Tevlin: 100 years as a witness to a lot of local history

  • Article by: Jon Tevlin
  • Star Tribune
  • March 4, 2014 - 7:58 PM

Richard Morris Mann has seen and accomplished a lot in his nearly 100 years, but as he prepared to celebrate hitting the century mark earlier this week, he still couldn’t outfox a concerned daughter.

“The neighbor said you sneaked in about nine-thirty the other night,” teased the daughter, Margo Grace Mann-Lanier. “You’re not supposed to be out alone at night.”

Mann offered a mischievous smile and shook his head.

“They’ve got a motion sensor on their light,” he deadpanned. “Dead giveaway.”

Mann’s independent streak and sense of humor have no doubt played a part in his remarkable longevity and continued good health. Good genes did too — his mother lived to age 90.

But when I asked whether he could credit clean living for his health, he quickly quipped: “Be careful with that. I like a glass of scotch once in a while.”

On March 8, friends and family will gather to celebrate Mann, who started out shining shoes in his grandfather’s barber shop on Grand Avenue in St. Paul to help support his family after his father died when Mann was young. Mann still recalls when the Ku Klux Klan tried to run his grandfather out of business.

“The Klan was very big in St. Paul back in those days,” Mann said.

Mann often did two jobs at the same time, from polishing cars to working as a porter in the high-end clothing store, Grodnik and Fassbinder on Nicollet Avenue.

Though society still wasn’t completely integrated at the time, the owner of the store welcomed black business and Mann was adept at bringing them in to earn a 5 percent commission. Among the friends he brought in to buy $30 tailored suits were famed photographer Gordon Parks and jazz musician Lester Young.

“I signed the bill for Gordon’s first camera,” said Mann. “We were good friends. He still owes me four dollars.”

Working for the clothier, Mann developed good taste in his attire and is still known as a natty dresser. “I also liked money and women, and I had them both,” he said.

Mann’s generation came long before the civil rights movement, so he was never very involved, but he often broke barriers in small, quiet ways.

He started one of the region’s first integrated jazz clubs, Treasure Inn, outside the black community in Roseville. The club drew some of the top jazz performers from around the country, including Percy Hughes and Prince Rogers, father of Minnesota mega star Prince.

Later, Mann owned a small beer joint in the Rondo neighborhood, the Chatsworth Inn, that served workers in nearby factories. He eventually sold his share and took as job as an Equal Employment Opportunity counselor at the Post Office, where he would spend the next 30 years.

Giving a tour of his small, immaculate home on the same block where he has lived since 1948, Mann proudly showed off scores of pictures of his extended family, which includes three children from his first wife. She died of cancer and Mann remarried, a match that lasted the next 50 years until his second wife, Mildred, died in 2012. Mann cared for Mildred, who had Alzheimer’s disease, the last few years of her life.

Mann didn’t think he would have another 30 years in retirement. But it’s given him a good long time to hone his golf game and work on his culinary skills.

He still plays golf every week with a group of friends at the Highland course in St. Paul and shoots under 50 for nine holes. His son, Richard, believes his father is the oldest registered golfer in the St. Paul league.

Daughter Margo is grateful for her father’s steady presence over many decades.

“He’s given us so much,” said Margo. “You can always count on him. We had heavy discipline growing up, and that was important. He also taught us that education was important. All three of us went to college.”

The family has continued that emphasis on education by starting a scholarship fund in their father’s name for black students who go to college.

Margo is constantly surprised at how self sufficient her father remains.

“A neighbor came to the door the other day with sweet rolls,” Margo said. “She said, `These are for your dad; he shoveled my sidewalk.’” • 612-673-1702 Follow Jon on Twitter: @jontevlin

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