Nick Coleman, the well-known, hard-headed scribe who used his way with words to point out the good and the bad in a community he deeply loved, died Wednesday after a massive stroke. He was 67.
The son of a Minnesota Senate majority leader and brother of a St. Paul mayor, Coleman took pride in speaking truth to power. His bluntness could rub people the wrong way sometimes, but he saw journalism as a way to serve the greater good. He said it was a lesson he learned growing up in St. Paul from the nuns in his elementary school.
"You know, if you didn't want to grow up to be a priest, a firefighter, a police officer or a nun, you had no purpose in life," he told MPR's Cathy Wurzer in 2009. "So I tried to figure up something similar in terms of its importance and necessity, service. And I found being a newspaper journalist filled that for me."
Former media columnist David Brauer said Coleman became one of the best reporters and columnists Minnesota has ever seen.
"Nick's legacy was that he made a lot of people mad. But he also thrilled a lot of people with the strength of his language and who he called out," Brauer said. "The fact that he was willing to take on the big guys. He had no more delight than bringing down the big guys. He was really a free swinger from an age that I think has passed."
Coleman began working at the Minnesota Daily while at the University of Minnesota, eventually becoming editor in chief. The Minneapolis Tribune hired him in 1973.
One day in 1978 he got his first big scoop by accident. On a day off, his in-laws took him to a speech by Twins owner Calvin Griffith at the Lions Club in Waseca. When Griffith peppered his talk with overtly racist comments about African-Americans, Coleman said he just about fell out of his chair. Then he wrote the story.
Griffith's comments caused outrage and lost his team its star player.
"I would say something hit the fan, in the old farm expression," Coleman remembered. "Rod Carew stripped off his uniform and sat in the locker room, spitting on the floor, saying he would never play for the Twins again. And he never did."
Coleman butted heads with many people he covered. He was declared persona non grata at Minnesota Public Radio for his coverage of Garrison Keillor at one point. David Brauer said the list of the aggravated ran long.
"If you talked to [late former governor] Rudy Perpich, he'd say the same thing. If you talked to [former governor] Arne Carlson, he'd say the same thing," Brauer said. "If you talked to the people who organized the Republican National Convention, they'd say the same thing. It was no fun having to be somebody that Nick Coleman was coming after, because he had no brakes."
That was true even if you were a family member. Former St. Paul Mayor Chris Coleman had Nick both as an older brother and a godfather.
"Having Nick as a brother was like having Nick cover you," he said. "Sometimes it was the best of times and sometimes you walked away just scalded, because he never held back."
And that was before the younger Coleman became mayor. However, he spoke with pride about his brother's work covering the troubles in Northern Ireland, and then turning his attention to the injustices and long term impacts of the Dakota War of 1862. He remembers his brother covering the Red River floods of 1997 from a rowboat as Grand Forks caught fire.
Nick Coleman moved to the Pioneer Press to become a columnist, and then back to the Star Tribune. He took a buyout there in 2009. Coleman took great pride in his Irish heritage and his community, as was evident during a chance encounter with an MPR reporter on St. Patrick's Day in 1999.
"It's a great day," he yelled. "It's a great day to be Irish, or to want to be Irish, or to know someone who is Irish, or to have to put up with someone who is Irish. There they go, that's my family!" Coleman and his family had just returned from a cultural heritage celebration in St. Louis when he began having trouble breathing Sunday evening. He was put on life support at Regions Hospital but died Wednesday. Funeral services are set for Friday morning.
Correction (May 17, 2018): The Minneapolis Tribune hired Coleman in 1973. An earlier version of this story said it was the Minneapolis Star.