Michael A. “Bones” Hartzell was never a man of words. But with every swish of his broom, every scratch of his rake and every scrape of his spade, he professed his love for St. Paul’s Rice Street.

On Tuesday, hundreds of Rice Streeters told him they loved him right back.

Hartzell died Dec. 2, succumbing at age 71 to pneumonia and cancer after 40 years of living on Rice Street’s sidewalks or under its store awnings. At his funeral Tuesday, which spanned eight hours at the Bradshaw Funeral Home, conversations kept returning to what the future will look like without the self-appointed steward who connected generations of neighbors.

“What now? I don’t know,” said Samantha Catlin, whose parents Hartzell (erroneously) claimed to have introduced to each other. “It’s like a last part of Rice Street has died.”

Neighbors are raising money to install a commemorative bench somewhere along the street where Hartzell grew up and returned to after serving in the Army during the Vietnam War. But, as an estimated 600 people moved through the funeral home, gathering in clusters to look at photographs or watch a video or just share stories, many did not wait to memorialize him.

There was Arthur “Popeye” Stormoen, who for a time lived outside like Hartzell as he struggled with alcoholism. He said Bones was a close friend. “Sometimes, he had a lot of anger,” said Stormoen, who now lives in South St. Paul. “I hope he’s in a better place now. He deserves that.”

There was Gary “Rice Street Skinny” Struss, who grew up playing sandlot baseball with the kids at the Hartzell house before going on to win Golden Gloves titles as a boxing light heavyweight.

“Why did we call him Bones? Because he was skinny,” Struss said. He said Hartzell cared for Rice Street not only by digging weeds and sweeping sidewalks, but also by keeping up with what was happening in the neighborhood.

“He stayed plugged in,” he said. “And I got plugged in by talking to Mike.”

And then there was Henry Huggins, who stepped off a bus from Detroit 23 years ago and met Hartzell on Rice Street.

“That was my friend,” Huggins said, breaking into a huge grin. “Bones and me used to smoke weed together. Oh, I miss him.”

Truth be told, such stories are why Hartzell’s surviving siblings decided to hold a daylong funeral at the center of Rice Street before he is buried Wednesday at Fort Snelling National Cemetery. They admit their own memories paint a less-than-complete picture of who he was. Yes, he struggled with drug addiction (he named his baby sister Annette’s gerbils Zig and Zag; he named his dog Smack). And there was mental illness.

But Bones earned the love of a neighborhood through his fierce desire to live life on his own terms, and continuously giving back to his neighbors “even though he had so little to give,” brother Kevin Hartzell said. “You wouldn’t believe the people I’ve talked to who say he saved them.”

Brittani Bailey manages Tin Cup’s bar and restaurant, where Hartzell stopped daily for a white meat chicken dinner and a Grain Belt Premium. She said she remembers learning who he was while she was a grade-schooler. Later, she said, she was repeatedly reminded why he was so loved.

“Once, our cook was out back, sweeping up cigarette butts and was having a hard time,” she said. “And, the next day, Mike bought him a new broom. He was particular how he swept. It’s just how he was.”

She added: “I can’t envision a future without him here.”

 

Correction: An earlier version of this story included the wrong date for Michael Hartzell’s burial.