Paul Wellstone and the Chickadee

Russ, Buddy the Wonderdog, and I recently nudged our way north to visit the outdoor memorial to Minnesota Senator Paul Wellstone. Wellstone, his wife Sheila, one of their daughters, and several aides died in a plane crash in 2002, along with the pilots, near the small town of Eveleth, Minn.

I never saw the senator in person, but I had contact with his staffers in the 1990s, particularly Kim Stokes. This was early in my career when I worked in public affairs for the Forest Service. Part of my job was coordinating responses to inquiries from federal congressmen and representatives who received complaints from their constituents about Forest Service activities in the Superior National Forest.

I would receive the letters, decide which Forest Service person should write a response (sometimes this was me), and then follow up, making sure the Forest Supervisor signed the letter and that it got mailed. I know, snail mail – how quaint!

I always enjoyed my discussions with Kim. She was so enthusiastic about the democratic senator, which wasn’t something I usually heard from staffers for other federal legislators. That piqued my interest, and I watched Wellstone’s career from afar.

Despite early public relations gaffes after his election in 1991, the short, feisty, and energetic senator learned from his mistakes and became an effective leader. He even explored a run for the presidency, but did not seek it due to health issues, which ended up being multiple sclerosis.

One of his well-known quotes is, “We all do better when we all do better.”

20200404_123600Russ and I had driven past the signs for the memorial off Highway 53 in several times, and finally had the time to stop. The first thing to greet us in the parking area was poetry. A snow-covered stone mantle sat at the entrance to the memorial. We brushed off the snow, trying to read the poem that was etched into the rock. We couldn’t do it because of the moisture, but were able to make out some of the words later, after it had time to dry.

After visiting the commemorative circle, which featured monuments made of local stone to those killed in the crash (except the pilots), we walked the surrounding legacy trail. The path was covered by about a foot of snow, and it didn’t look like anyone had been there in at least a week. Sinking through the crunchy thin snow crust every other step, we gingerly made our way, marveling at the quiet and the sun streaming through the skinny pines. Interpretive signs lined the route. After brushing off the snow, we read about Wellstone’s career progression.


An image of Wellstone from his college professor days at Carleton College in MN.

The final sign on the route was dedicated to his wife, Sheila. The feminist in me did not appreciate this. I thought her sign should have occurred earlier on the trail, perhaps after the sign about their marriage, because I’m sure Paul could not have accomplished even half of what he did without her support. Having her sign at the end seemed like an afterthought.

After coming full circle back to the poetic entry, we walked the trail to the crash site narrative. The trail ended in a viewing platform about 2,000 feet from the actual site. Signs on the platform described the lives of the people lost. Descriptions of the two pilots were notably absent, but I suppose this was because the crash was deemed their fault, combined with poor visibility.


Looking down the peaceful legacy trail.

As we stood, looking out into the pines, a flock of chickadees twittered among the branches. One brave energetic bird alighted only two feet from me, calling loudly, as if berating me for intruding. I extended my gloved hand to see if the bird would land, and made a “phish, phish” sound that often works to attract birds.

This feisty little guy was too smart for that. He stayed where he was, continuing his call. Eventually, he flew away to join his friends.

The chickadee reminded me Wellstone. I would like to think his spirit and those of the others in the crash were somehow absorbed into the forest and live on there.

Wellstone leaves a political legacy in the form of the legislation he passed and in Camp Wellstone, a training program for people interested in political action. His wife Sheila’s legacy lives on in her tireless work against domestic violence.

With Buddy leading, we made our way back to our truck, filled with appreciation for these lives well-lived and duly recognized.

Crackerjack Bands and Hometown Boosters: A Personal Story and Book Review

Back in 2010, I Googled my parents’ names, just to see if any information about them was out on the internet. They were aging, and I wanted to ensure their safety, both online and off.

I was also curious. Neither of them had ever owned or operated a computer. Heck, even operating a cell phone was a stretch, and I’m not sure either of them ever used the one they bought for emergencies, despite my repeated and patient instructions. Would anything be on the internet about people who had never been on the internet themselves?

I was surprised to find my father’s name (Howard Pramann) associated with a blog called, “My Musical Family” by Joy Riggs, a writer based in Northfield, Minn. The post was titled, “Music: The Anti-Drug.” It featured an interview with my father about his experience playing the cornet under the instruction of Joy’s great-grandfather, G. Oliver Riggs (the G stands for George, a name Mr. Riggs did not like so did not use). Mr. Riggs was adamantly against smoking, especially since his musicians needed good lungs to play. His anti-smoking lectures no doubt kept many a young man from taking up the habit.

