Northern Lights

What final gifts will we leave when we’re gone? This year’s Northern Lights epitomized the best of Minnesota’s spirit — generous, creative, fun-loving and forward-looking. We could have chosen many more, but here are 10 people we lost in 2016 who left an outsized imprint on our state. There was a superstar who made dancing irresistible, a former governor whose accomplishments landed him on the cover of Time hoisting a northern pike. Some advocated for equality or watched over their charges. Others simply found ways to share their delight with life. What wonderful gifts they left for us.

Northern Lights for 2016: Ten Minnesotans whose legacies endure

These 10 people we lost in 2016 left an outsized imprint on our state: A superstar who made dancing irresistible, a former governor whose accomplishments landed him on the cover of Time hoisting a northern pike, advocates for equality and those who delighted in life. 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

OUR NORTHERN LIGHTS

Patt Adair | 65

A pioneering prison warden, she had a zest for life that walls could not contain. Known as the “Cartwheel Queen” as a kid, she was still doing them at 60.

When Patt Adair knew she was going to die, she planned her last birthday party.

The theme was Barbie, as in the doll. Pink cake and party hats. Pin the tail on the donkey, drop a clothespin in the bottle.

Not quite what you’d expect from a woman who spent more than 30 years in corrections and became the first female warden at the St. Cloud state prison. But then, Adair always defied expectations of what a prison warden would be like.

Growing up in south Minneapolis, people called her the “Cartwheel Queen,” said Tim Adair, her husband of 32 years. She was still doing them at 60.

But she could be steely when needed. Her son, Cory Springhorn, described a walk from her home on the prison grounds to the inmate dorm:

“Just during the walk, you could see a physical change. She stood a little taller, her voice got a little deeper.”

“I would watch her sometimes in the grocery store,” Tim Adair said. “Just by looking at people, she could kind of move them out of the way.”

When cancer, returning for the third time, finally got her, she didn’t break stride — putting her affairs in order, right down to the sock drawer.

“I’ve been finding little notes around the house,” Tim Adair said. “I found a note in one of her sock drawers. It said, ‘These are my old socks — nobody wants them. Throw them out.’ ”

At the end, she’d sit on the couch with Cory, singing a “Sesame Street” song they’d sung since he was a toddler.

“It was ‘I Refuse to Sing Along,’ ” he said. “I would be Bert and she would be Ernie.” Later, after she was gone, he found another note.

“I was going through a box of photos and there was a book I had done as a school project in the second grade. She had left a note on it that said, ‘It was fun reading this again. You were a marvelous kid.’ ”

— John Reinan

 

OUR NORTHERN LIGHTS

Wendell Anderson | 83

“Wendy” Anderson’s public service career was shorter than he’d hoped, but he showed how reaching across party lines could create government that works.

Every speech should start with a joke, Wendell Anderson used to say.

“Even a eulogy?” asked David Lebedoff, the former governor’s speechwriter.

So at Anderson’s funeral in July, Lebedoff made sure his old boss got in one last laugh.

“If, at the time of my passing, I am still refused entrance to the Kingdom of Heaven,” Anderson once told him, a twinkle in his eye, “it will surely have to be because I signed the bill approving annual sessions of the Legislature.”

He was a DFL governor, a U.S. senator, a sports hero and a cautionary political tale. On a 1973 Time magazine cover on “The good life in Minnesota,” he embodied pure plaid possibility, beaming from behind a northern pike.

A young Minnesotan working in Boston picked up a copy.

“My friends from Minnesota and I were so excited and proud that our governor and our state had achieved this national prominence,” said Gov. Mark Dayton, eulogizing Anderson as one of Minnesota’s greatest governors.

He was the first candidate to carry all 87 Minnesota counties. He worked across party lines to change the way Minnesota funds schools, narrowing disparities between rich and poor districts — a feat dubbed the “Minnesota Miracle.”

In 1976, when U.S. Sen. Walter Mondale became vice president, Anderson made a deal to resign and be appointed to the vacant Senate seat.

In the next election, he lost to Republican Rudy Boschwitz.

To Anderson, Lebedoff said, “the real Minnesota Miracle was the abiding sense throughout the state that if we act together, anything in life is possible. That sense lives on in people’s hearts, and will triumph again through the strength and decency of the people in this state.”

— Jennifer Brooks

 

OUR NORTHERN LIGHTS

Birdell Beeks | 58

She had open arms for those in need and her eyes kept watch over her north Minneapolis block. Her death galvanized public outrage over gang shootings.

