Minnesota elder leaders on the times we’re living in
Retired from posts, they talk about virus pandemic and unrest
A deadly pandemic that separates loved ones and cranks up tensions among Minnesotans. Looting, riots and arsons in the wake of a police killing. And a turbulent presidential election year.
Minnesotans who experienced the unrest of the Vietnam War, the Civil Rights era and multiple recessions say they’ve seen the nation divided before, but 2020 will still be one for the history books.
Here’s how some of the Twin Cities’ and Minnesota’s elder leaders — all retired from previous positions — are keeping safe from the novel coronavirus and how they’re putting current events in perspective.
George Latimer, St. Paul Mayor, age 85
From his independent senior living building at Episcopal Homes in St. Paul’s Midway, former St. Paul Mayor George Latimer has been keeping busy watching the movies offered in communal areas and socializing with neighbors. Despite a recent spill while pushing his walker through Iris Park, he’s been in good health and enjoying lunch visits with friends and family, albeit at a safe distance.
He welcomes some — though not all — of the recent cultural shifts.
“I believe there are some wonderful things happening within our culture today. We’re on our way of ridding ourselves of stereotyping people and ‘the other.’
“I think it’s quite beautiful when one of our grandchildren has their friend coming over, and I have no idea what color that person will be, or what gender they have. That isn’t the first thing they think of. People my age, we usually began by thinking, ‘He’s my friend, and he’s a Lutheran …’ Or ‘at the university, I was with a Black guy …’
“Whether we meant it pejoratively or not, it was our way of introducing our knowledge of people. And the younger people are ridding themselves of that. And that’s a plus.
“There are any number of cultural and political practices that I have fully supported in my career, and now I’m being challenged in my thoughts. The electoral system is a good example.
“The electoral college is one of the pieces of federalism that modifies democracy self-evidently. There’s more being written today that it’s no longer acceptable. That’s actually new in my thinking. I’ve always accepted those elements in the Constitution that tend to alter the direct expression of democracy. (At the nation’s founding), we were not intending to be a democracy. We were intending to be a democratic republic, which is quite different.
“Racism — including ‘driving while Black’ — has a long history. But for an awful lot of folks as we were growing up, the police were not the enemy. Reform has been occurring, but because we’re a localized police system, it’s very mixed and varied.
“There are many communities that have done community policing for many, many years. Does it mean it ends crime? No. But the trust level between the police and the people they’re protecting is important. This anti-police conduct is not liberal. It’s not democratic. It’s idiocy.”
Walter Mondale, U.S. Vice President, U.S. Senator, age 92
Former Vice President Walter Mondale said he has been mostly homebound in Minneapolis since the start of the COVID-19 outbreak in March.
“This pandemic is the worst of its kind that I have ever seen,” said Mondale. “I keep contact with my family, but I don’t get around. We usually have lunch here, and we wear face masks. I have a great health care lady who keeps the house and watches the pills for me.”
Mondale said he has been staying close to friends and reading the New York Times and the local newspapers “or whatever helps me understand the world.”
Mondale said he cannot recall any other “health pandemic that has been so controlling for so long. We still don’t know when we might get a cure for it. Never seen anything like it.”
He had this advice for leaders: “Stay connected with health advice wherever and whenever you can.”
Norm Coleman, mayor of St. Paul, U.S. Senator, age 71
After 18 years of splitting his time between Washington, D.C., and Minnesota, former U.S. Sen. Norm Coleman said being at home during the pandemic has been “a gift from God.”
“My typical schedule for the last 18 years — four days in Washington when Congress was in session and four nights at home — has been upended due to COVID,” said Coleman, who works for the Washington, D.C.-based law firm Hogan Lovells. “I have spent more time with my wife in the last six months than I have in the last 18 years, and it’s been wonderful.”
Coleman, who served as the mayor of St. Paul from 1994 to 2002, said he has been able to spend extended periods of time with his 10-month-old grandson Adam, the son of Coleman’s son Jake and daughter-in-law Julia.
“I’ve gotten to know my grandson, and I don’t think he would know Poppa as well if I was just coming around on weekends,” said Coleman, who has Stage 4 metastatic lung cancer. “That never would have happened (before COVID). It’s a blessing. It’s a gift that God gave me at this time.”
He also got to see his daughter Sarah marry Griffin Naylor in August at the family’s cabin in northern Minnesota.
“They postponed the big party of 250 people to next year, but we still had a celebration with 65 people. It was all outdoors, and I socially distanced. Thank God nobody got sick. No one. Not one case.
“So I am able, in the midst of this terrible tragedy, to celebrate,” he said. “Spending time with my wife, getting to know my grandson, watching my daughter get married — those have been real blessings for me. I don’t want to discount the terrible pain that so many are experiencing, but I have found God’s blessings in some ways that I never would have seen before.”
Coleman said the U.S. has never seen anything like the pandemic before.
“I was mayor in 9/11. I remember it well,” he said. “I served in the Senate in the (market) crash of 2008 and remember that upheaval. But this, really, this is a tsunami at every level — the social, the economic, the mortality — all those things have put this into a category that we will never forget. We are going to remember 2020 and this pandemic and for the rest of our lives. The memory will be there.”