After reading the post, I vaguely recalled my parents recently mentioning something about my dad being interviewed, but I didn’t understand that it was for a blog.


My father, Howard Pramann, in his spiffy band outfit in St. Cloud in 1937.

I shared the post with my family members and parents, and wrote a thank-you e-mail to the author. She responded quickly, and we corresponded a few more times. She explained she was writing a book about G. Oliver Riggs, who was an influential and prolific “Minnesota Music Man.” He developed and directed bands in communities like St. Cloud and Crookston, Minn., and even in Montana. My father, Howard, played in the St. Cloud band for eight years, from age 10 until he graduated high school.

Late this summer, I received a message from Joy through my author website. She noticed I was a presenter at the North Shore Readers and Writers Festival in Grand Marais, which she planned to attend. She was looking forward to meeting there, plus she had published the book about her great-grandfather.

After receiving her message, I looked at Joy’s author page to see how I could lay hands on a copy of her book. I noticed she was doing a signing at a local bookstore a few weeks before the festival. I told her I would see her at her signing and later at the festival.

IMG_7234We met at the bookstore and had a nice chat. Not long after, I read her book, entitled “Crackerjack Bands and Hometown Boosters: The story of a Minnesota Music Man.” (Noodin Press, 2019.)

What immediately impressed me is how Joy interweaves her personal story with information about her great-grandfather’s life. This made the book much more interesting, as readers are able to experience the thrill of discovery that Joy found during her research process. Readers also learn that this book was her return to journalism after many years of subsuming her career to her growing family’s needs.

Her vivid prose won me over to the importance of her topic – bringing to life a bygone era, when public bands were the best form of entertainment in town and brought communities together. Although G. Oliver was a stern taskmaster, Joy’s book shows how his methods and discipline influenced his young pupils in a positive way throughout their lives.

Since my father was one of those pupils, it was thrilling for me to see photos of the venues where he might have played, and learn about the people he performed alongside. I was particularly interested in seeing pictures of my father’s piano teacher, who was G. Oliver’s wife, Islea.

Reading Joy’s book made me wish my father (who died in 2016) had spoken more about his community band experiences. When I complained about having to practice the required half-hour per day on my French horn in junior high and high school, he could have retorted with things like, “When I was your age, we had to practice four hours per day. What are you complaining about?”

I would have liked to hear him describe the contests his band won, and the parades they marched in. But through Joy’s book, I was able to follow the band’s triumphs and challenges across the years.

Joy describes her interview with my father in Chapter 13. He’s mentioned again on page 228 as playing a cornet duet before an audience of 5,000 people in a theater in St. Cloud.

To my surprise, Joy even refers to me on page 200, although not by name, when she discusses our initial correspondence.

Of course, I’m going to like any book that has me in it (ha, ha). But even if I wasn’t included, I’d still recommend Joy’s book for anyone who is interested in Minnesota’s musical history and the important role the arts can play in people’s lives. I gave it five out of five stars on Goodreads.

The Year 2020 in a Cartoon

I was listening to a recent episode of National Public Radio’s “Wait, Wait, Don’t Tell Me” podcast when my heart leapt with joy. The guests were talking about the year 2020 and the grandiose ideas people had in the past about how we would be living today.

What got my heart going was when the host mentioned the “Sealab 2020” cartoon.

I had been thinking about that cartoon lately, with it being the year 2020 now.  Until listening to the podcast, I was beginning to wonder if anyone else but me remembered the short-lived series.

“Sealab 2020” only ran from September until December 1972, but it made a big impression on me – with my proclivities toward all things watery. The setting was an underwater lab. The dramas and intrigue of the 250 “oceanauts” featured heavily, as they faced challenges ranging from environmental disasters to attacks from giant squid.

As a nine-year-old, I envisioned myself as one of the oceanauts by the time 2020 came around. Alas, I am still landlocked, and I don’t think there are any large underwater labs in operation at this time.

My dream did not come to pass. But at least I work for Sea Grant, and that’s almost as good!

Mountie Art Memories

Russ and I meandered over to the Tweed Museum of Art on the University of Minnesota Duluth Campus last week. Russ had never been there, so we figured it was time for him to get some “cultcha,” even if it is only a Duluthy version of culture.

The museum currently features an exhibit of Russian art (Art in Conflict), which was interesting. You don’t often see Lenin in artwork displayed in America.


Image courtesy of the Tweed Museum of Art.

