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North Dakota's largest city mourning the death of 3-term mayor who tried to flood-proof Fargo

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FARGO, North Dakota — One way to honor Fargo's three-term mayor and longtime public works director Dennis Walaker would be to continue his efforts to protect the city from flooding, city officials said Wednesday.

Walaker, 73, died Tuesday at his home, several months after he was diagnosed with kidney cancer. He told city employees that he was returning to work this week after spending a couple of days in the hospital for an adverse reaction to chemotherapy.

"He felt that his tests were doing well," Deputy Mayor Tim Mahoney said. "We don't know if maybe he was in denial, but he was always going to beat it."

Walaker was known for beating Red River floods. He was the emotional leader when residents undertook massive sandbagging efforts in four out of five years beginning with a record flood in 2009. And he was a fierce promoter of a planned Red River diversion project that could end the nearly annual spring ritual.

Mahoney, who was meeting Wednesday with members of the state Water Commission to discuss flooding and other issues, said Walaker's death should not deter diversion supporters.

"I would hope we keep our momentum and go forward," he said. "Maybe it will get some more vigor out of respect for Denny to keep it going."

PHOTO: FILE - In this Tuesday, June 10, 2014 file photo, Mayor Dennis Walaker waits to go on live television in Fargo, N.D. while he celebrated his re-election for a third term in the North Dakota primary election. Walaker, the man known as the "flood mayor" for leading the state’s largest city through several successful fights against the Red River, died Tuesday, Dec. 2, 2014 at his home, city officials said. (AP Photo/Bruce Crummy)
FILE - In this Tuesday, June 10, 2014 file photo, Mayor Dennis Walaker waits to go on live television in Fargo, N.D. while he celebrated his re-election for a third term in the North Dakota primary election. Walaker, the man known as the "flood mayor" for leading the state’s largest city through several successful fights against the Red River, died Tuesday, Dec. 2, 2014 at his home, city officials said. (AP Photo/Bruce Crummy)

Other city officials remembered Walaker as a man who never missed a birthday party, retirement party or other event for city workers. The mayor was an "employee-centric" leader, longtime city engineer Mark Bittner said.

"He knew the employees were the people who drove the city," said Bittner, who has worked with or for Walaker for nearly 40 years. "He was always there for us."

Mahoney said Walaker wasn't afraid to tackle tricky topics like opening a detox center and adding affordable housing. When a young girl died in a traffic accident on a Fargo street that was in bad shape, Walaker stood up and said it was the city's fault.

"He never seemed to back away from tough decisions," Mahoney said.

Walaker was a "beloved leader in the community" who "combined a lot of interesting and wonderful qualities," city attorney Erik Johnson said.

"He kind of said what he thought and you couldn't help but appreciate that," Johnson said. "A lot of communities don't have the opportunity to have somebody with those kinds of qualities that they can look to for leadership."

Bittner said he was stunned when he found out Walaker had died.

"It didn't set in until this morning," he said. "It has been a tough day."

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PHOTO: FILE - In this Tuesday, June 10, 2014 file photo, Mayor Dennis Walaker waits to go on live television in Fargo, N.D. while he celebrated his re-election for a third term in the North Dakota primary election. Walaker, the man known as the "flood mayor" for leading the state’s largest city through several successful fights against the Red River, died Tuesday, Dec. 2, 2014 at his home, city officials said. (AP Photo/Bruce Crummy)
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