Remembering Bill Ojala, radical conscience of the Iron Range

Bill Ojala, in his 1973 legislative photo.

Bill Ojala, a former Iron Range legislator and later gadfly social justice activist, died last Saturday at the age of 92. John Lundy of the Duluth News Tribune penned a good obituary (“‘A true son of the Iron Range’: Lawyer, politician Bill Ojala dies at 92“) in yesterday’s paper.

Ojala, descended from Finnish-American immigrants on the Mesabi Iron Range, was a guy I wish I had gotten to know. It never happened. His prime and mine didn’t line up. Ojala served briefly in the state House of Representatives, elected in 1970 and ’72. Those were consequential years in Iron Range politics, though. The rise of the Perpich dynasty was in full swing. Rudy Perpich and his brothers George and Tony, Doug Johnson and others developed plans to capture the momentum of the taconite boom.

Ojala was allied with the Perpiches, united by progressive economic politics but also by their locally-controversial opposition to the Vietnam War. Ojala, also a lawyer, didn’t pay federal income taxes during the latter Vietnam years as a protest, a move that led to the suspension of his law license.

Ultimately, Ojala found himself isolated from the Range DFL for his purity on social justice and other liberal issues. He would leave the legislature and the law behind in 1974. With the retirement of John Blatnik that year, Ojala challenged the DFL candidate for Congress Jim Oberstar by starting the Economic Justice Party. The effort failed to disrupt the Iron Range DFL juggernaut, however.

Ojala did return for a stint as Aurora’s mayor in the 2000s. He spent his later years driving a school bus for the Mesabi East district. He volunteered to drive extracurricular buses and was a fixture in the stands and sidelines of Mesabi East games.

A WWII veteran, Ojala was very active in Iron Range Veterans for Peace. He also got on the Tonight Show with Johnny Carson in 1983 for teaching his dog how to do math.

I’ve got several of Ojala’s historical essays in my research files. I would describe them as strident, earnest, principled, with a quirky edge. That seems an apt description for the man himself.

UPDATE: I was going through some of those old files and found this excerpt from a 1975 labor pamphlet by Ojala. This was from an introduction to a piece about the Mesabi IWW strike of 1916:

Today, the mining companies have discarded the crude methods of the past. Now, they control thought and economic and political activity through more subtle and perfidious means. They have their friends in the legislature who campaign for office as friends of the man in the street — and vote the mining-company interests. They are newscasters like Earl Henton, who prostitute their popularity for the purpose of issuing a constant stream of mining-company propaganda. They create economic development groups that have a poor record for creating “new” jobs — but a good record for touting the mining-company position.

And so it goes. The never-ending struggle for the control of men’s souls continues. Some progress has been made. A review of the old papers show that there has been substantial improvement in the area of human relations and working conditions and wages.

But the larger issues are now before us: The war and its profit to industry and degrading effect on all of us; pollution of our environment and its threat to our survival; the plea for profits and “jobs,” which if carried to its logical conclusion, would take all of us down the road to economic and political slavery.

These problems are crying out for solution. Time is running out. But an enlightened and free people can find the way.


  1. Thanks Aaron

  2. ” the plea for “jobs,” which if carried to its logical conclusion, would take all of us down the road to economic and political slavery”. We’d have to ask ole Bill to expand on this a bit. Sounds like a real nut job.

    • Only a true nut job would call a man who’d just passed away a nut job just days after his death, with his family and friends grieving. Bill would forgive you, though. He was a generous person of deep grace and decency. His economic philosophy is a matter of little consequence at this time of loss. Bill would recommend you find your heart, Ranger47. It’s still in there somewhere he’d bet.

      • I’ll grant you, it’s politically incorrect to speak ill of a person in the immediate aftermath of their death, fortunately this belief does not hold sway for the long term or otherwise, we’d have no recorded history.

        So…1) I’m clearly with the majority of Rangers and known for lack of political correctness. If I’ve offended some non-Rangers who might be reading this, I apologize, but it’s the way we are. 2) In today’s internet time frame, people are fair game hours after passing, especially public figures. Their policies affect all our lives. 3) Bill might have been a wonderful neighbor but history confirming the truth, we all know his political (nut job) preachings have led to disaster in every country they’ve been implemented.

        From the way you describe Bill, my guess is you’re correct. If he felt offended, he’d probably forgive me. I’d also guess he’d love to have known me. Rauha olkoon kanssasi, Bill..

