A lot of nice things have been written about my friend Don Boxmeyer, who died last week. But it hasn't been enough, if you ask me, and there is room for more, especially on the Minneapolis side of the world, where St. Paul is a mystery.
If a person wanted to understand the difference between the free world and the Communist world, JFK once said, "Let them come to Berlin." If they want to understand the difference between Minneapolis and St. Paul, I say, "Let them read Don Boxmeyer."
You still can: The Minnesota Historical Society Press published, "A Knack For Knowing Things," a collection of Don's best columns, in 2003. The crowd at his book-signing at Mancini's Char House, not far from where Box grew up, was one of the biggest crushes I've ever seen at Mancini's, with two of the other ones being the lunch after Nick Mancini's funeral last year and the lunch they put on Friday for Boxmeyer.
As always, he was in the room. This time, though, it was on a table, his cremated remains in a wooden box labeled, what else?
He would've enjoyed the joke and, as was already reported, the Navy vet who wrote so many columns about ordinary men and women who served in World War II and other conflicts also would have enjoyed that a Pentagon clerical error has delayed his interment at Fort Snelling National Cemetery.
Box could've gotten a good column out of that yarn, gently elbowing a government bureaucracy that is keeping a good and honorable man from his final rest.
Over the years, Box wrote the best stories in St. Paul. I was a colleague of his for 17 years at the Pioneer Press, and Box always could come up with characters or situations better than any being invented by the new-age Novelizers of St. Paul. And his stories had the advantage of being real:
A guy who lived on Rice Street -- on the street -- sleeping in doorways and pulling his worldly belongings in a train of wagons. A construction worker who, on the sly, buried his old boots beneath the floor of the Xcel Energy Center just before the concrete was poured. A Mexican-American veteran of World War II who went right from the meatpacking plant in South St. Paul to the front lines. The dwindling band of St. Paul reservists who, by accident of history, were manning the forward gun on the USS Ward the morning of Dec. 7, 1941, and ended up firing the first American shots of WWII.
Boxmeyer loved that story and defended the sailors' claim that they had sunk a Japanese mini-sub. When the sunken sub was found, decades later, Box was ecstatic: St. Paul's naval history was confirmed.
"He was the poet of St. Paul," University of Minnesota history Prof. Hy Berman, one of the legions of Boxmeyer admirers, said as the funeral luncheon was winding down. "He wrote about average persons in a way that made their stories important to everyone."
They took their stories to Box
The typical "Boxmeyer story" was hard to describe, but everyone in town knew one when they saw one. And they always took them to Box, like people finding a gemstone might run to the town jeweler to find out what it was. In Box's hands, they knew it would shine. My own auntie Michele did it earlier this year, going to Box with a story about the employees of the old Montgomery Ward store in the Midway who still meet for laughs, years after "Monkey Wards" went away.
"Michele," I said after I read Box's story, "why didn't you tell me about that? I would have loved to write that story." "I don't know," she said with a shrug. "It just seemed like a Boxmeyer story to me."
She was right: It was a Boxmeyer story. All the good ones were. And he told them skillfully, with passion and a village storyteller's ability to make everything sound at least as interesting as it really was, and, occasionally, even more: "The rest of us might be stuck in a rainstorm, but not Donnie," his son Erik said. "Donnie would be 'marooned in a monsoon.'"
He wrote a few of his favorite tales more than once. But Boxmeyer loved telling stories, and he knew the best ones were worth retelling. A good story could always get better, but it never got old.
People do, though.
He was 67 when he died last Sunday, and was woven so deeply into the life of St. Paul that word spread throughout the city, without benefit of electronic media. Word of mouth was how he lived, and word of mouth told of his death.
He used to hide the Winter Carnival medallion, and when he accomplished the task (he wrote a lot of the clues, too), he would get out his little black book and call all the treasure keepers from decades past and deliver a coded message: "The deed is done." Over the past few years, with his health failing, everyone in St. Paul knew Box might have seen his last treasure hunt. So when he died, his wife, Kathy, got out the little black book and made the sad calls, telling everyone:
"The deed is done."
A gang of new friends
Gone was a grandpa whose "lap was always open," who taught his kids carpentry, who loved to fish and bestowed well-worn filet knives on young relatives as a rite of passage, who once teased a small nephew by painting the nose of a buck that he had shot, and which was hanging in Box's garage, a bright Rudolph red, and who loved lunch in neighborhood restaurants where guys you would think would know better liked to shout and swear but would burst into tears if "My Way" came on the jukebox.
Box went through hell over the past four years, undergoing a liver and kidney transplant, and -- typical of Box -- making a gang of new friends through it all: doctors, nurses, fellow patients and, especially, the family of the man who donated his organs to him, a man named Joe, whose picture was next to Don's at First Lutheran in St. Paul, on top of Swede Hollow, jammed with mourners.
It was a fun funeral. It started and ended with Box's "fishing songs," ancient recordings of Italian songs and country ballads, spiced with the Navy Hymn at the beginning and "Anchors Aweigh" at the end. There were eulogies from friends and family and an effort to explain that Box's fame had spread far beyond the capital, even to Minneapolis, where, as the Rev. Connie Warner said, "Apparently there is a newspaper there, too."
Yes, there is. Still. And any one of Boxmeyer's tales would have made a great read here, too. But they were anchored in the people and neighborhoods, the nooks and crannies of the city that will miss him most.
As one person said, losing Box is like seeing the big red number one that beats on top of the old First National Bank, blinking on and off, burn out.
Box's mirror was magic
"He held up a mirror to the city of St. Paul," said his old TV anchor friend Stan Turner. Turner was right, and Boxmeyer's mirror was magic: It showed St. Paul in its best light, year after year.
On one of his final days, with Erik at his hospital bedside, Box lapsed into story-telling mode, delivering from his unconscious mind and from the depths of his soul a well-rehearsed talk about his newspaper career recounting the most colorful stories and characters of his life, such as Super Mayor Charlie McCarty and the well-toupeed, accordion-playing City Councilman Vic Tedesco (who wore bermuda shorts to the funeral). As Erik listened in amazement, Box concluded his oration by mentioning, almost apologetically, that "I have some books in the back of the room, in case any of you are interested."
Erik took his father's hand, shook it and said, "I think I'll take one of those books."
I will, too.
Box is gone, awaiting his final appointment at Fort Snelling. But the big red one on top of his town still glows, and his stories, and his people, go on.
May they never stop.
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