, who won re-election in 2010 and again this year, also led Fargo's flood mitigation efforts, which have significantly reduced the chances of major damage from future flooding.
Mahoney, the deputy mayor, will take over Walaker's duties on a temporary basis. He said city officials will meet Monday to discuss the process for choosing a new mayor. The city's charter requires a special election to fill the vacancy, according to the Forum.