My favorite collection in the Tweed, however, is the Canadian Mountie illustrations. My father used to get calendars from a local paper company that showed red-suited Mounties in all sorts of exciting and helpful situations, fueling my childhood imagination. There were Mounties petting sled dogs, Mounties building a snowman with native children, Mounties tracking bad guys – you get the drift.

Something I didn’t realize back then was that more than one artist drew the illustrations. The most prolific was Arnold Friberg, noted for his religious and patriotic art. But fifteen others tried their hand at it, as well.

The Mountie art came about during the Depression when the Minnesota Paper Company chose it as their advertising theme because it evoked a strong and dependable product. It was an instant success and continues until this day, although the company’s name has changed several times over the years.


Image courtesy of the Tweed Museum of Art.

While I suspect that real Mounties have committed their fair share of atrocities like any arm of law enforcement, I don’t want to know about it. As a child, I was totally sold on their Dudley Do-Right goodness, and, as I looked at the paintings in the Tweed, I realized I want to keep my childlike innocence where Mountie art is concerned.

If you’re ever in Duluth and want some culture, try the Tweed! Admission is free, although donations are appreciated, and there’s a box for that by the door.

Unicorns in New York City!


The unicorn in captivity tapestry.

On our recent trip to NYC, Russ and I discovered there are unicorns in the city. Specifically, unicorns adorn tapestries in The Cloisters, a branch of The Metropolitan Museum of Art devoted to medieval European art.


The Met Cloisters

Atop its hill overlooking the Hudson River, The Cloisters takes visitors back to another era. Many of the buildings and chapels were transported over from Europe. They house sculptures, paintings, sarcophagi, stained glass and other master works from the 12th century to the 15th century. The halls are separated by courtyard gardens and outdoor gardens that will make you feel like you’re on the set of Romeo and Juliet or something.

One of our favorite rooms held the unicorn tapestries. These seven wall hangings were thought to be woven in the 1500s in Brussels. They depict the hunt and capture of a unicorn. The unicorn does not fare well with its encounter with humans. It’s held captive and killed. Or is it killed? Artistic scholars debate this, but what’s not debatable in the renderings is that people attack it. But I’m not going to show those tapestries here. They are just too mean! I will show a different one, instead.


The unicorn purifies water and is discovered by the hunters.

Enjoy this mini tour of The Cloisters.




Oh, and this is a unicorn thing that does something. I don’t know what, but it looks cool.

Aspects of 9-11


The slurry wall inside the 9-11 Museum.

Russ and I meandered over to New York City last week. We didn’t plan it, but our trip ended up being 9-11 themed. Our first experience was a visit to the 9-11 Memorial and Museum.

The dim lights and the quiet struck me as we entered the museum. This was hallowed ground. Visitors treaded lightly and spoke softly. We met our tour guide in the lobby and she took us down, down, down into the excavation pit of the World Trade Center buildings.

DSC05587The heavy ghost of all the rubble that had filled the space and piled above it was an emotional and physical weight. Our guide showed us the slurry wall that held back the river from flooding the space, the square-edged outlines of the waterfalls that flowed in the memorial outside, the wreckage of the fire trucks, and the last cement column that survived the building collapse, festooned with first-responder graffiti.

The most awe-full artifact for me was the impact steel from the North Tower, which was the one hit first. Mounted on the wall like a crucifix with a stark light upon it, the mangled steel beams hung as a testament to the power of the plane that crashed into the building and began the nightmare.

People showed different emotions to these sights. Some were crying, some were dazed. Everyone was somber.


The impact steel from the North Tower.

Our tour guide explained that her brother worked in the World Trade Buildings. He only escaped death that day because, at the last moment, he decided to go to the optometrist to get his glasses fixed instead of heading up the tower.

Tour over, we were free to wander among the artifact exhibits on our own. I was drawn to the information about the plane that crashed in Pennsylvania, because I was in Pennsylvania when 9-11 happened. A timeline of those events was on display along with text of the plane cockpit recordings.

Also powerful and haunting were the voicemail messages left for loved ones from those who worked in the tower after the plane(s) crashed into them.

After all that heaviness, I was glad to get outside into the memorial area. But even the memorial is heavy, with all the names of the dead inscribed around the waterfalls that flow into the building pits. We found the name of a man who had been in a relative’s wedding party.

DSC05674The other 9-11-themed thing we did was attend the Broadway show, “Come From Away.” Although poignant at times, this experience was much more enjoyable than the museum. The musical tells the story of the townspeople of Gander, Newfoundland. This village of 10,000 people hosted 7,000 airplane travelers who got grounded on 9-11 for several days.