She was a nurturer — the aunt who took in her sister’s two children after their mother was murdered, the labor and delivery nurse at a nearby hospital, eagle-eyed matriarch of her north Minneapolis block and the next few over.

When one of her daughter’s friends hit a rough patch at home during high school, Birdell Beeks let the girl stay at their house “until her mom and her could smooth things out,” her daughter recalled.

“She was tough on some folks and the tougher she was on them, in her eyes, the more she loved you,” said Sa’Lesha Beeks. Yet she rarely asked for anything in return. Some of that selflessness rubbed off on Sa’Lesha’s teenage daughter.

Earlier this year, Birdell had finally agreed to let someone else take care of her. Her latest bout with cancer had sapped some of her trademark vigor.

Then came the morning of May 26. Grandmother and granddaughter set out for the Northside Child Development Center, where the 16-year-old was to pick up an application to be a personal care assistant (PCA), planning to clean, cook and care for Birdell each day.

But first she had to pass an exam to earn her license.

As Birdell edged her minivan up to a stop sign, two gunmen spotted a rival gang member near the corner of Penn and 21st avenues N., and started shooting wildly. Birdell Beeks was in the bullets’ path.

Her death galvanized public outrage over violent crime in the city, leading to a brief truce between gangs. But so far, the gunmen haven’t been arrested.

After the shooting, Sa’Lesha Beeks recalled, police hauled away the computer containing her daughter’s notes for the PCA exam.

“When we got my daughter’s computer back, she passed the test.”

— Libor Jany

 

OUR NORTHERN LIGHTS

Amy Hile | 48

The lifelong teacher fought for equal opportunities for deaf and hearing-impaired students, leading a push to install a deaf president at Gallaudet University.

Amy Hile unlocked the unfamiliar alphabet with their callused, wide hands.

The Gophers football players, studying American Sign Language to fulfill a language requirement, could hardly fit in their college desks. They struggled to unfurl their fingers to form this new language — one to which Hile had dedicated her life. Telling family and friends later about those large hands trying to sign, she couldn’t hold in her laughter.

Hile, a bilingual deaf educator, taught hundreds of students across the nation American Sign Language (ASL). Many of her students followed her from the Metro Deaf School in St. Paul, the first bilingual charter school for deaf students, right into the teaching profession.

For Hile, the hearing world needed to adapt to deaf children and not the other way around.

She was willing to share her time with anyone willing to learn. Hearing parents with deaf children in her classrooms knew not to treat their children differently.

And she didn’t live her life differently. She traveled to more than 20 countries, quilted, cooked and played volleyball.

Hile championed equal rights for deaf students and led a legendary movement, “Deaf President Now,” that ousted a president from Gallaudet University in Washington, D.C., a pioneer in advancing deaf education. She helmed the protests, her sky-blue eyes and curly brown coiffure a familiar sight. In the end, the protests brought the first deaf president to the school.

From California to Bangkok, Hile touched those she met through sign language.

No one knows how to fill the gap she left, but her students continue to push her work forward.

“ASL is here to stay,” said her brother, Tim Hile. “It will never disappear.”

— Beatrice Dupuy

 

OUR NORTHERN LIGHTS

Bob Johnson | 93

He crafted the giant cow heads jutting from a billboard near the State Fairgrounds, using fiberglass and resin to bring outsized delight to city streets.

You might think of “sculpture” as something in the park besmirched by pigeons. Perhaps an elegant bust in a museum gallery. But a big billboard? That’s art? Sure. Even if it’s a pair of cow heads? Especially if it’s a pair of cow heads.

Bob Johnson was a sculptor who worked in the commercial realm. His most famous work might be those bovine heads he did for Ewald Brothers Dairy in 1954, an instant landmark for Golden Valley, although many remember them from the State Fairgrounds, where they were moved in 1983. The cows had an arresting expression — as if they thought you were probably up to something.

Some of his work was more abstract: Green trees adorning Midwest Federal Bank buildings. He also did trees for Disney World. They never lost their leaves or fell to blight, because he built them to last.

“I’d like to think my ability to solve structural problems is almost more important than being a fine artist,” he told cable channel 12 News a few years ago, and you can see why: big cow heads made of metal and wire have to survive decades of wind and the constant tug of gravity. He also made floats for the Rose Bowl and Aquatennial.

“He really enjoyed it,” said his daughter Janis Eastlund, who grew up with the aroma of fiberglass and resin. “Whenever I smell that I think of my dad.”

He grew up in Becker, did a Navy stint in World War II, then took a year of art class. He perfected his art through practice and worked in whatever style the client requested.

