Nick Coleman, an ornery, poetic, fearless former columnist for the Star Tribune and Pioneer Press, died Wednesday. He suffered a massive stroke Sunday night after returning to his St. Paul home from an Irish festival in St. Louis with his wife and three teenage sons. He was 67.
"My impetuous and Homeric husband, Nicholas Joseph Coleman, recent gold medal winner of the 2018 Midwest Fleadh recitation competition in St. Louis, is leaving this earth," his wife, former Pioneer Press columnist Laura Billings Coleman wrote Tuesday in an e-mail to friends and family. "All six of his kids have been at his bedside to say goodbye, surrounded by our family and unbelievably generous friends and neighbors who have held us up with stories, poems, and prayers, and so many baked goods and pot roasts on the porch."
Coleman, brother of former St. Paul Mayor Chris Coleman and son of the late longtime state Sen. Nicholas Coleman, spent more than 30 years as a columnist, an unapologetic liberal who skewered the powerful and privileged on both sides of the aisle.
At the same time, his columns reflected his affection for working people and his deep knowledge and love of his native Minnesota.
Educated at Cretin High School and the University of Minnesota, Coleman came to what was then the Minneapolis Tribune in January 1973, a 22-year-old St. Paul kid who had "a naive belief that journalism was a calling, not just a paycheck," he later wrote.
Coleman first won widespread attention in 1978 from his reporting on racist statements by then-Twins owner Calvin Griffith.
His first column was covering radio and television, before he moved to the Pioneer Press as a metro columnist in 1986.
He returned to the Star Tribune as a metro columnist from 2003 to 2009, and he wrote an editorial column through 2010.
In a 2005 column, Coleman described the grim atmosphere of a mechanics strike at fading Northwest Airlines:
"Something intangible has been sucked out of the life of the Twin Cities. Our friends and neighbors have worn the colors of the hometown airline for decades, and the connection among good jobs, good service and a good company was part of a formula that made us proud to live here. I grew up across the alley from a family whose dad was a Northwest mechanic, and every kid on the block knew what Mr. Ryan did. When he died, some of his tools were on the altar at his funeral. Today we're watching a funeral for a way of life."
On the night in August 2007 that the Interstate 35W bridge collapsed, Coleman wrote the first of many columns calling out officials who failed to make a structurally deficient bridge safe. "Both political parties have tried to govern on the cheap, and both have dithered and dallied and spent public wealth on stadiums while scrimping on the basics.
"How ironic is it that tonight's scheduled groundbreaking for a new Twins ballpark has been postponed? Even the stadium barkers realize it is in poor taste to celebrate the spending of half a billion on ballparks when your bridges are falling down. Perhaps this is a sign of shame. If so, it is welcome. Shame is overdue."
In a statement Wednesday, Gov. Mark Dayton said he had happy memories of playing adult hockey with Coleman. "I always enjoyed his columns, except, occasionally, when they were about me," the governor said. "He was a terrific public citizen and I offer my deepest condolences to his family upon his passing."
Coleman "had a sympathetic ear for the underdog," said Doug Stone, a longtime friend and colleague who began working with Coleman in the early 1970s. "He always looked out for the little guy."
Chuck Laszewski, a former Pioneer Press reporter who worked with Coleman in the mid-1980s, agreed, saying his friend was never afraid to challenge those in power in order to fight for those without it. "He basically lost jobs and lost money because of stances he took. But he was not deterred," he said. "He was going to say what needed to be said and the consequences be damned."
Coleman also was a man who relished his Irish heritage and was a devoted father and husband, his friends say.
"He could be cantankerous, but he was an awful lot of fun," Laszewski said. "He was a great storyteller, although sometimes you had to call him out on it and say, 'Nick, that's not true.' Then he'd laugh and say, 'You might be right.' "
Doug Hennes, who hired Coleman as a metro columnist at the Pioneer Press in 1986, said: "Nick was very clear in his opinions. He did not suffer fools gladly and he was not afraid to challenge people. He loved to point out political leaders' shortcomings."
He also was unafraid to butt heads with his bosses.
"Nick never pulled any punches with editors, including me sometimes when we worked together," said Star Tribune Executive Editor Rene Sanchez. "But there's no denying that his best work had a rare power and grace. And he believed fiercely in journalism."
After leaving daily newspapers, Coleman won fellowships at several institutions and served as executive editor of the Uptake, a citizen-driven news organization.
For the past few years, Coleman and Hennes, who went on to work at the University of St. Thomas, had been working together to organize a conference to examine the pivotal people and events of 1968. They were to meet for coffee Wednesday. "This was a real shock," Hennes said. "He will be sorely missed."
Steve Brandt, a retired Star Tribune reporter who first met Coleman when they were both University of Minnesota students working at the Minnesota Daily, posted on Facebook that he "always thought of Nick as too ornery to succumb to something like Death. His family says that he spent his last healthy day making music with his younger sons."
Laszewski said Coleman was drawn to the stories of regular people because "he understood deep in his heart that a lot of people like that don't ever get their views represented."
In the end, he said, Coleman lived his life on his terms. "Even when he was carping, he was a happy man," Laszewski said.
Tuesday, his wife wrote that Coleman wanted to be an organ donor, "and so today we are beginning the process of making some good come from this heartbreak" and she asked "you all to hold him in the light, raise a glass, shake your fist or anything else that would honor his big heart and big mouth."
Services were held Friday at Church of the Assumption in St. Paul.
To help the family in the wake of Coleman's death, friends have started a GoFundMe campaign at www.gofundme.com/Support-Nick-Colemans-Family.
James Walsh • 651-925-5041