Betty Wilson, tenacious and respected Star Tribune political reporter, has died at 99

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Betty Wilson, a tireless politics and government reporter for the Minneapolis Star — and later the Star Tribune — who earned the nickname “Queen of the Scoop” for numerous groundbreaking stories in the 1970s and ’80s, died Dec. 21 at Ebenezer Ridges Care Center in Burnsville. She was 99.

Mark Wilson of Apple Valley, one of her two surviving sons, said she fell in October and broke her hip, and had been in declining health since then.

Wilson was married with children, and writing press releases for the Bloomington Mothers Club, when the Richfield-Bloomington News hired her in the 1950s. After moving to the Bloomington Sun, she was hired by the Star in 1968 to bolster suburban coverage.

Before long the Star assigned her to the State Capitol, where she covered the triumphs and shenanigans of Minnesota politicians until she retired in 1991.

“She was dogged,” said Tom Triplett, who served as Minnesota’s commissioner of both the finance and revenue departments under Gov. Rudy Perpich in the late 1980s. “She was graciously tenacious,” said Cathy Wurzer of Minnesota Public Radio and co-host of Almanac on TPT.

“She had a unique way of extracting the information even if the source of the information didn’t want to give up the whole story,” said John Stanoch who chaired Perpich’s 1990 losing bid for re-election. “She asked these open-ended questions, making you reflect whether she already knew the answer and was testing you.

“I had so much respect for her as a journalist. I never wanted to withhold from her because of her unique technique, and I wanted to earn and maintain her respect.”

Wilson grew up on her parents’ cattle ranch in Oklahoma, rode a pony to grade school and later graduated from the University of Oklahoma where she studied accounting. She moved to Minnesota when her husband, Cecil Wilson, who she later divorced, got a job in the Twin Cities as an airline mechanic.

But Wilson “wanted to be more than a housewife,” said son Rod Wilson, of Eden Prairie. While still working for the Sun, she went back to school and earned a master’s degree in journalism and political science at the University of Minnesota in 1969.

“She was worried she couldn’t keep with all these young bright students who were 20 years younger,” said Rod Wilson, who added that his mother often hauled her young sons around with her while covering council meetings.

Suburban coverage was the Star’s niche when it hired Wilson in 1968, said Larry Fuller, the paper’s former city editor.

“We viewed Sun Newspapers as our competition,” Fuller said. “We considered it somewhat of a coup to hire Betty. She immediately started a column on the suburbs. She was absolutely tireless in terms of her desire to keep on top of everything from every suburb. There was nobody like her.”

After Wilson moved to the State Capitol in 1974, she became “a role model for young reporters,” said Almanac co-host Eric Eskola, who for years covered state politics for WCCO radio.

Among Wilson’s scoops was Democratic presidential nominee Jimmy Carter’s decision to name U.S. Sen. Walter Mondale of Minnesota as his running mate on what would be the winning ticket in 1976.

“She worked long hours and was the best sourced reporter I ever worked with,” said Lori Studevant, a former Star Tribune reporter and editorial writer who at one point was Wilson’s editor.

Dane Smith, who covered politics for 30 years for the St. Paul Pioneer Press and the Star Tribune, called Wilson “one of the most fiercely competitive journalists I have ever known.”

Wilson did not like being excluded from events. In 1974, she and MPR reporter Dulcie Lawrence made a point of pressing Gov. Wendell Anderson for an invitation to the all-male Governor’s Fishing Opener. They were finally invited at the last minute — and then chose not to go.

“It was really a matter of principle,” Wilson later told Minnesota Law & Politics magazine. “All they do at these things is get drunk and play cards.”

In 1990, she received the Alumni Award for Excellence from the U’s School of Journalism and Mass Communication. Wilson, who covered all 10 years of Perpich’s tenure as governor, published a biography entitled “Rudy! the People’s Governor” in 2005.

Besides her two sons, Wilson is survived by four grandsons. Her oldest son, Robert, died of multiple sclerosis in 1988. A memorial service will be held at 11 a.m. on Feb. 3 at St. Andrew Lutheran Church, 13600 Technology Dr., Eden Prairie, with visitation beginning at 10 a.m.

According to Eskola, legendary New York Times reporter R.W. Apple Jr. flew to the Twin Cities in 1976 for the Republican State Convention. When Eskola asked what brought him to St. Paul, Apple replied: “Have dinner at the Blue Horse and talk with Betty Wilson.”

Staff news researcher John Wareham contributed to this article.

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