To the nation, Allan Spear will be remembered as the gay pioneer from Minnesota, the senator who came out to his constituents in 1974, the one who was only the second legislator in the entire country to do so, the one who helped shepherd landmark legislation that outlawed discrimination of the Lesbian Gay Bisexual Transgender community.
In some ways, those were his crowning achievements. They were surely the most obvious.
But in other ways, his greatest achievement might have been the little things, his steadfast, continuous work to build a better, accepting future for everybody.
"He had a unique ability to use politics and the strings of power on behalf of people who needed a voice," Sen. Scott Dibble (DFL-60) said. "He was an intellectual powerhouse."
Spear died Oct. 11 of complications after heart surgery. He was 71.
Spear graduated from Oberlin College in 1958, a tumultuous time for the United States. He embraced the challenges of change, involving himself in the Civil Rights movement and speaking out against the Vietnam War. A Jewish man who was gay during a time when few were openly so, he earned his doctorate from Yale University in African-American history.
Colleagues and friends alike recall a very educated man, one especially schooled in the past — for a reason.
"For him, it was the value of the past that informed the future," said Toni McNaron, a professor emeritus of English at the University of Minnesota, where she worked alongside Spear for more than three decades.
Spear started teaching history at the university in 1964. Eight years later, he made his first bid for a Senate seat. He won. He stayed for 28 years.
Two years into his tenure, Spear told a Minneapolis Star reporter he was gay.
"It seemed to me it was going to come out anyway," he later said to Oberlin’s alumni magazine. "I chose the reporter I gave the story to."
The confession drew heavy national attention, but the local response was "surprisingly mild," he said. In Minnesota, he never became known solely as the gay senator.
That didn’t mean he didn’t fight for more rights. Together with state Rep. Karen Clark (DFL-61A) and a small legion of volunteers, he pushed through the anti-discrimination legislation in 1993.
Dibble was one of the volunteers who helped get Spear to that moment, when he and Clark burst out of the chamber hand-in-hand, all smiles, excited and amazed at what had happened.
Years later, it was Spear who told Dibble to consider running for public office. It hadn’t even been a thought of Dibble’s until that moment.
"[Spear] planted the seed," he said. "He made me imagine I could do it."
Dibble isn’t alone with such a story. Even after Spear retired in 2000 from the Senate — where he had been Senate president since 1993 — his influence remained. He worked closely with many other current politicians, such as Speaker of the House Rep. Margaret Anderson Kelliher (DFL-60A), who had worked in Spear’s office before rising to her current position.
And while he was still entrenched in politics, Spear also mentored two generations’ worth of young historians.
"He was a super adviser," McNaron said.
Spear retired from teaching the same year he left the Senate. The university’s Steven J. Schochet Center for Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual and Transgender Studies honors his work by every year calling a speech in its Distinguished Lecture Series the Spear Lecture in Public Policy.
This year, Spear also was named one of the 150 most influential Minnesotans as part of the state’s 150th anniversary.
"He was able to achieve so much and win the admiration and respect of the institution," Dibble said. "He broke so much ground so much early. That wasn’t a given."