        • I’m a Ranger, Bob. I was offended. This response is trashy rationalization. (When it doubt make it “us vs. them”). I don’t require that we deify the dead, but I think we’d all be better served in treating each other with respect.

          • It would be nice, but only in Brigadoon, Neverland and Heaven is respect the norm Aaron. As we know, disrespect was encouraged (successfully) for eight years by Obama and grown exponentially this past year against Trump.

            For example:
            “If you’ve got a business – you didn’t build that. Somebody else made that happen.”

            “But I don’t want the folks who created the mess to do a lot of talking. I want them to get out of the way so we can clean up the mess. I don’t mind cleaning up after them, but don’t do a lot of talking.”

            “No, no. I have been practicing…I bowled a 129. It’s like — it was like Special Olympics, or something.”

            “For the first time in my adult lifetime, I am really proud of my country.”

            “I don’t know, not having been there and not seeing all the facts, but I think it’s fair to say, that the Cambridge police acted stupidly.”

            “America is still the No. 1 killer in the world.”

            “…and then wants us to sing ‘God Bless America.’ No, no, no, God d*mn America!”

            So….in the meantime, ’til we get to Brigadoon, Neverland or Heaven, we learn to accept being a Deplorable.

    • Justin Mattson says

      Bill was my neighbor when I lived in Aurora. I never knew him as a politician, but only as a kind caring community member. His family hosted multiple foreign exchange students. He always bought books for my wife’s classroom when the school had a book fair. He would come take pictures for the Range Times of my students’ science projects and was generally interested and excited in seeing them. This was all when he would have been in his eighties.

      Ranger47 if you are making the choice to share your negative opinions about a dedicated community member of Aurora you should show the courage and decency to use your actual name. Otherwise you are nothing more than an anonymous bully, whose thoughts do not deserve a response. The only reason I choose to write is because I knew Bill and he was a good caring man who deserved better than the anonymous slander of an internet troll.

  3. Paul Ojanen says

    He was describing the very problem now. You yourself are symptomatic of what he spoke of, where you tout their interest like a human advertisement completely unaware of any alternative. You are completely “captured” in mind, incapable of an original thought and spouting the industry’s desires as if a law of nature. I am not being sarcastic or condemning; I am actually describing a very real state of being. You, and many others, unconsciously believe the owner’s interests and yours are the same. In fact as workers and communities you are merely incidental costs. Once found unnecessary, much like the worker’s pensions of LTV, National Steel or Butler , or (to remind everyone) as communities abandoned by those owners requiring years of government subsidy and activity to place anything there with no planned reclamation, you are dumped. (See Essar, Mesabi Nugget and the current Holy Grail, Polymet.) He actually described the future quite well, especially considering the environment as it was then with hundred dollar bills falling from the sky and the delusion believable. Politically, the Range delegation is nothing more than publicly paid puppets for the industry while state agencies and a congressman operate as their handmaidens, what we might call “political slavery.” The same is true for “jobs”, where the industry is seen as the “lifeblood” and if it were to close, be the death of the communities…i.e “economic slavery.” The man was obviously astute, and, unlike many of the current office holders, capable of moral stances either unpopular and/or degrading to his own financial benefit. There weren’t many like him, and we could definitely use more like him now.

  4. Norshorguy says

    The Ranger does is a devoted student of authoritarian rhetoric and despite his his self-proclaimed God-fearing, Pro-American bonfides, he is particularly taken with the tactics of the old Soviet Union. His example above is classic whataboutism: a fallacy with roots in the old Soviet propaganda that shifts any given topic to another, potentially irrelevant one. It implies that all actions regardless of context share a moral equivalency. And, since nobody is perfect, all criticism is hypocritical and everyone should do whatever they want. It doesn’t solve a problem or win an argument. The point is just to muddy the waters, which just makes the other side mad. Since, Ranger has often shown his imperviousness to irony…once again, there it is.

  5. Keep up the good work Aaron. I enjoyed the excerpt written by Bill Ojala posted above. I suspect a lot of his opinions were not well received in the time he delivered them. Being given the ability to examine them in retrospect I imagine he would appreciate a significant amount of vindication currently and likely much more as time goes on. We need more men like him who are eager to think critically, to challenge the status quo and to deliver opinion shaped from a position of compassion. We need men like these to seek positions in public service. It seems as though his breed are not just rare, but more less extinct at this point, although that may just be apathy derived from the current political climate talking.

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