Remembering the Life of Rice Lake Mayor John Werner

RICE LAKE, Minn. – On Saturday, the Mayor of Rice Lake, John S. Werner passed away after years of battling cancer. Werner was a lifelong resident of Rice Lake and served as its first mayor since 2015 when the town became a city. Before that, he was the Town Board Supervisor.

Friends of Werner tell us John was a visionary, summoning projects like City Hall additions, a Veterans Memorial Park, upgrading city equipment, and was instrumental in putting together the U.S.S Duluth Anchor on the Lakewalk.

“Everywhere you go there’s John from this room that used to be an office room and he just had that vision and all of a sudden, walls are getting knocked out and now we have a beautiful conference room,” Rice Lake Vice Mayor, Suzanne Herstad says.

“One of his lines was, “Never mind the horses just load the wagon.” And you never said no to John, you didn’t even know you were saying yes. He would come say, “Well here is what we are going to do.” And then you would look around a little bit later and hell, he’s not there. Well, I got a job to do. I mean he just did that,” Friend of John Werner, Tom Vukelich says.

Tom Vukelich first met Werner in High School, where they developed a friendship through Boy Scouts. He says Werner was passionate about history and woodwork, always crafting something whether it was bird houses, cabinets, or the desk the Rice Lake City Council sits behind.

“Just an overall guy that you could sit down and have a conversation with virtually about anything and if you really wanted to know something about history, you’d ask John,” Vukelich says.

Vukelich says through all the work Werner put in, he stayed humble and never sought recognition.

“He wouldn’t talk about himself it was always what about you. Looking forward, never looking backwards,” Vukelich says.

“He would always tell us family’s first. If you have something that has to do with family, if your kids have a game or whatever it may be. If your child is ill, family first and that was just John,” Herstad says.

A member of the 82nd Airborne, Werner served multiple tours in the military, and at one point took on the opportunity to repel off the Radisson hotel in Duluth. He valued the military population and proclaimed the city of Rice Lake a Purple Heart City. Those close to him tell us Werner’s military training attributed to his success as a leader.

“He was a warrior; I mean this man it was just his drive to not bring recognition to himself, but he wanted to take care of everybody else. For us, serving with him, the rest of the council we leaned on him heavily to guild us through a lot of the unknowns. He knew about this city; he knows everything about this city,” Herstad says.

Before his passing, Werner and City staff created a list of project ideas and plans to implement them over the next ten years.

The Rice Lake City Council is set to have a meeting Monday evening to discuss the next steps in Werner’s absence.

“It’s all, it’s just John. I don’t know, it’s kind of like having a nice blanket. You know, you can always count on having John around to be there, and now he’s not and the city is going to be, I hope it’s still in good hands, I believe it is. We have great people here. I hope that the vision is clear enough for those that are currently here to carry it forward,” Vukelich says.

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