Goodbye, Nick Coleman

Nick Coleman. Tom Weber | MPR News  2009

Dark and difficult times lie ahead. Soon we must all face the choice between what is right and what is easy.” — Albus Dumbledore, from a tweet pinned to Nick Coleman’s Twitter account.

Nick Coleman is dead. We’re the poorer for it.

That includes everyone who loved the legendary Twin Cities newsman, and everyone who couldn’t stand him — two nations that, over the years, remained  pretty evenly split, with many people crossing the border.

Pioneer Press reporter Mary Divine wrote a lovely obituary Wednesday.

I worked with him but didn’t know him. But, man, he could write. In 1998, he wrote a package for the Pioneer Press weaving together a history of the First Minnesota at Gettysburg, the fight over a captured battle flag and the stories of modern day re-enactors. You should read it. It’s beautiful.

I’d been at the Pioneer Press for six months when that came out. I was no rookie reporter but I read that and said to myself if that’s the standard here, I’m never gonna see the front page.

“He had this deep knowledge of Minnesota history and culture, but I think he was happiest when he was scolding, and happiest if somebody sent him a fish in the mail,” his brother, Pat, told MPR News. “He knew he had gotten under somebody’s skin and loved that.”

“A lot of media, especially the ones who are just barely holding on, are trying not to get anyone upset and are trying to not be accused of trying to make any difference,” Coleman said in 2009. “And I don’t think it’s just a printing press for making money. It’s supposed to be some kind of higher calling to be in this business, or you might as well be doing something else that has shorter hours and better benefits.”

That can get you in trouble in modern-day newspapering.

“I never thought a columnist’s job was to be loved,” he told MPR’s Cathy Wurzer in the 2009 interview, right after the Star Tribune took his column away and showed him the door at age 58. He had a chance to say “goodbye” in a final column, but he chose not to.

“I was stumped for what to say and how do you say it without sounding pathetic?” he said. “I didn’t want my column to become the world’s tiniest violin. I feel bad that I didn’t say goodbye but I didn’t leave voluntarily. The column was taken away from me and it’s up to someone else to explain why.”

“Nick Coleman was the most exasperating media figure I ever covered,” former media critic David Brauer tweeted. “But you took the s*** because he was so good. His knowledge of Minnesota was encyclopedic. No one flayed pomposity better.”

Brauer told MPR News Coleman was from “an age that has passed, at least in the Twin Cities.”

“Having Nicholas as a brother was like having Nick cover you,” former St. Paul Mayor Chris Coleman told MPR’s Euan Kerr. “Sometimes it was the best of times and sometimes you just walked away scalded because he never held back. But he was not just an older brother, he was my godfather, he was a father figure to me. He got me into playing bagpipes… he taught me to love the passion he had for Minnesota and for history.”

There wasn’t much he didn’t cover in his column, but he said he had a particular love of covering funerals.

He said the one column of his that could make him cry, was the one he wrote for Pfc. Sheldon Hawk Eagle, who was killed in Iraq, and mourned at a two-day funeral on the Cheyenne River Reservation.

Pretty Boy and Charging Eagle were both wounded in Vietnam and belong to the Red Feather Society of the reservation’s Akicita, or soldiers, organization that served as an honor guard for Hawk Eagle’s wake and funeral.

When they came back from Vietnam, they say, they were given $150 by the tribe and then – as many Vietnam veterans believe – were ignored by the country at large. There are more than 500 Vietnam vets among the 14,000 enrolled members of the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe, and they have many “issues” with the government, Ralston acknowledged.

Still, they are proud of the next generation that has gone off to war – some 90 tribal members are under arms right now, including 30 deployed in Operation Iraqi Freedom. Why – given a history of treaties broken by the U.S. government, the Wounded Knee massacre and generations of neglect – do the Lakota still enlist in large numbers?

It’s simple, said Charging Eagle: “We defeated the 7th Cavalry and took their flag away from them. Now, that flag belongs to us.”

The U.S. flag was waving at half-staff from a hundred poles Tuesday in Eagle Butte, where the tribal council had declared a day of mourning.

“We love our country more than any other race,” tribal Chairman Harold Frazier told mourners Monday at Hawk Eagle’s wake. “Because we were here first.”

“You should be sad and happy if you’re alive in this world because that’s the kind of world we live in,” Coleman said, reflecting later on that column.

The funeral for Nick Coleman, who loved covering them, will be held on Friday morning.

Coleman was an organ donor, a designation his father had helped establish on Minnesota driver’s licenses.

Bob Collins and other MPR News reporters contributed to this post.