Five of the six men who led St. Paul over the past four decades got together Friday for a bit of banter and some serious talk about the role philanthropy can play in building the city.

Mayor Chris Coleman was joined by predecessors Larry Cohen, George Latimer, Jim Scheibel and Norm Coleman at a breakfast forum in downtown St. Paul to kick off the 75th anniversary of the St. Paul Foundation, started by business leaders in 1940 to boost the city's living standards.

In recent years, foundation leaders have worked closely with the mayors to launch and develop several projects, including District Energy, the Science Museum of Minnesota, riverfront improvements and redevelopment of the Phalen Corridor.

"We certainly couldn't do the work that we do, and we wouldn't have as much fun in this job, were it not for philanthropy," Chris Coleman said.

It was the first time in recent memory that all five mayors had come together; the only one missing was Randy Kelly, who served between the two Colemans (they're not related, despite Latimer calling Chris "Norm's nephew").

Cohen, a former district judge, is retired; Latimer, who worked in the federal government and taught after leaving office, works part time as a labor arbitrator.

Scheibel teaches public administration at Hamline University, and Norm Coleman, a former U.S. senator, chairs the advocacy groups American Action Network and Minnesota Action Network.

All ran for mayor as DFLers, although Norm Coleman famously switched to Republican ranks before winning a second term.

But Friday's discussion, moderated by former Minnesota Public Radio host Gary Eichten, was free of partisan rancor as the mayors praised and ribbed each other.

"If you go back to our State of the City speeches, all of ours, we all said things were great," said Scheibel, who then applauded Kelly in absentia for his work to create housing.

Chris Coleman noted that St. Paul wouldn't have an NHL team in the playoffs "if Norm hadn't had the temerity to call the commissioner and say, 'We want hockey in this town.' "

And Latimer, the longest-serving St. Paul mayor in modern times, gave credit to the people who came before him.

"Nearly everything that my administration was involved in had lineage before," he said.

Latimer paused. "I promised myself I'd stop at two minutes, so there are two or three jewels that you'll be deprived of now," he said.

Norm Coleman said he often turned to the city's nonprofit leaders for the difference needed to make projects not just good, but great — the "value-added" things that cities can't always do, such as design charrettes or intensive planning sessions. He said leaders such as Paul Verret, former president of the St. Paul Foundation, are instrumental in "community building."

Turning to current issues — which Cohen said bore striking resemblance to the headlines of 40 years ago — the mayors discussed how government and foundations might work to close gaps between white and minority youths. Scheibel said that residents need to be at the table, Chris Coleman backed "social and emotional learning," and Latimer endorsed "ethnic centers" that reinforce community identity.

All agreed on one thing: They loved being mayor.

"It was a profound responsibility," Cohen said.

"The greatest job you ever had or ever will have," Chris Coleman said.

"All of us can say that … the people of St. Paul, they had the heart of the lion," said Norm Coleman, paraphrasing a favorite quote from Winston Churchill. "I simply was blessed to give the roar."

Kevin Duchschere • 651-925-5035