Firecracker of the Year
The office landline had a rare intermittent tone come the first Tuesday In June. What in the heck? Could it be there is opportunity waiting in the form of a voicemail? *99: “You have one new message and you better retrieve it!” (Even the machines tell us what to do.) BEEP…” Hola, you stumble bums, the siesta is over, you better get out from under your sombreros and dust off the publishing computer. This is the official self-appointed spokesperson for the Firecracker of the Year Committee. One of you jackasses needs to get on your donkey and ride over to the Minneapolis Farmers Market. Specifically we want you there at 6:45 am on June the 23rd. Marianna at Untiedt’s will have our report. She is not coming to find you deadbeats this year so we trust that you can follow through on one simple assignment.
At the appointed time and place we met up with aforementioned Queen of Strawberries and Ambassador of Good Will sent here each summer by Ukraine’s Minister of Peace and Understanding. Smiling brightly as is her wont, Marianna handed over the familiar Red Owl grocery bag offering the traditional “drobry den” greeting. It will surprise no one to learn we procrastinated all week before opening the contents of the sack, the good old Arco coffee tin, plastic lid sealing the contents per usual. It was a surprise to find the can contained a modern jump drive instead of the typically well scribed cursive note. With great anticipation and carelessly ignoring the threat of a virus we jammed the device into the nearest Dell.
Well if you are reading this on a computer screen it means you are further along technology-wise than half of the Firecracker of the Year Selection Committee thought you were. Given your sporadic publication schedule we thought it might help to give you a “jump” on getting this issue out on to the information superhighway.
First, it’s probably best if we remind readers what this is all about. The Firecracker of the Year is an award given to a person, or persons, who contribute to the betterment of the civic marketplace here in the Twin Cities, the cultural and financial Capital of the Upper Midwest (take that you “North” frauds). Our merry band formed organically over drinks in Charlie’s bar in 1993. We searched high and low and begged everybody from John Cowles Jr. to Burt Cohen to publish our nominees, but it wasn’t until we hit the bottom of the ink barrel that we found Neerland & Oyaas Online, desperate for content and warm to our concept.
Over the cycle, July to June we put forth nominees to be considered at our annual meeting on Memorial Day. We met where we normally do, around the round table in the Grill at the Minneapolis Club (we like to be alone during our deliberations). Normally the nominees tend to rank easily and the Firecracker is awarded with rapid consensus. This year we discovered we had four very high quality candidates in the mix. None of us had a clear favorite and we did not want to start precedent declaring a four way tie. Ultimately we determined that although each is inspirational and deserving, three of four have the opportunity to surface again so we played the posthumous card.
We recognize that your publication has offered several tips of the hat to the Community Reinvestment Fund (CRF) and its founder Frank Altman, but this Committee was not aware of the breadth of CRF’s accomplishments until some wonks among us saw that Frank and CRF were going to be recognized at the Clinton Global Initiative gathering in Atlanta. The big guy himself did indeed specifically honor the Detroit Home Mortgage program which is a collaboration that includes several Michigan banks, CRF and the Kresge Foundation. (Some may recognize the name Rip Rapson, the head of the Kresge Foundation. He was a high school tennis champ out of good ol’ Marshall U High in Minneapolis). CRF has been revolutionizing the art of community lending for more than 25 years, essentially bridging the gap between mainstream lending and community by increasing the attractiveness of community loans to traditional capital markets. The Committee would not be at all surprised if the next President Clinton taps Altman’s acumen for altruistic financial innovation in a formal way as part of her new administration. Certainly this would give Frank a pole position in the next cycle for Firecracker of the Year (FCY) consideration.
Our entire Firecracker confab has been wowed by the accomplishments of a determined athlete named Nate Augspurger who is headed to the Olympics in Rio as part of the US Rugby team. Nate was introduced to the sport by his father Andy, legendary RCF ruger from South Minneapolis. Nate followed his talented brother Sam into club rugby while at Minneapolis Southwest High School where he showed only flashes of what was to come. Nate joined the club team at the University of Minnesota spending long hours both in the gym and outside on the field all year long. By sophomore year Nate was one of the stars of the nationally ranked Gopher rugby club. Upon graduation from the UofM in 2012 with a degree in Sociology, Nate immediately accepted an invitation to train with the US Olympic development squad in San Diego and also began playing with the world renown New York Sevens. (Rugby is played essentially in two forms, “Union” which is 15 players on each team and “7’s” a seven on seven game that is played in two seven minute halves.) It has been 92 years since Rugby has been an Olympic sport and ironically the US, which is not considered a traditional rugby power, holds the last two Olympic golds (1920 and 1924). 2016 will be a 7’s battle and Nate will be in the thick of it. He is listed in programs as 5′7″ 170lbs but we think that is a misprint; the man’s heart is at least that big. Should the US shock the rugby establishment and bring home a medal, watch for Nate among the favorites in the next FCY edition.
