When he was 13 years old, the director of public affairs for the Minnesota House DFL Caucus got run over by a train.
Andrew Wittenborg was on his way home from school one March afternoon, and he was climbing between boxcars – a maneuver he’d made successfully on more than one occasion – when the train started to move.
He stumbled and fell beneath the boxcar, and one of its wheels crushed his right leg.
“I thought I just had a broken leg and I’d be in a cast for a while,” Wittenborg says.
Instead, he ended up in traction, hospitalized for three months, while doctors tried to figure out how to reattach a leg that was still attached to his body only by one artery and a single nerve.
This was in 1980, in the days before successful limb reattachments were rare. “It was such an unusual procedure that the doctors were reading out of a French medical text while they did it,” Wittenborg says. Doctors repaired the damage in “a big patchwork fashion,” using a bone from his pelvis, an artery from his left leg and skin grafts. Instead of two major bones in his right leg, as most people have, he has “one big bone mass.”
And 30 years later, he remains convinced that he was lucky.
Not only did the accident happen a half-hour from Rochester, where he had access to the latest medical techniques, but he had two roommates during his convalescence who had lost limbs. Of the three, Wittenborg was the only one who kept his.
Luck has been a frequent visitor in Wittenborg’s life.
The first time he went fishing – with his father-in-law and his wife of five years, Anne Wittenborg – he caught a 46-inch, 25-pound muskie on his very first cast. Although the fish went right back into the water (“My father-in-law is a catch-and-release guy”), a photo on a cabinet in his caucus office of a beaming Wittenborg holding the fish bears testament. (The picture was taken by Anne, who has been fishing her whole life, and has never caught even one muskie, according to her husband, who might be forgiven for his slightly gloating tone.)
Anne, who works as an executive producer for a local TV station, is expecting the couple’s first child; her due date is May 18, right about the time that the 2010 Legislature is winding up its business.
“If you met his wife, you’d know he was the luckiest guy around,” says Andy Skoogman, communications director for the Minnesota Department of Public Safety, who says he owes his start in journalism to Wittenborg.
And possibly a little bit to timing.
“The first job I ever got in television, I credit to him,” Skoogman says. “He quit at KBJR-TV in Duluth in 1991, and I took his job after he left.
“We laugh about it now. I say that if it wasn’t for him, I never would have had a career in journalism.”
The fact that Wittenborg left his Duluth job so he could take a similar one in Mankato that allowed him to be closer to his mother, who had health problems, reveals the kind of person he is, Skoogman says.
“It tells you something about him, that he left to be closer to his mother so he could help her,” Skoogman says. “He’s probably the best manager I ever worked for in the broadcast world; he was fair, he was smart, level-headed, thoughtful, and he garnered a great deal of respect in that business.”
The 43-year-old Wittenborg grew up in Lake City, the birthplace of waterskiing (but without ever learning the sport himself). He has an older brother and sister, both of whom live in the Twin Cities now, along with their mother; his father died when he was 13, just months before his train accident.
He remembers being “the kid with the tape recorder,” doing interviews and creating his own radio shows as a child. “I grew up thinking I was going to be the next Don Shelby,” he says. “Later I went to work at WCCO-TV and realized that the real Don Shelby was still going strong, so I changed my focus a bit.”
He graduated from Luther College in Decorah, Iowa, lured there by its emphasis on writing. His first job out of college was the one that Skoogman eventually inherited; he worked as a reporter and weekend anchor at KBJR, then spent a few years as an anchor at a Mankato TV station before landing at KSTP-TV and later WCCO.
While working as executive producer of the special projects unit at Channel 4, “the policy wonk side of me started to come out,” Wittenborg says. “I liked working on the bigger projects that involved larger issues.”
He also knew that he didn’t want to spend his life in television, so when the DFL Caucus job came along in 2007, he took the bait.
“My goal in this job is to not be seen and heard,” he says. “Or if I am seen and heard, it’s just in small doses.
“I don’t expect to be out there in front anymore. It’s not about making sure I get in the paper, but helping [House] members get the word out and communicate to their constituents about what’s going on here.”
Pat Kessler, who covers politics for WCCO-TV and worked with Wittenborg during his time at the station, says the job is a perfect fit for his old colleague.
“Andrew used to be my boss, so this is a really wonderful opportunity for me to say exactly what I think,” Kessler says with a laugh. And what he thinks is this: “Andrew is a really good guy. That’s what he is: He’s just a good guy.”
Wittenborg’s experience as a working journalist makes him an excellent fit in his current position, Kessler believes.
“I think he’s adapted to this new endeavor of his almost seamlessly,” Kessler says. “There have been a couple of bumps, but it’s been mostly seamless.
“And Andrew has what I really value in a communications person: He not only knows what news is. More importantly, he knows what is not news.”
Those involved in politics – whether they’re campaigning or legislating – sometimes have a tendency to take things too personally, Kessler says. “Sometimes I’ll get people who say, ‘I thought we had a good working relationship,'” he says. “And sometimes Andrew and I have found ourselves in a somewhat adversarial relationship.
“But Andrew has the ability to understand news. I’ve done stories sometimes on Democrats, and he has to bear the brunt of complaints from members. Sometimes there’s some eye rolling on his part, or maybe a ‘What are you doing now?’ from him, but he never takes it out on me. He knows not to take it personally.”
Wittenborg agrees that his experience covering the Legislature and working elsewhere in Minnesota have helped in his current job.
“This job feels very vital to me,” he says. “What happens here impacts lives. I’ve always found interest and fulfillment in working on projects and finishing them, and it’s true here as well.
“I’m very happy in this job. I don’t expect to be at the Capitol for the rest of my life, but right now it’s a good fit.”