To strangers, to those who didn’t grow up on St. Paul’s Rice Street or who didn’t work or live nearby, Mike Hartzell was a bearded man in a dirty orange coat who slept under a pile of blankets in front of a changing array of storefronts.
But to longtime residents, “Bones” was Rice Street. He was its heart and soul, its de facto caretaker who, with push broom and shears, shovels and rakes, maintained sidewalks and thresholds up and down the street for more than 40 years. All while living outside every single day, in good weather or harsh, refusing decades of offered charity.
On Sunday, Rice Street lost an icon. Hartzell, 71, died at the Minneapolis Veterans Medical Center after suffering from pneumonia and cancer, said his sister Claudine Hartzell.
Rice Street was the neighborhood where he grew up. Where he returned after serving during the Vietnam War, ferociously guarding his independence and refusing handouts or offers of shelter. He insisted on working for the meals he received from restaurant owners and declined to come inside on even the most frigid of nights unless there was a task to be completed.
“We kind of accepted the fact that this was his choice and he wasn’t going to have it any other way,” his sister said Sunday night. “He became a steward for the neighborhood he grew up in. Even when he was in the hospital, he couldn’t wait to get out so he could get back to his job.”
Mike Hartzell was born in St. Paul on Feb. 22, 1947, one of five children. No one really knows how he earned the Bones nickname. Maybe it started when he ran cross-country at Washington High School. He graduated from the old Washington in 1965.
After graduating, Hartzell served in the Army from 1966 to 1968. Records show he was stationed in Korea in 1967. When he returned to Rice Street, his family said, he came back with drug and alcohol problems. But he refused to surrender his independence. So he stayed on the street — sweeping, weeding, raking.
Hartzell had become such a respected fixture, the Legislature honored him for his 70th birthday with a proclamation that called him a “steward of the community” and “an upstanding citizen of St. Paul and icon on Rice Street.” In February 2017, Lonetti’s Lounge, a Hartzell daily stopping point, threw him a birthday party. The place was packed.
For years, a Facebook page devoted to “Bones on Rice Street” featured photos and videos of him riding his bike and doing knuckle push-ups. It has thousands of “likes.”
He was hospitalized before Thanksgiving, Claudine Hartzell said. Hartzell’s brother was able recently to get him transferred to the VA Medical Center, and family had intended to move him into hospice. Instead, they now are talking about holding a memorial service somewhere on his beloved Rice Street to give the community a chance to share their memories, his sister said.
On Sunday night, fundraising was already underway for a statue, or an engraved bench, honoring Hartzell on his street.
He will be buried at Fort Snelling, Claudine Hartzell said. Arrangements are pending.
He is survived by Claudine, another sister and two brothers.