Duets: Enduring friendships, perfect pairings

  • Updated: June 27, 2013 - 8:17 AM

A little more than seven years ago, Star Tribune staff photographer Jim Gehrz and staff writer Gail Rosenblum walked into a Minneapolis barbershop to launch a feature called Duets. It was the brainchild of Lisa Clausen, the late features   design director, who challenged Jim and Gail to capture, in a single photo and short prose, the essence of a friendship between two people. Jim and Gail are still at it. Today, as the popular monthly feature marks its 50th installment, we revisit three Duets pairings ­— Sophia and Alexander, Pete and Leo, and Leah and Peter ­— plus a new one, Gail and Jim.

Sophia and Alexander

“Sis” and “Z,” as these Minneapolis siblings sometimes refer to each other, are 7 and 9 now. Time has not lessened their remarkably tight bond, which we first featured in 2007. Alexander stopped breathing during a nap when he was 3 months old. He uses a walker and continues to receive intensive physical and occupational therapy. But his secret weapon has always been his little sister. “I still do every single thing for him,” says Sophia, who has blossomed into a young lady obsessed with One Direction and sparkles. The ever-patient Alexander says Sis is right about that. “She’s literally my hands, and with me every part of the day except for school,” he says. The two attend Dowling Elementary School in Minneapolis, where he is mainstreamed and a math whiz. “He knocks everybody over when he walks by, but they’re used to it,” says his mom, Amy DiPaola, with a laugh. “He’s like the mayor of the school. ‘Hey, Zander!’ ” Alexander moves into fourth grade in the fall, Sophia into third. He can now hold a pencil for a few seconds. He plays adaptive baseball, takes swimming and piano lessons. Sophia figure-skates and dances, and plays piano, too. They plan to spend most of their summer together and are happy about that. Still, sibling rivalry pops up on occasion, a bit of a relief to Amy and husband, Sam. “Sometimes we fight over the Xbox,” Sophia says. “Or which show we want to watch,” Alexander adds. But they can’t help themselves. They love working as a team and they’re so good at it. “He helps me with football,” Sophia says. “I’ll say, ‘What’s that?’ and he’ll say, ‘Sophie, that’s the quarterback.’ ”

Pete and Leo

Time isn’t marching on too quickly for our inaugural duo of Pete Berglund and Leo Odden. Pete, of Hopkins, still sits in Leo’s black leather chair about once a month, as he has since 1974. Pete, 69, is a wheat futures trader. Leo owns the Grain Exchange barbershop in downtown Minneapolis. Leo has his hands full with Pete’s thick head of hair, which doesn’t show any sign of thinning, and still patiently endures Pete’s reminder to “not take too much off.” Pete, married for 43 years, has another grandchild since our first encounter. Leo has lost 30 pounds. “I don’t drink anymore,” says Leo, 77, the father of three and grandfather of four. “And I don’t eat white sugar, flour or white bread.” Leo, who is divorced, takes a week off from the barbershop every month to spend time with his longtime girlfriend in Wisconsin, but he isn’t about to quit cutting. He just signed a two-year lease. He’s still charging just $17 for a cut, too, sometimes with a head rub. “Leo is defying the ravages of inflation,” jokes Pete, who confesses that after getting considerable ribbing for admitting to his $1 tips in the original Duets, he now regularly hands Leo a $20, insisting that he keep the change. “He’s shamed me into doing it,” Pete says.

Leah and Peter

When we last left Leah Neubeck and Peter Elsham in 2006, they were locked in a passionate and somewhat pain-filled embrace at Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport. And who could blame them? Friends since sixth grade and sweethearts since their sophomore year at Hopkins High School, they were about to face the longest separation of their lives, as Leah headed to Northeastern University in Boston and Peter to the University of Minnesota Duluth. They tried to do the long-distance thing their first year, including visits to each other’s campus. Soon, they both realized it just wasn’t working out. “It was a lot of time on the phone, a lot of time not experiencing college,” Peter said. They’d see each other on visits home, which were always friendly but the thrill, it seemed, was gone. Peter earned a bachelor’s degree in exercise science and returned home to work full-time at the Marsh as an exercise specialist. Leah graduated with a bachelor’s degree in architecture, and was hired by SALA Architects, doing graphics and marketing. Once again, the two tried to pick up where they’d left off, but things fell apart. Then, like our favorite movie, “we just fell back together,” Leah says, delighted. Four months ago, the two 25-year-olds moved into a one-bedroom condo in St. Louis Park, painting every wall, juggling jobs, grocery shopping and their respective families who are asking the inevitable question, which they’re evading well. “It’s just been a lot of fun,” says Leah, who also coaches volleyball for a Junior Olympic team. “Not to compare it to summer camp …” “But,” says Peter, finishing her sentence, “it’s going to last a lot longer than summer camp.”

Gail and Jim

As luck would have it, one of the most enduring friendships to come out of the Duets series is that between Jim and Gail. Over the years, this professional duo has traveled together across the metro area, from the Mall of America to Orono to Plymouth. They’ve squeezed into tiny cafes, petted snakes, sat feet away from female boxers, walked a dog, chased roller skaters, attended a high school basketball game, gone birding, strolled grocery store aisles and enjoyed jazz. They’ve received countless Duets submissions (Gail gets the tough job of choosing only a select few), kept in touch with many folks they’ve spotlighted and have mourned the loss of three: June Berg, Genet Habtemicael and John Sutherland. Jim joined the Star Tribune in 2004. A year later, he was a Pulitzer finalist. He has been honored 16 times as Minnesota and Wisconsin Photographer of the Year. Gail joined the Star Tribune full-time in 2000 as a features editor, later returning to writing as the newspaper’s relationships reporter. She was named a Metro columnist in 2009. Her writing has been honored by the American Association of Sunday and Features Editors, the Associated Press and the Society of Professional Journalists. “Jim,” says Gail, “is a professional’s professional. My greatest contribution is getting out of the way of his lens!” Jim calls Gail “a gifted storyteller who is amazing at putting people at ease. That’s why this works.” They look forward to hearing from you.

 

Duets will appear on the last Saturday of each month in the Variety section.

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