The iconic pot-bellied stove was absent. No jam-packed retail shelves stood watch. But the essential ingredients of the never-named monthly discussion group that challenged premises and pricked consciences at a Prospect Park drug store for 27 years came together anew last week — chief among them the group’s founder, Tom SenGupta.
SenGupta, 76, has had two cancer surgeries and a run of chemotherapy in the year since he sold Schneider Drug on University Avenue, the independent drug store he owned for 43 years. But the pharmacist has recovered sufficiently to again pursue what always seemed to be his true calling — the perfecting of American democracy.
On Tuesday, he called to order a planning session for the Tom SenGupta Forum, now sponsored by Augsburg College’s Sabo Center for Democracy and Citizenship. The center evidently decided that if these meetings were to operate under college auspices, they ought to have a name. SenGupta seemed a bit sheepish about the label until public art sculptor Doug Freeman reported that longtime participant Hy Berman gave it his enthusiastic blessing before he died on Nov. 29.
SenGupta launched the meeting in his usual style — direct, understated and brimming with confidence that the dozen citizens there assembled could change the world. No one who braved subzero weather to join him at the Common Table, an Augsburg-owned former restaurant on Riverside Avenue, dared scoff at such idealism.
He got right to it: “America is a mature society now. Can we finally confront our history of slavery?” How can America apologize and make amends for building its wealth through the dehumanization and destruction of so many lives? he asked. What can be done?
That will be the topic for forums that will begin Thursday at 4 p.m. at the Common Table, he said. Speakers might be recruited. Papers might be written. Action plans might be developed. Or not. Those who come will decide, he assured. Other topics he wants to address this year include the nation’s student debt crisis and the need for immigration reform. Income inequality? Gun violence? Climate change and environmental protection? He’d like to get to them, too.
“I want to do what I failed to do in the drug store — get Republicans here,” SenGupta added. “Oh, we had plenty of Republicans come, but not Republican candidates. I invited them but they never came.”
“Maybe the Wellstone posters scared them off,” Freeman quipped, referring to signs that went up at the store in 1990 and stayed for 25 years.
“Paul Wellstone would have loved to have them come,” SenGupta countered.
SenGupta would know. The late U.S. senator was a friend who loved the drug store conversations. They began with the theme “Is American democracy worth saving?” in 1988, just as SenGupta’s daughter’s Carleton College faculty adviser was gearing up his first Senate bid.
Before long, a pilgrimage to the old-style emporium at the corner of University Avenue and Bedford Street was a mandatory stop for many DFL candidates. It wasn’t that the crowds were large; seldom did more than three dozen people squeeze into the store aisles after hours. But among them were people worth knowing. Professors from the University of Minnesota and nearby private colleges comprised the core group. Lawyers, judges, clergy, government officials, business and nonprofit executives, a former mayor or two or three — all made time for the conversations SenGupta orchestrated.
His drawing power evidently is still good. Last week’s attendees included a half-dozen profs and one Minnesota civil rights legend, Josie Johnson.
It’s fitting that the series will resume with conversations about how to eradicate the negative residue of slavery. That legacy was shockingly visible to pharmacy student SenGupta when he enrolled at Loyola University of New Orleans in 1958, the first of his middle-class family in Calcutta, India, to opt for education in the U.S.
Fascinated with the burgeoning civil rights movement, SenGupta supported civil rights champion Hubert Humphrey in his unsuccessful 1960 bid for the Democratic presidential nomination. Admiration for the Minnesota senator helped SenGupta decide where to go next. He enrolled at the University of Minnesota in 1961 and shortly sensed that he had found home.
Maybe because he is an immigrant — or maybe because he arrived in the 1960s — “I see the possibilities in this society. The ’60s showed us, we can change. I love this country. I just think we can do better.” He bought Schneider Drug in 1972 and became known as the gentle druggist with wispy white hair who never turned away a customer in need.
He never met Humphrey. But he knew well the story of Humphrey’s father, Hubert Sr., a pharmacist whose conversations at Humphrey Drug in Doland, S.D., helped shape the philosophy of the son who clerked behind the counter. Hosting talks with that kind of impact was a dream SenGupta decided to pursue when the likes of U of M political scientists Ben Lippincott, Charles Backstrom and Mulford Sibley encouraged him to try.
An exchange with Josie Johnson convinced him that the effort was worthwhile. “I once asked Josie, ‘How do you change people’s minds? Through education?’ ” SenGupta asked.
“No — through conversation,” Johnson replied.
One day former Minneapolis City Council Member Robert MacGregor showed up carrying an imitation pot-bellied stove. The drug store discussion group had acquired its emblem.
The stove has been temporarily housed at the offices of Prospect Park 2020, a neighborhood planning group. But it’s due to arrive at the Common Table soon. Sabo Center director Elaine Eschenbacher says it will be welcome. But I bet she’d agree that the forum already has what it needs most for a new lease on life. It has Tom SenGupta.
Lori Sturdevant, an editorial writer and columnist, is at firstname.lastname@example.org.