NEW LONDON — New London Mayor Bill Gossman — who was also a master potter, musician and “just an all-around nice guy,” well-known for his easy smile, gentle spirit and community leadership — died Tuesday at his home after being diagnosed five months ago with an aggressive form of squamous cancer.
He was 67.
“It’s a huge loss,” said Craig Edwards, a friend, fellow potter and former New London City Council member.
“He brought life to the community,” said Edwards. “He was kind of the glue. He held it together and he really cared about the community.”
Gossman’s honest kindness and style of “bringing people together and looking for common ground” united the community, said Dave Eliason, worship director at Faith Lutheran Church. Eliason played music with Gossman for 20 years in the Green Lake Bluegrass Band.
Eliason said people trusted Gossman and “were willing to follow his lead, even with tough decisions.” He said Gossman had a worldview that looked outward to new possibilities.
“He may have lived in a small town, but he lived in a big world,” said Eliason.
Edwards, who served on the council while Gossman was mayor, said the official title “honorable” is often attached to mayors. “Bill was honorable before he was elected,” Edwards said.
The town will miss his “activism and optimistic spirit,” said former New London Mayor John Mack, who now serves as the city attorney.
Gossman’s ability to blend his talents as a multi-faceted artist with his desire to make positive changes in his adopted hometown of New London rippled across the broader community — as did word of his death.
“What a tremendous man. What a loss for our community,” said Willmar Mayor Marv Calvin, who said Gossman had been a “mentor” to him.
“He was always so cheerful and happy and so proud of his city on the pond,” said Calvin.
The two mayors, along with Spicer Mayor Denny Baker, were often together during statewide and local conferences, and participated together in an annual mayor's bike ride hosted by the mayors of the three towns.
Baker and Gossman were both first elected in 2008 as mayors of their towns. They rode in each other’s community parades and cooperated — and competed — with each other on community projects.
“He did a good job for New London,” said Baker. “His musical talent was another real asset for promoting things in the community. He was just an all-around good mayor.”
With his top hat and big mustache, Gossman was a popular sight at the annual New London to New Brighton Antique Car Run and could be seen walking daily in town to visit the post office or the town’s businesses — including his own Main Street pottery shop he opened shortly before being diagnosed with cancer — making him one of the most accessible city officials, said Edwards.
Gossman mentored artists and was involved in numerous projects that connected the public with art, including an ongoing bench project sponsored by the Willmar Area Arts Council.
Gossman made 500 tiles that are being decorated by the public and installed in benches throughout Willmar, said Janet Olney, executive director of the organization. Gossman “went out of his way to encourage artists,” said Olney, who said she’ll remember Gossman for not only being a talented potter but “just an all-around nice guy.”
“He was a friend to everyone,” said Fred Cogelow, a Willmar artist well-known for his woodcarvings. Cogelow said Gossman’s death is “a rent in the fabric of our lives.”
For most of his life, Gossman had his hands either wrapped around a musical instrument or a ball of clay.
“He always wanted to make pottery,” said his wife, Janne Gossman, who met Bill in 1983 in her native home of Denmark.
But being a potter isn’t what initially attracted her to the lean, shaggy-haired man. It was his ability to play the kalimba, an African thumb piano that he had learned to play while living in Swaziland.
Born in 1953 in St. Paul, Gossman grew up in Rochester, the middle of two brothers.
His first name is Karl. Named after his father, Gossman went by his middle name of William. After graduating from Mayo High School in 1972, Gossman took art classes at the university in Mankato, a teacher’s college at the time.
“But he didn’t want to be a teacher,” said Janne Gossman. “He wanted to be a potter.”
In the mid-1970s, Gossman met Edwards, also a young potter at the time. The two shared a studio in Minneapolis while honing their skills.
Always the adventurer, Gossman drove to Mexico after learning that a boat would be leaving for Denmark. He wanted to go there to see a Danish woman (not Janne) he had met in Minnesota.
According to Janne, the excursion lasted 30 days, they ran out of food and most were seasick the entire journey.
After that relationship ended while the two were living in Africa, Bill and Janne met through mutual friends in Denmark. The kalimba won her heart, she said.
The two were married and had two children, Siri and Jais, while in Denmark. They moved to New London in 1990 at the invitation of Edwards, who hired Gossman to make pottery for the Minnesota Renaissance Festival. The Gossmans' third child, Leah, was born here.
Gossman eventually established his own studio and built a large, backyard, wood-fired kiln that gave his pottery a unique style. During the annual Studio Hop tour of artist spaces, his studio along the Middle Fork of the Crow River was a popular stop, not only for the pottery but for the homemade pizza baked in Gossman’s wood-fired pizza oven. He helped build many of those brick ovens in the community, including at the Green Lake Bible Camp in Spicer and Holm Park in New London.
Gossman was involved with the annual New London Music Festival and played penny whistle and harmonica with the Green Lake Bluegrass Band. The band played to a standing-room-only crowd in February at the New London Little Theatre as a benefit to Gossman, who attended the show despite being in pain from the cancer.
Eliason said Gossman was always gracious, welcoming, good-humored and warm-hearted even in the face of death. “He was who he was and cancer didn’t steal that from him,” he said.