For nearly 23 years, Lou Gelfand loved a job few could stomach. As one of the nation’s longest-serving newspaper ombudsmen, Gelfand fielded an average of 30 complaints a day as the Star Tribune readers’ representative from 1981 to 2004.
He wrote corrections and never shied away from taking co-workers and editors to task in his Sunday “If You Ran the Newspaper” column for everything from sloppy grammar to perceived bias.
“If you’re a corporate lackey, you don’t have any credibility with the readers, so what’s the point?” he once said.
Gelfand died Wednesday morning at his nursing home from complications of Alzheimer’s disease. He was 91. A private family funeral was held Thursday and a public memorial is planned for early next year, said his son, Mike Gelfand.
Before becoming what the Wall Street Journal called a “rarity as the one-man complaint department,” Gelfand worked as a Minneapolis Star reporter, a St. Paul Pioneer Press and Dispatch sports editor, a public relations executive at Pillsbury and the Minneapolis and St. Louis Railway, and the first salaried Guthrie Theater administrator.
“He was a hard-working grinder and of all those jobs, being the readers’ rep was certainly his favorite,” Mike said. “Those big ears of his were very sympathetic and he enjoyed dealing with readers because they were as passionate about the newspaper as he was.”
One of those readers, insurance broker David Leitschuh, said he called Gelfand a handful of times to complain about inaccuracies or editorialized news coverage.
“He would take it to the reporter or editor and call it like he saw it in his Sunday column,” Leitschuh said. “He was a charming man with a great intellect and a real populist, not some customer service shill trying to appease angry readers.”
Gelfand was born in Tulsa, Okla., and grew up during the Dust Bowl days of the Great Depression. His father, Jacob, ran a pawnshop that his mother, Sadie, called “a jewelry store.”
He was drafted into the military at the tail end of World War II, testing so high on IQ tests that the Army trained him in Japanese — a language he spoke fluently even after moving into a nursing home.
He’d often retell with pride a story about visiting postwar Japan with his late wife and overhearing a couple on the Tokyo subway making fun of their American clothing. As they stepped off the subway, he turned to his critics and said in fluent Japanese, “I’ll try to dress more suitably next time” — mortifying the Japanese for their inadvertent rudeness.
“Lou took mischievous delight in telling and retelling that story,” said Mike Meyers, a former Star Tribune business reporter and close friend who fielded his share of Gelfand barbs.
“He was a guy who often ate alone in the cafeteria because reporters were so damned thin-skinned,” Meyers said.
His son called him “relentlessly fair” and Gelfand surveyed his own columns and found he split about evenly between backing the paper and the complaining readers.
Gelfand’s tenure at the newspaper ended bitterly. He filed an age discrimination lawsuit when editors tried to shift him to a part-time reporting job covering religion. He eventually settled the case out of court for an undisclosed sum.
Editors eliminated the readers’ representative job six years ago.
Gelfand, a diminutive white-haired man who played tennis well into his 80s, had often joked that he planned to live until he was 100 “even it kills me.”