We remember the cows, of course, but he also created the cheerful cephalopods that topped Octopus Car Wash signs. Their eyes had an impish twinkle, and every arm held an implement to scrub your car. Many hands to serve you, said the sign.

Bob had but two, and they made the city a more interesting place to be.

— James Lileks

 

OUR NORTHERN LIGHTS

Prince Rogers Nelson | 57

He put Minneapolis on the music map and considered it home, even as his fame grew. His unexpected death provoked a worldwide outpouring of grief.

Prince loved the Vikings. Without being asked, he wrote and recorded a fight song for them in 2010, “Purple and Gold.”

Prince loved the Lynx. Without being asked, he performed a three-hour concert for them last year at Paisley Park after they won the WNBA championship.

Prince loved the Timberwolves, too. He liked to play basketball — even if he was wearing those famous size-7 high heels of his.

He went to Wolves, Lynx and Vikings games.

Why?

Because he was a fan. And because he was one of us. That’s what Minnesotans who like sports do.

What was the most Minnesota thing about Prince?

That he put Minneapolis on the music map? That he created the Minneapolis Sound? That he made Lake Minnetonka famous? None of the above.

“That he stayed home,” said Los Angeles music-maker André Cymone, Prince’s partner in crime in their teenage years when they lived together in André’s mom’s house in north Minneapolis.

An international superstar, Prince had homes in Los Angeles, Spain (where his first wife was from), Toronto (where his second wife was from) and Turks and Caicos Islands in the Caribbean.

But he always returned home to Chanhassen, his ’burb of choice since the early ’80s.

Why?

Because he was one of us. Because he liked the winters. They made him stay in and practice — whether it was music or basketball.

Prince would venture out in cold weather to go to Timberwolves games.

But he never did show up at Target Center wearing a winter coat.

Minnesota winters had a certain appeal to him.

“It’s so cold,” he told Oprah about Minneapolis in 1996, “it keeps the bad people out.”

— Jon Bream

 

OUR NORTHERN LIGHTS

Jim Northrup | 73

A writer and storyteller on the Fond du Lac Reservation, Jim Northrup practiced traditional skills learned from his elders, passing them along to the next generation.

He liked to tell people that he lived with the seasons. And it was true: For several years, Jim Northrup lived in a traditional teepee on the Fond du Lac Reservation in northern Minnesota. In spring, he speared fish and headed out to the sugar bush, boiling sap in a big cast-iron kettle over a roaring fire. In summer, he traipsed the woods, skillfully peeling birch bark from trees in wide sheets. In fall, he tapped wild rice into his canoe with his knocking sticks.

He practiced skills learned from his elders, and passed them on to the next generation. “We’re thankful our elders taught us to make a living from the woods,” he once said.

In all seasons, he practiced his own unique skill: storytelling. Northrup was a syndicated columnist, a poet, a short-story writer and an essayist. He was perhaps best known for his wry, sometimes heartbreaking, stories about Luke Warmwater, Vietnam vet and Native American. A man, you might say, based loosely on himself; Northrup served six years with the Marines, including a year in Vietnam, before returning to the reservation.

He published several books, including “Walking the Rez Road,” which won a Minnesota Book Award, and adapted some of his stories for the theater, performing at the Great American History Theatre and the Weisman Art Museum.

He had a gentle sense of humor and a keen way of underscoring divisions between whites and natives. Take spear fishing: “It makes some people mad. That’s par for the course. They’ve been mad at us since they got here.”

Northrup developed kidney cancer, attributing it to Agent Orange exposure in Vietnam. To help prepare his family for his death, he came up with a list of possible epitaphs for his tombstone. Here are two:

“Here’s one deadline I didn’t miss,” and, “Hey, I can see up your dress from here.”

— Laurie Hertzel

 

OUR NORTHERN LIGHTS

"Sweet Lou" Snider | 81

A diminutive presence at the piano at Nye’s Polonaise Room for almost 50 years, she played whatever the crowd wanted, overcoming childhood tragedies.

Sweet Lou Snider’s piano-playing hands fell still in March, and Nye’s Polonaise Room — her concert venue for nearly half a century — closed a month later. The timing felt right. You wouldn’t want a Nye’s without the chance of Sweet Lou showing up to pound out a tune.

Forty-five years at the same bench. That’s longer than Gershwin was alive. Imagine a guy who took his first legal drink the night she started, and remembered the wink from the gal at the ivories, coming back a few years short of getting his first Social Security check and she’s still there.