The Newfies welcome the confused travelers like only Newfies could – with generosity, caring, music, and whisky. The show offered 100 minutes of humanity and hopefulness.  The audience gave it a standing ovation at the end. If you have a chance to see “Come From Away,” by all means, do so!

Happy Belated Birthday Bob (Dylan)


Bob Dylan’s childhood home in Duluth.

Last Friday was Bob Dylan’s birthday. My hometown of Duluth does it up right by holding an annual Dylan Fest — a week of events that features song, poetry, lectures, tours, and birthday cake.

This year, we attended the launch of a new book of poetry inspired by Dylan. “Visiting Bob” contains 100 poems by U.S. and international poets. A half dozen of the poets read their works and other poets’ works. Some of the poems were beyond me but others I understood. One that stuck was by local poet, Connie Wanek. Its theme was Dylan sightings in Duluth — are they false? Are they true? It ends on a hopeful note that perhaps someday the poet really will see him back in this town where he was born.

We also attended a lecture by one of the poets from Texas, David Gaines. Because he wrote a book about Dylan, he attracted media interest when Dylan won the Nobel Prize. Gaines described his experience being interviewed by Swedish public television and other major media outlets. He also got to travel to Stockholm to attend the airing of a Swedish public television story in conjunction with the prize ceremony.

On our way home from the lecture, we decided to stop by Bob Dylan’s home on the hillside, since it was on our route and we’d never seen it. A fan owns it and has spiffed up the duplex. Dylan lived in the right-hand side. A plaque on the front of the home proclaims its significance.

It’s hard to believe that I’ve lived here over five decades and never looked it up before. ‘Bout time, I guess.

When I posted the house photo on Facebook, one of my friends said they had a chance to rent the place in the mid-1970s, but turned it down. They didn’t know the home’s significance, however. When they found out afterward, they deeply regretted their decision because they were fans.

Another friend said she walked by the place thousands of times but it took years before she learned who had lived there.

These are typical instances of  “Duluth” to me. It’s a big small town. It’s large enough to get lost in if you want, and to never see parts of it. But it’s small enough that everyone has friends in common through one means or another, whether they went to school with them, or worked with them, etc.

Even after all this time, this town still has hidden gems to discover for those who take the time to look.

When Classical Music Goes Bad


Image courtesy of Syracuse New Times.

Look what I found in the classical record collection that I inherited from my father.

During the two years since he died, I’ve been listening to my dad’s records whenever I exercise on my elliptical strider at home. It’s a way of getting healthier, figuring out which records I’d like to keep, and remembering him.

I’m about halfway through the stack and probably have another two years to go, unless I start exercising a whole lot more.

As a child, I used to hang out in my dad’s “radio room” when he played music after supper. I remember some of the albums vividly, others not so much.

I don’t recall this album (“Switched-on Bach” played on Moog synthesizers) and somehow don’t think it’s going to make my cut! Although all classical music is retro, this is just a little too retro-techno for me.

I wonder what possessed my father to purchase it? Maybe he thought it was cutting-edge at the time.

According to an article this spring in the Syracuse New Times, “Switched-on Bach” was released in 1968.  It “dropped like a bunker buster on the world of classical music, fostering incredulity and pushback from classical music purists, who considered such treatment to be blasphemous.”

Apparently, those objections were quickly quashed by enthusiasm from younger listeners who were otherwise not interested in classical music. The album vaulted to the top of the classical charts where it remained for 49 weeks. It was honored with three Grammies in 1970: Classical Album of the Year, Best Classical Performance by an Instrument Soloist, and Best Engineered Classical Album.

It even sold one million copies (!) – the first classical album to achieve that status.

*   *    *

Okay, I just listened to it. My judgement hereby is that the music does not stand the test of time despite all the awards it won.

Sorry dad, this one’s going in the rummage sale pile.

A Visit to the Birthplace of the Ice Cream Sundae

DSC04716Last week, I meandered over to Two Rivers, Wisconsin, birthplace to the ice cream sundae. We arrived at the Historic Washington House Museum and Ice Cream Parlor at noon, just in time to have ice cream for lunch!

The Washington House is not the original place where the first sundae was served in 1881, but the original bar is in the building, which also features artifacts from that time, up to more modern times. A more modern parlor in a separate room offers the creamy confection to hungry travelers today.

DSC04718We were met by a little girl who seemed to be related to the parlor manager. As she stood next to the counter, hugging her fluffy teddy bear, she gave us recommendations for the best flavors, extolling the virtues of each.

