My first byline in the Star Tribune came in June 1998, with an official permanent hire date about a year later. Sid Hartman was already well into his legendary status by then – and already a marvel for his age.
“Have you met Sid?” was the foremost question from pretty much anyone I encountered in those early years. It was a trend that didn’t really slow down much for two decades, much like the man himself. I would explain that, yes, I would see him multiple times a week in the office.
He would barrel right past my desk on the way to his actual closed-door office (something the sports editor in our old building didn’t even have), sometimes taking a moment to bark out a nickname-of-the-moment but often with a singular focus of beginning the assembly of the next morning’s column.
“I can’t believe he’s 79,” I would tell people, and they couldn’t either. They always imagined he was 5 or 10 years younger than he was. As the number went up, almost impossibly, the disbelief only grew. “I can’t believe he’s 86. I can’t believe he’s 91. I can’t believe he’s 94. I can’t believe … he’s 100!”
It was a paradox. As most people age, it’s a reminder that they are getting closer to death. As Sid aged, it seemed to signal the possibility that he would, improbably, live forever.
And that’s how you can be stunned to find out that a 100-year-old has died. The news of Sid’s passing Sunday hit hard, even if intellectually it was both an inevitability and came at the end of a singular life filled with enough moments and achievements for 1,000 years on earth.
It also felt strangely incomplete because of the way the last seven months have played out. We were supposed to have a huge birthday celebration for Sid to mark his 100th birthday in mid-March, but the outset of the coronavirus pandemic forced that to be canceled.
At the time, it was hard to fathom that the missed opportunity meant I would never see him again. But I haven’t been in our physical office since March 13, let alone seen my centenarian colleague. I’m sure the dollar he won from me in our wager several years ago – I believed the Vikings would trade Adrian Peterson after the 2014 season and he was adamant they would not – is still taped to his office door with my admission of being wrong scrawled on it.
If there is a particular sadness in this, it is crystallized by his son Chad’s reflection on the toll the last several months have taken on Sid.
“I want to make it clear — he didn’t die from COVID — but COVID took away the enjoyment from his life by making him stay home,” Chad said. “It took away the chance to see the people he liked. It took away his zest, not being able to go four, five different places every day and to laugh, to get on people and have them get on him.”
That was Sid. Full of energy. Inappropriate at times but also remorseful when he realized he had crossed a line.
Early on, he liked to call me “Mr. Pajamas” because I had a certain button-down shirt that reminded him of sleepwear. Maybe it was his subtle way of telling me to dress more professionally, a behavior he modeled with his ever-present sport coat and dress shirt (the latter of which was inevitably stained by press box condiments).
“What’s the hot scoop?” he would bellow at me, and I would try to explain what I was writing about. Inevitably this would take two or three tries – and often would end with his loud but mumbled response that he already wrote about that last week.
“Mr. Computer” was the name he settled on for me in more recent years. “You wouldn’t be anything without the Internet,” he would chide – only to tell me a few seconds later that I should have him on some of the videos I was doing even though he was well into his 90s at that point.
He also took to holding court more than ever in those last couple years in the office. He wanted to make sure we all remembered his stories – as though 21,235 bylined stories wasn’t enough evidence.
Sometimes I would stop and listen. Sometimes I would hustle too much – ducking away after a minute or two to a meeting, an assignment or home to my growing family.
You always imagine there will be another story, another moment.
Maybe it’s enough to learn a lesson and have the memories – and to try to share them, in a tribute of sorts, while wearing pajamas and typing on my computer.