If it seems a miracle she lasted so long, the real miracle was that she made it to the piano at all, and even more that she sang with such delight. The worst things happened when she was young. Her mother dying was hard, and depression took her father, who didn’t think he could care for Lou and her three siblings.

He shot them all. Then he shot himself.

But they lived. Lou, shot in the back, suffered three rounds of surgeries and spent her childhood wearing leg braces. So maybe she couldn’t run and play with the other kids. Maybe there was something she could do sitting down.

Years later she’d try office jobs, but sitting at a desk banging on typewriter keys has the same relationship to music as house-painting does to fine art. So she installed herself at Nye’s — an Ethel Merman-sized personality in a pint-size container — and made her mark.

She’d play whatever you asked. Might be the 200th time she’d played it, but you’d get it like she’d just learned it. One more song before last call! What do you want to hear?

We’d like to hear her play once more, but there’s no Sweet Lou, and no more Nye’s, like those stories of old married couples who pass away together. That’s how it should end, you think. That’s love.

— James Lileks

 

OUR NORTHERN LIGHTS

Sister Jean Thuerauf | 85

She launched a one-woman street ministry in north Minneapolis, giving rise to a bakery employing thousands of teens baking cookies since 1988.

Fifteen-year-old Ali Washington grabbed frozen dough “pucks” from the cookie sheet, tossing them into a plastic bin.

“I want to stay off the streets,” he said.

Inside the brightly lit bakery on Minneapolis’ North Side, he and more than a half-dozen other teens in sunshine yellow T-shirts scooped and plopped dough onto baking sheets to freeze and bake later. Others boxed up freshly baked cookies.

For most, the Cookie Cart bakery is their first job, a place to learn to punch a clock, work with others and grow into leaders.

A place of hope.

A Cookie Cart motto was printed on Washington’s T-shirt: “Baking Bright Futures.”

Learning to write a résumé and divvy up a paycheck between spending and saving “is all about a bright future,” he explained.

Like every kid who comes through the door, Washington credits Sister Jean Thuerauf, the nun on a mission to get kids off the street by bringing them into her kitchen to bake cookies. The operation evolved into a bakery producing more than 600,000 cookies and employing about 200 teens each year.

“It’s not just a regular job,” said 16-year-old Alexis Flynn. “I can blossom as a person.”

In his youth, Chris Pham, 34, recalls, he and his friends were “being menaces, egging houses.”

A ride in a cop car to the truancy center at 2 a.m. persuaded him to change course. A Cookie Cart job and a scholarship to DeLaSalle High School gave him opportunities.

The Minneapolis lawyer is indebted to Sister Jean.

Kids on the North Side face a stigma, he said.

“People close their doors and shut their blinds and don’t want to see them.”

Not Sister Jean.

“She opened up her home.”

— Mary Lynn Smith

 

OUR NORTHERN LIGHTS

Rev. Tin Tran | 64

He vowed, after surviving a re-education camp in Vietnam, to find a way to serve God. He made his way to Minnesota and kept that promise.

The Rev. Tin Tran stepped before his congregation last December, the choir’s faces behind him mirroring the astonishment in the pews.

Members of the Vietnamese Grace Church had braced for a somber Christmas without Tran. But there he was, defying doctor’s orders to stay home after a bone-marrow transplant for lymphoma. Slipping off a protective mask, he smiled and wished everyone “a season full of blessings from God.”

Tran faced dying the same way he had lived life: with grace, ever alert to sparking conversations about faith. He never voiced regret over the three years of his youth squandered in a brutal Communist re-education camp in Vietnam. He didn’t complain about the pain of grave illness.

In January came a close call. Word spread on social media to fellow camp survivors across the globe that Tran might not make it. His bond with these men was what Tran mentioned on the rare occasions he spoke of the camp, not the forced labor or the malnutrition.

He called a camp friend in Australia who had emerged from the ordeal skeptical of higher powers — even as Tran sought to serve God. After a career at the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency, Tran became a pastor in his late 40s. He later recounted the conversation with his friend in Australia to Pastor Brett Miller of Southeast Christian Church near Dinkytown, which hosts the Vietnamese congregation:

“I feel so bad,” the friend had said. “What can I do?”

“You can pray for me.”

“I don’t know that I believe in prayer.”

“Pray anyway.”

Tran met Miller one day for lunch at Mai Village Vietnamese restaurant in St. Paul. Conversation turned to the camp in Vietnam.

“Do you ever get bitter?” Miller asked.

“No,” Tran said with a sly smile. “I had rough edges that the Lord needed to touch up.”

— Mila Koumpilova