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A newcomer can find welcome in Minnesota. Eventually

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Steve Harris
Steve Harris is director of Philanthropic Communications for the YMCA of the Greater Twin Cities.
Submitted photo

By Steve Harris

Steve Harris is director of philanthropic communications for the YMCA of the Greater Twin Cities. With his wife, Susie, he is  owner and innkeeper of Anna V's Bed & Breakfast in Lanesboro, Minn.

Are Minnesotans welcoming to newcomers? Over the last four decades I've "moved back" here four times, so I can offer an opinion. My answer sounds, well, Minnesotan: "Yes, kind of."

The week I arrived from California in the early '70s to attend (then) Bethel College, Gov. Wendell Anderson and his big fish were on the famous Time Magazine cover and Mary Tyler Moore was still new in town. It seemed like a friendly, interesting, positive place. That fit the people, too. I hadn't heard the cliche yet, but felt it: Minnesota Nice.

Everything was great. Except the weather. "It is 86 degrees at 11 p.m. — how can that be?"  I asked as I moved into my dorm that hot August night. A few months later I was asking, "It's so cold my nose hairs freeze when I walk across campus — how can that be?" 

Weather has so much to do with Minnesota — and Minnesotans. Even in our current tropical winter, living here can be a challenge to endure as much as a pleasure to enjoy. It makes people hardy and resilient, or it makes them go away. 

The first Minnesotans I met seemed a bit ... arrogant ... about their weather. They talked about past storms and absurdly cold wind chills with a twinkle in their eye. It was a badge of honor to live here. They weren't going to quickly pin that badge on any newcomer. It had to be earned. 

Dick Guindon, the incredibly talented and popular cartoonist for the old Minneapolis Tribune, once drew a map of Minnesota with one word in the middle: "Us." From the borders emanated arrows pointing away to all the other states with the word "Them." That's how Minnesotans can be, in a quiet, Scandinavian kind of way: "Us" and "Them." You need to be here a while to be an "Us."

Minnesotans are reservedly friendly to newcomers. They won't throw a party because you've arrived, but they'll drop by a few days (or weeks) later with a pan of bars. They're a bit stealthy, lurking on the edges of deeper friendship until they see if you're going to stick it out. To see what you're made of. Friendships in Minnesota are more crockpot than microwave. 

My first experience here was in the ready-made community of a college campus. My second, after nearly a decade in New England, was in a small town in central Minnesota, where local culture focused on the Catholic church and the Legion, two places where I — a Baptist pastor at the time — didn't quite fit. Our church family was supportive, but in more than two years, our neighbors never said a single word to us. 

The man did wave. Once.

The third move, this time after a seven-year sojourn back home in California, brought us to the western suburbs of Minneapolis, where busy neighbors occasionally visited in driveways but didn't organize block parties. Work colleagues became friends, but even after living here more than half my adult life, I didn't feel "Minnesotan."

Some of that was my fault, I now realize. Part of me was holding back, perhaps wanting to stay loyal to my own roots. "You've lived here long enough," my wife recently told me. "Don't you think it's time you got some decent snow boots?" Friendliness is a dance that needs two partners.

My fourth Minnesota move was three years ago, to the little village of Lanesboro in southeastern Minnesota. Small towns (all towns?) are built on family connections. But even a small town has places where you can find friendliness and friends. It takes time. But it will happen if you work at it.

How do you do that? You volunteer at the Beer Garden at Buffalo Bill Days. You eat breakfast with the locals at the "Chat and Chew" restaurant. You walk your dog in the park and shop at the Farmer's Market. You get out there and keep smiling and keep "visiting." Minnesotans like that. And they will like you. 

Sometimes they'll even surprise you. A few months after we moved in, while on an out-of-state trip, we got a call from Dean, our new neighbor (whom we really didn't know yet), telling us that a big storm had knocked down our large maple tree.

"We're returning in a few days," I said. "Can you call someone to take care of it?" 

"Sure," he said. 

We returned to find the tree mess entirely cleaned up, and learned that Dean and his wife had done all the work themselves. When we offered to pay them for time and labor, they refused. "We're neighbors," Dean said. "That's what neighbors do."

Are Minnesotans friendly to newcomers? 

Generally speaking, yes, but not in an overly expressive way. A unique combination of ethnic roots, family-centered culture and climate color that. But there are good people here, helpful and kind people, who are ready to do what they can for others, even the others they don't know yet.  

Maybe that's why I keep coming back.