All over Minneapolis' Kenwood neighborhood and the city's western suburbs are people who would not schedule a christening or bar mitzvah, a graduation or wedding reception, a 90th birthday or a memorial service without first calling caterer Jerry Beltt. If he was available to help, they'd ink the event on their calendars. If he was already booked, they'd find a date when he could be there.
His business card said "Factotum," which means he catered and served, but he was the heart, soul and essential glue of every event he worked. Often he knew more guests than anyone but the hosts, and most likely remembered their birthdays too.
Beltt died unexpectedly Jan. 18 at Hennepin County Medical Center of cardiac arrest. He was 65.
"Jerry was the go-to person in the community for parties and party planning," said Minneapolis City Council Member Lisa Goodman, a longtime friend. "He had this Midas touch so that whoever he met felt he was close to them and they to him."
In addition to family events, he was deeply engaged in the arts and theater communities, progressive politics, AIDS support groups, the Finnish community, and organizations in the Corcoran neighborhood where he lived. His clients ranged from the American Swedish Institute and the Northern Clay Center to high-profile DFL fundraisers and the Minneapolis Kuopio Partnership, a group that promotes ties to Kuopio, Finland, a sister city.
"He loved Obama and was committed to progressive politics, not just DFL but progressive, and also the Green Party," Goodman said.
"He was enthusiastic about all things Finland, and whenever we needed a volunteer he was always there," said theater director Karl Reichert, chair of the Finnish group.
Born in Cloquet to a family of Finnish heritage, Beltt was the fourth in a family of seven boys. After finishing high school in Cloquet, he served briefly in the Coast Guard and then spent about a decade working as a cook, waiter or manager at restaurants and resorts in California, Wisconsin and northern Minnesota.
In his early 30s he launched his own business in the Twin Cities. It always had a down-home quality under its black-tie veneer. While he could turn out a perfect beef tenderloin, he specialized in simple things like deviled eggs and a rutabaga casserole he credited to his mom. Men who were self-taught cooks left messy kitchens, he observed, but those who learned from their moms always clean as they worked, as he did.
"He was an incomparable major-domo who was a great networker, extraordinarily efficient and could supply an entire staff for an evening," said Jack Farrell, chairman of Haskell's wine business. Beltt worked for Farrell's family for more than 30 years, both in Minneapolis and at their summer home near Bay Lake. Farrell especially credited Beltt, who was gay and a longtime HIV survivor, as a role model for the four Farrell boys.
"That was in an era when being gay wasn't quite as acceptable as it is now, so for young boys to have in their lives someone who was gay and respected was interesting," Farrell said. "He was kind of a pioneer in that regard and didn't wear it on his shoulder; he was just a wonderful, wonderful guy."
Beltt is survived by his extended family, including brothers Bruce, Neil, Tom and Glen. A celebration of his life will be held from 1 to 4 p.m. Saturday at the Corcoran Park Recreation Center, 3334 20th Av. S., Minneapolis.
Mary Abbe • 612-673-4431