Coleman said he wishes Gov. Tim Walz and other leaders would have heeded “the old adage of ‘walk a mile in someone else’s shoes’ ” before setting COVID-related policy.
“A lot of those folks in northern Minnesota are out of work,” he said. “The governor and the folks making policy, it’s almost life or death, almost, who works, who doesn’t. I don’t think there was any reason to be shutting down clothing stores in Nisswa, Minn., when people could go to Target in Brainerd and get everything they need. There were people working there, feeding their families.”
Alan Page, Minnesota Supreme Court justice, NFL Hall of Famer, age 75
Alan Page, a former Vikings defensive lineman whose honors include being inducted into the NFL Hall of Fame, retired from the Minnesota Supreme Court in August 2015. He is a recipient of the Presidential Medal of Freedom.
“I’m not one to be out and about a lot. Being isolated isn’t that much different than normal. … I’m able to see my kids and grandkids. In the beginning, it was at a distance, but now closer and closer with precautions. It was a lot easier before the grandkids went to school.
“I didn’t grow up during World War II, but I would imagine something like that gave a similar feel. But if you weren’t actually part of the war, you weren’t in it.
“In my life we had the Vietnam War, but that wasn’t the same, either. I don’t think you can divorce the pandemic from what we’re experiencing now with the social unrest we’re seeing. That puts an overlay on the pandemic in ways that are unique and not necessarily good.
“I think the social unrest would be difficult and challenging regardless. We’ve had it before, but this is somehow different. In the ’60s and ’70s, we had the protests over the Vietnam War and we had the civil rights movement. Those changes were pretty much focused on changing the country for the better. This time there is that element, but there is also the element that seems like there are those who are more interested in anarchy than anything.
“Having no national plan to deal with the pandemic, it’s criminal. This ad hoc, state-by-state, city-by-city … everybody’s doing the best we can, but whenever we’ve faced difficult challenges in the past, it’s been a national effort, and we don’t have that. And I think that’s a tragedy.
Nathaniel ‘Nick’ Khaliq, Former St. Paul NCAAP President, St. Paul Firefighter, age 77
Nathaniel “Nick” Khaliq spent decades working to bring about changes in St. Paul as president of the city’s NAACP chapter, a community activist and a St. Paul firefighter. Now retired, Khaliq said he “assumed at this point of my life that we would be in a much better place.”
“Between the pandemic and the civil unrest and the issues with the police, these are the worst of times. … But these are the best of times in the sense that what gives me hope is I see these young folks out here that have been able to galvanize across social, economic, political, racial, gender and sexual orientation — all coming together in the fight for justice, freedom and equality.”
He said he hopes the current marches and demonstrations will be remembered as more than a moment. He said this should be a movement to bring about systemic changes.
In some ways, Khaliq said he feels guilty that he and his wife, Victoria Davis, haven’t been able to be involved in community gatherings as they usually would. They’re being cautious during the pandemic.
They still live in St. Paul’s Old Rondo neighborhood. Lately, they’ve been spending more time at their cabin in Crow Wing County.
It’s on Lake Adney — “the history of this place is that in the early ’50s, ’60s, ’70s and ’80s, the cabins were predominantly owned by African-Americans because many of the other lakes, we couldn’t buy property on,” Khaliq said. “… After being isolated and walking on eggshells, this gives us a chance to relax and breathe the fresh air. We’ve been doing a lot of praying, not just for our family, but for the community, the country and everything that’s going on.”
Margaret ‘Peg’ Marrinan, Ramsey County judge, age 73
After Margaret “Peg” Marrinan retired in 2017 as a Ramsey County judge following 34 years on the bench, she was appointed to serve as a senior judge — it’s a position in which retired judges can “pinch hit as needed,” Marrinan said. But with court restrictions in place during the pandemic, Marrinan said she hasn’t been asked to work lately.
At 73, the only time in her lifetime that the coronavirus harkens back to is when polio was rampant when she was a young girl.
“I remember my older brother being taken down the stairs, out to the car and away to the hospital,” Marrinan said. He recovered after intensive physical therapy.
Though the issues are different, the protests of this summer are reminiscent to Marrinan of the marches about the Vietnam War when she was in college. That was also a time of overall political division in the country — “there was a lot of tension, a lot of anger on both sides,” she said.
Back then, Marrinan said she could understand both sides of people’s arguments. “Today, I’m not in that position when I think about the people who deny the existence of this virus or its effects,” she said. “I don’t think there is another side to the virus argument.”
In her own life, Marrinan’s two sons have been “extremely strict about maintaining not just social distancing, but not socializing a lot. And here they are, sort of badgering their parents about this, as if we didn’t know better,” she said with a chuckle.
Marrinan said she and her husband have also been careful — they’ve had small gatherings around the fire pit in their St. Paul back yard and they order carry-out from restaurants to support them, but they don’t dine in.
She’s been spending her time gardening, volunteering — now virtually — for Walker West Music Academy, and researching the life of Stephen Maxwell, the first Black district court judge in Minnesota, for an upcoming presentation.