In his dozen years as mayor of Minneapolis, R.T. Rybak was the poster child for ebullience, a fearless crowd-surfer (once even urging his mother into a sea of palms) and an advocate for equality, whether for marriage, among races, within education — even between cities.
“You will never hear the words ‘Twin Cities’ come out of my mouth,” he said recently. “'Minneapolis' and 'St. Paul' are beautiful words, so why not say them?”
Still, we know he likes Minneapolis best.
So it’s ironic what finally broke him was going to its funerals.
First elected in 2002, Rybak rejected the advice that mayors should best be associated with bearing good news and decided that he would be on the scene whenever a young person died from gun violence. He wanted families to know that their children mattered, that the mayor would sit with them on their front steps or in the pews because they mattered.
He also knew that any note of false sincerity or a pat phrase would be rightly resented, so he’d take a moment to imagine himself in the same situation, if his family had suffered such tragedy.
Those moments helped him connect with families, but they took an unforeseen toll. In his new memoir, “Pothole Confidential,” Rybak recalled turning to City Council Member Don Samuels, after going to several funerals in two weeks. “Don,” he said, “in my mind I have killed my kids six times in the past two months.”
Sitting in his sunlit home in south Minneapolis, Rybak was careful to say that he chose to make those visits, even though “I was not comfortable being that emotionally vulnerable.” He could have stopped, or gone to fewer.
“But I had to do it. And that’s complicated.”
For years, his father, Raymond Thomas Rybak Sr., owned a drugstore at Chicago and Franklin avenues, in the Phillips neighborhood. The job was all-consuming and when he had a stroke, Rybak’s mother stepped up. A little more than a year later, in 1965, the elder Rybak died.
Raymond Thomas Jr. was 10.
When Rybak sent the first draft of his memoir to his editor, Erik Anderson at University of Minnesota Press, he figured he’d covered his childhood well enough.
“I talked about when my father died, and moved on,” Rybak said. “Then the pages came back, ‘Uh, a little more here?’ ”
He’d approached the writing project as if he’d been “a journalist embedded in City Hall.” The tactic felt familiar, given his time as a reporter at the Star Tribune in the early 1980s, but such objectivity kept him at arm’s length from the main character — himself.
Sitting in the backyard, where he liked to write, he faced down 1965 and his father’s funeral.
“I remember being unbelievably angry for a 10-year-old,” he said. “People came up to me at the funeral, and I know they meant well, but they said the most clueless things. Patronizing things. I vowed I would never be that clueless person. I would not be ‘that guy’ at my dad’s funeral.”
So he started seeking out those in grief, hoping to convey to them what he’d wanted to hear decades ago.
Then, one afternoon, he suddenly realized that he couldn’t do it anymore. In 2012, a disgruntled employee killed six people at Accent Printing, many of them people he’d met just six weeks earlier during a visit to the business. As he walked through the Accent parking lot back to his car, he knew that he could not run for a fourth term. As he wrote: “Accent was the final straw.”
Sometimes, awkward works
It’s been a couple of years since Rybak left the mayor’s office, where he coined the rallying cry that Minneapolis “needs to regain its collective swagger.” It was admittedly awkward to say, “but it was absolutely crucial,” he said, after too many years of the city gamely calling itself “The Mini-Apple.” “It’s like Prince felt — that he could be the best in the world, and do it right here.”
Rybak loves Minneapolis like a middle-school crush. You imagine postcards on his bedroom wall of the Guthrie, “Spoonbridge and Cherry,” the Midtown Global Market, Minnehaha Falls, all connected with strands of pink yarn.
He swims in lakes Harriet and Calhoun and cross-country skis around Lake of the Isles. His backyard is terraced with raised beds that are “lent” to Boot Strap Urban Farm, a small business that maintains garden plots all over Minneapolis, growing produce for CSAs and local restaurants.
“If you go to Riverview Wine Bar, that’s often our basil,” Rybak said, ebulliently. “Isn’t that great?”
He calls himself an obsessive Twins fan. “If I’m sitting on the couch watching TV, it’s likely to be a Twins game,” he said. “They’re my mood ring. I’m happy when they win and I’m not when they lose.”
If it’s a “W” kind of game, he tweets in rhyme on his Twitter account, @R_T_Rybak. From April 18: I offer no fancy poetry/ No onomatopoeia / But a key to @Twins winning/ Is Oswaldo Arcia.
“I think a lot in rhyme,” he said. “Sometimes I have to un-rhyme things before I speak so people don’t think I’m insane.”
He grew uncharacteristically quiet, looking as if he’d suddenly regretted bringing it up. Then he smiled and shrugged: “I don’t understand it.”
‘And wear dancing clothes’
Rybak looks a decade younger than his 60 years. His hair is more steely than blond, but his glacially blue eyes are as blue, and as piercing, as ever.
Even Barack Obama, when meeting Rybak while in Minneapolis for a fundraiser in 2006, told him, “Your eyes are really intense.” An Obama presidency was nothing more than conjecture at the time. But Rybak urged him to run — like, now. He’d become the first U.S. mayor to endorse Obama, working tirelessly on his behalf.
The two have stayed in touch, although Rybak laughingly stressed, “It’s not like he calls me for advice.” In fact, the last time they spoke was in June of last year.
After the slightest hesitation, Rybak shared that he and his spouse, Megan O’Hara, received an invitation “that said go to the White House at 9 p.m. and wear dancing clothes.” They pulled up to an unexpectedly quiet entrance and were ushered inside to what turned out to be an ultra-private party hosted by the First Couple. The entertainment: Prince and Stevie Wonder.
“And,” Rybak said with a smile, “that’s all I’ll say about that.”
One reason he and the president have remained in touch “is that I think he likes the fact that I never asked him for anything,” he said. “Hey, I’d already gotten the present I wanted all my life — to, from the beginning, deeply believe in someone and see him, through the incredible obstructionism and racism, beat the odds.
“I’m really proud of Obama, and that may not be cool, but tough.”
Cue the speculation
So, when is R.T. moving to Washington? Never, he says.
Then when is he running for governor? Not interested, he says.
Rybak seems resigned to the idea that in many eyes, once a politico, always a politico. That is not a compliment.
“I think once you put ‘politician’ next to someone’s name, they question your motives more,” he said. “It’s the only thing I don’t miss about politics. Now that I’m at the Minneapolis Foundation, I won’t have every action viewed through that cynical prism.”
Earlier this month, Rybak was named CEO/president of the foundation, which last year distributed more than $80 million in grants to the community. There could be, he says, no job better suited to him.
“Why would I think about what’s next? It’s what is,” he said, with a smidge of exasperation. “I’ve always done civic work, and I think you can do public work without being a public official. I don’t take anything off the table, but no, I will live all my life in Minneapolis.
“It’s really that simple.”