The accomplishments of State Senator Terri Bonoff have been on the committee’s radar for some time now. In an era where uber-partisan behavior has all but wrecked the ship of state at all levels of government Senator Bonoff has been an exception to a most destructive rule. Her accomplishments are many but we are most impressed with the Pipeline Initiative, a very successful creative collaboration among Minnesota’s employers and post-secondary educators. The hallmark of Terri’s elected service is her desire to unite the “middle” and use the too-often untapped desire of the everyday citizen to work together, across party lines and in spite of regional differences. Senator Bonoff’s public service is informed by a rich family history in area retail (her grandfather founded the venerable Jackson Graves), her own business acumen honed at Tonka Toys and Navarre Corporation, along with strong Faith and mother bear love for family. The national embarrassment called the GOP primary touched Terri like it did most of the nation. Her ability to win election in a very purple senate district was one of the reasons Democratic Party leaders approached Terri to run for Congress in a likewise purple congressional district. CD 3 is not the GOP stronghold many think it to be. Both John Kerry and President Obama carried it. The gay marriage ban and voter ID measures lost handily. It will not be hard for Terri to show voters that she is up to the task of representing their broader interests in Washington DC. The tricky part will be to demonstrate that the incumbent is running on the fumes of the legacies of his predecessors, Jim Ramstad and Bill Frenzel. Congressman Paulsen’s support for Trump and NRA support for his campaign make some of that case already. Should the Bonoff upset occur, she will be well positioned for FCY next time around.
Now let’s move on to the winner. If one combined Altman’s genius with Augspuger’s grit and Terri Bonoff’s integrity into one human being, it would surely resemble the late great Wheelock Whitney. Many of us on the committee were close to Wheelock, making friendships through civic and political endeavors, chemical dependency and human rights awareness as well as matters regarding professional sports. Upon his passing in May, many of Wheelock’s accomplishments were well chronicled in great detail in far more respectable publications than N&O Online but we want to share a moment that will remained emblazoned in our memories until our final curtains fall.
The Selection Committee in its formative years sent a contingent to talk with Wheelock about our committee and its mission to promote bold civic and individual behavior. The discussion made its way to the topic of the potential contraction of the Twins, which was being proposed at that time, at the highest levels of major league baseball. Seated in well-worn leather chairs around his desk in his Foshay Tower office, Wheelock educated us about the history of major league baseball in Minnesota. He explained how his partnership with seven other potential markets to form a new major league under the leadership of Branch Rickey ultimately forced the establishment to relent. Wheelock excused himself and returned with a tattered manila file which contained a set of letters from Rickey to Wheelock. They were all hand written, fountain pen on legal paper. There were maybe four separate letters, two or three pages each. Wheelock unfolded them one by one upside down to him for our benefit, one by one reading highlights from each, obviously from memory. He stopped at one point to point out a cigar ash and a watermark at the top of one particular page. Rickey had drawn an arrow to point the mark out with a parenthetical note (sorry Wee, these tables in the club car are too damn small for my tablet, scotch and ashtray). He looked up at us and said “This was never a story about a brash Whitney kid from Stearns County. The Continental League was a means to something much bigger led by Branch Rickey himself. This man knew baseball, this man knew social and economic justice and he never feared today knowing tomorrow would be much better.” It was the story of vision, perseverance and honesty.
Genius, Grit, Integrity… Wheelock Whitney, our Firecracker of the Year. The committee further unanimously reports that beginning July 4, 2016 the Lifetime Achievement Award shall be known as the “Wheels Up,” honoring this man who embodied all that the Firecracker of the Year is meant to be.
Previous Firecrackers of the Year:
Patrick Born (2015); Dylan Kesti (2014); R.T. Rybak (2013); Sam Grabarski, Lifetime Achievement, and Will Leer (2012); Todd Andrews (deceased, 2011); Kieran Folliard (2010); George Brophy (deceased, 2009); Arvonne Fraser, accepting on behalf of Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton, Barbara Alivato (deceased), Rochelle Olson, Kathleen O’Brien, Margaret Anderson Kelliher, Barbara Johnson, and Julie Kramer (2008); Joe Kimball, Lifetime Achievement, and Peter McLaughlin, accepting on behalf of Anita Duckor, Friends of the Minneapolis Library, Colin Hamilton, Sheldon Mains, Gary Thaden, Kit Hadley, Amy Ryan and John Gibbs (2007); Shane Nackerud (2006); Michael Opat (2005); Joe Baier and Julie J. “JJ” Haywood-Palmer (2004); Nick Koch (2003); Ann Barkelew (2002); Betsy Hodges (2001); David Barnhill (2000); Judy Zaitz (1999); Cornell Moore (1998); James Lileks (1997); Rick Stafford (1996); Coral Houle (1995); and Michael Rainville, The Original (1994).