Body on a bench finds a name, peace

  • Article by: MATT MCKINNEY , Star Tribune
  • Updated: January 20, 2012 - 7:21 AM

Neighbors filled in the blanks about a man who died on the shores of Lake Nokomis.

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A rose, a branch and a rock on a park bench near Lake Nokomis in Minneapolis serve as a memorial to a man found there dead in November.

Photo: David Joles, Star Tribune

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The man sitting on the park bench looked a bit odd, so some of the people walking near Lake Nokomis the day before Thanksgiving went closer to check. He wore a hat. He sat facing the lake. His mouth was open wide, as if in a scream.

An ambulance came, but the paramedics quickly determined he was beyond rescue. He carried no ID, and though some vaguely recognized him, no one knew who he was. Nothing showed up in the newspaper about the deceased, and for several weeks the mystery grew.

"It seems a little strange that there's been nothing anywhere," said Doris DuBois, speaking a week after the man was found. She lives in the neighborhood, and she and her husband, Roger, had been among the first to find the man. "To me it seems kind of sad that a guy dies sitting on a park bench and nobody knows or cares."

Death by natural causes occurs every day in Minneapolis, but rarely so public. The police log frequently records a "DOA," or dead-on-arrival call, where someone calls 911 to report a death, usually in a private home. The calls come from a relative, a nurse, a friend.

Something about the man's hat looked familiar to Roger DuBois, who walks around Lake Nokomis every day. He was sure he had seen this man on the paths there.

"It was surprising that he didn't fall over," he said. "He was just sitting there."

The man's last view would have been of Lake Nokomis, framed by trees. Farther off on the horizon, the tops of downtown Minneapolis skyscrapers square off against the sky.

Two days later Roger passed the bench, and it was empty. "It was like nothing had ever happened," he said.

It became Roger's routine for the next few weeks to maintain a kind of memorial. His daughter placed a rock on the bench. He adorned it with a pair of silk flowers. He checked it regularly.

A private, full life

The truth about the man at Lake Nokomis is that he had deep roots in the neighborhood, and his family comes from one of the earliest settlers of Minnesota. In fact it's probably difficult to find someone in Minneapolis more rooted to a place than was John L. Scherer, 69, who at the time of his death resided in the house he had grown up in, not far from the Nokomis walking paths.

Scherer didn't carry ID on the day he died, but in his pockets authorities had found a card directing them to Sande and Elizabeth Lund, who lived not far from Scherer.

Sande used to play football with Scherer when they were kids, kicking up the turf on a field at Cedar Avenue where it crosses Minnehaha Creek. The field is long overgrown with trees and native plantings, but the two men's friendship lasted.

"He was a very private man," Sande said. "In another age he would have been a mountain man or something like that, because he didn't seem to need a lot of human contact. It wasn't that he was mean, or impolite, it was just like he was more interested in internal conversations with himself."

He had been an only child, and his parents died long ago. He had five cousins, three of them locals but none that he saw regularly. He never married.

Scherer had spent his childhood playing sports, and even late into adulthood played basketball with Sande and others in a regular group that included longtime Rep. Martin Sabo every Saturday morning at the People's Center on the West Bank.

Scherer attended St. Thomas Academy, the University of Minnesota and then Indiana University, where he got his doctorate. He spent the remainder of his life as an academic, writing a book on Cyprus and guides to the Soviet Union and China, as well as teaching Russian history at universities in Iowa, Minnesota and Florida before retiring years ago, according to the Lunds.

Scherer continued to publish letters and essays in academic journals on foreign policy and terrorism. He loved words and puns, and he had a wry sense of humor. If he told a joke in a room of 20 people, three of them might get it, Sande said.

Scherer didn't attend church, but his grandfather was among the founders of the Holy Cross Lutheran Church across Minnehaha Creek from his house.

The DuBoises attend that church, and eventually learned Scherer's name from a fellow parishioner who lives across the street from Scherer.

Laid to rest

He had a history of heart trouble, but lacking an autopsy, no one knows for sure why Scherer died. Earlier this month, the family lawyer finally finished a lengthy search for relatives and allowed the Lunds to print an obituary and schedule his funeral.

On Wednesday, 20 people arrived at the funeral home two blocks from Scherer's house. They learned that his burial would be delayed by one day because the cemetery's staff was on a retreat.

During the ceremony, everyone agreed Scherer had been a gentleman and a scholar.

"John was a private and thoughtful, but not a solitary man," Sande said. "He laughed easily and often and was acutely aware of the absurdities of life. He would think it was very funny that his funeral was scheduled on a date that the cemetery was closed."

"He was one of the few people I know who genuinely started with facts and worked toward conclusions, but was never critical or petty and never spiteful. When he spoke in public or private, no reputations died."

The ceremony ended and people repaired to a room with coffee and pastries. Across the lake, on a bench adorned with a stone, four silk flowers, and a branch of an evergreen tree, snow fell.

Matt McKinney • 612-217-1747

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