DSC04720She tried to talk me into strawberry ice cream, but once I saw they had coconut, I begged her permission to have that instead. She graciously granted my request, so my lunch consisted of Coconut Joy ice cream (with coconut flakes, chocolate chunks and almonds), topped with hot fudge sauce.

OMG, so good! Sated, we then toured the rest of the building, which houses different historic collections of clothing, clowns, typewriters, etc. A film crew from Chicago was interviewing a man who was dressed in a soda jerk uniform behind the original bar as we left. I took his photo between takes, and he gave me a wave and a big smile. One of the historical volunteer ladies told me that several television stations had been to the parlor recently to do stories. I guess it’s that time of year.

DSC04724Although some other towns make rival claims for the origin of the sundae, the place in Two Rivers is the only one recognized by the National Register of Historic Places. Read here  and here for more info.


Living in a War Zone


Image from a different neighborhood zoning war that occurred in Kentucky, Image courtesy of WPSD-TV.

My neighborhood is in a war. We are not fighting with each other. Instead, we’re fighting against a more elusive and dangerous foe: the specter of commercial development.

We all received letters in the mail from the city planning department, which described a proposal to rezone our neighborhood from a Traditional Residential one to a Mixed Use Neighborhood. This could open up our streets to stores and businesses.

When I bought my house nineteen years ago, one of the major selling points was the “quiet neighborhood” where it was located. Even though it was near a shopping center, on the other side a massive city park offered a bit of wilderness, not to mention periodic backyard visits by deer, bear, and moose.

Friends and acquaintances who heard about my new home congratulated me. “It’s the nicest street,” they said. And it proved true. The street was full of long-term residents who cared about their community and their neighbors. We helped each other during snowstorms, floods, and ice storms.

Even 19 years later with new residents, the helpfulness is still there. My neighbors are invested in their homes and in making the neighborhood a good place to live.

But already, commercial development is encroaching. Two banks and an insurance agency take up one end of the street, which fronts a busy main artery and the shopping center. Basically, the planning agency proposes to extend that business district farther down my street and one block over, rezoning areas where people’s homes currently sit. The rezoning would impact 8 or 9 homes. My home is outside the area by the width of one home.

Our property taxes have increased due to a new apartment and business complex built a block away. I would not be surprised if someone wants to build something similar on my street.

Last week, the planning department held a public meeting about the rezoning proposal. There are three spots they want to rezone. Nobody protested the other two, which are located along already busy streets. All of the discussion focused on the plan for my neighborhood.

Residents, especially the ones in the homes inside the rezoning area, were concerned and angry. Some have already been approached by a developer, who also had the cajones to be at the meeting and to speak in favor of the rezoning. (You should have seen the nasty looks he got! My neighbors might be nice, but not when their way of life is threatened.)

At the meeting, one of my neighbors said that it makes no sense to rezone an established neighborhood to a Mixed Use Neighborhood and invite more development right into the middle of it. I agree with her.

My home was built almost 100 years ago by Swan Gustaf Anderson when he was 72 years old. His $450 mortgage was held by the Supreme Lodge of the Sons of Norway. I am the eighth owner of the house. I’ve been investing a lot in upkeep and remodeling of my home, but if rezoning occurs and a retail or apartment development goes in, I would be a fool to continue making that investment in a property that may one day have a view of dumpsters or a parking lot instead of big trees and homes.

This rezoning idea goes against provisions for Mixed Use Neighborhood development in Chapter 50 of the City of Duluth Legislative Code. One of the purposes of establishing a Mixed Use Neighborhood District is to, “Encourage mixed use redevelopment, conversion and reuse of aging and underutilized areas, and increase the efficient use of commercial land in the city.”

Our neighborhood is not “underutilized.” It is home to families who have lived there many years. Our homes may be aging, but they are all in good shape because we have invested in them. I would also argue that it is not an efficient use of commercial land in the city to displace people from an established neighborhood.

It also goes against one of the governing principles in the city’s comprehensive land use planning document. Principle #5 on Strengthening Neighborhoods says:

The present city is an historical amalgam of villages and other independent units of government, contributing to the present condition of Duluth being strongly defined by its neighborhoods. This condition should be reinforced through land use, transportation and public service delivery patterns which strengthen neighborhood identity. New institutional expansions, major public infrastructure or large commercial or industrial uses should not divide historic neighborhood patterns.

Allowing a commercial development right in the middle of our neighborhood is no way to strengthen it.

Fighting a zoning war is not how I wanted to spend my summer, but it’s necessary, I guess. Here we go!