In winter, when the lake had frozen over, Ronald Libertus would dash across the ice to get to and from school.

The Leech Lake reservation was poor, but there was always fresh bread in his grandmother’s kitchen. Years later, Libertus would say that he could smell cinnamon rolls from across the lake as he ran home on Friday afternoons.

A member of the White Earth Nation, Libertus (Gitchi-nibi was his Ojibwe name and means “great water”) left the reservation to attend Macalester College and settled in the Twin Cities.

But his American Indian heritage remained an essential part of his life, whether he was championing an Indian artist or teaching a class in the University of Minnesota’s Department of American Indian Studies.

“That was very important to Ron, to be Indian,” said his wife, Judy Libertus.

A big man with a gravelly voice and a soft, open face, Libertus “was a person you would gravitate toward,” his wife said.

He developed friendships with artists across the country, and took graduate students from the U to meet them and learn about their work as part of a 6-week course.

“Students have told me, and told him, it changed their life,” Judy Libertus said.

When his acute myeloid leukemia was diagnosed in early 2018, people wanted to come see him — “I think they didn’t believe it was true,” said his daughter, Sarah Libertus — but he was hesitant to have visitors. So friends wrote e-mails, and his wife and daughter read them aloud.

It was only in reading those letters, Sarah Libertus said, that they realized just how many people he had supported, quietly, over the course of his life.

Emma Nelson