On his way to a meeting at the Walker Art Center, architect John Cook stopped at a light near Lyndale Avenue and Dunwoody College. A blue Minneapolis city truck stopped at the light to his left before pulling out of traffic and onto the sidewalk.
As Cook explained his initial thoughts in an e-mail to Minneapolis City Council Member Lisa Goodman, “I guess if you’re a city employee (maybe public works) you can get away with stunts like that. I, on the other hand, would be given a hefty and well deserved citation.”
What Cook hadn’t seen was the man on the sidewalk, holding a sign asking for help. Cook didn’t see him because the man had no legs. Instead, the man sat on a kind of skateboard and wore only a “threadbare T-shirt.” Cook noticed the outside temperature on his dashboard thermometer. It was only 41 degrees.
The driver of the truck “approached the man with a strong sense of purpose,” Cook told Goodman. The city employee was a burly man with a long, grayish-white beard, and he wore a fluorescent safety vest and a hooded sweatshirt. Because he didn’t have a name, Cook referred to him as “Mr. Burly.”
“The scene unfolding before me suddenly seemed a little uncertain — the light was still red — and I was captivated by the precarious moment not sure of what was to happen next,” Cook wrote to Goodman. “What followed was something I wished I had captured on video.”
In an interview Friday, Cook said he was afraid the city worker was going to hassle the man. “Maybe tell him that he’s a hazard and has to move or something,” Cook said. “It was all kind of unfolding in a weird way.”
Instead, the city worker peeled off his vest and then his hoodie, which he helped put on the legless stranger on the corner. The worker was now down to a T-shirt himself. The light changed and Cook drove off, watching this “random act of kindness in my side-view mirror.”
“This city employee deserves some recognition for his bold, gracious gift to this needy person,” Cook wrote to Goodman. “Do you think you can find him?”
Goodman quickly copied Cook’s e-mail to several city departments. It didn’t take long to find the man through his boss, Mike Kennedy of the public works department. Coincidentally, last week was “public works week,” and the next one is “public service week.”
Kennedy, director of transportation maintenance and repair, identified the employee and talked with him.
“I can verify that it was a Public Works employee, and it was indeed what it appeared to be, but our employee would prefer to remain Mr. Burly for now,” Kennedy told me. “In his words, he didn’t do it to get attention, it felt like the right thing to do at the time.”
“We have folks do good things all the time, but it mostly goes unnoticed or unreported,” Kennedy wrote. “We will do something here to recognize his kindness and actions that put Public Works in a positive light.”
Kennedy said “Mr. Burly” has worked for the city for 26 years, currently in the bridge maintenance department. The employee takes care of graffiti and does general cleanup around bridge areas, so like a lot of city employees he has frequent contact with homeless people.
I’m aware that many of those who work with the homeless don’t think giving handouts to people are the best way to deal with the issue, and generally I agree. But sometimes a situation presents itself where a little person-to-person charity is warranted. I think the employee made a good, generous call.
So does Cook.
“I feel fortunate to have witnessed it,” Cook said. “It was an extraordinary act of compassion. Mr. Burly clearly has a moral compass and a sense of purpose. This simple act of kindness gave me hope that a spirit of giving is alive and well in Minneapolis.”
I’m guessing that Mr. Burly, whoever he is, sleeps pretty well at night.
Follow Jon on Twitter: @jontevlin