With her red bob haircut, trademark round eyeglasses and black turtleneck sweater, Carol Connolly was a welcome and unmistakable fixture at literary events around the Twin Cities for decades. Tiny and elfin, with a great laugh, sly wit and a huge brain, Connolly devoted her life to poetry, political activism and supporting writers.
Connolly, St. Paul’s first poet laureate — a lifetime position, bestowed in 2006 by then Mayor Chris Coleman — died Monday morning after a long illness at New Perspective Senior Living community in St. Paul. She was just a few weeks short of her 86th birthday.
Connolly was a fourth-generation St. Paulite whose roots, she often noted, went back to the McLellans who fled the Irish potato famine in the mid-1800s. The mother of eight, she became increasingly politically active after her divorce from Ramsey County District Judge John S. Connolly in 1979. She ran unsuccessfully for the St. Paul City Council and became a close friend of U.S. Sen. Eugene McCarthy while working on his 1968 presidential campaign.
Connolly became the first woman appointed to the St. Paul Human Rights Commission in 1977 and served for nine years, five of them as chairwoman. She was appointed to the Minnesota Racing Commission in 1983 and chaired its affirmative action committee. She also served as co-chairwoman of the Minnesota Women’s Political Caucus and worked with the New York-based Wonder Woman Foundation.
But it was in 1976, when she took a poetry writing class at the Loft Literary Center in Minneapolis, that her life took a sharp and dramatic change.
Connolly had planned to study fiction writing with Edina novelist Judith Guest, but the class she hoped to take was full. Undaunted, she signed up for a poetry class instead. She and poetry fell in love, and she never looked back. Her first collection, “Payments Due,” was published in 1985, and the poems were later adapted for the theater.
Gregarious, generous and multitalented, Connolly performed as a stand-up comic in the Dudley Riggs Experimental Theater Company production “What’s So Funny About Being Female?” She wrote a column for the St. Paul Pioneer Press-Dispatch, reviewed books for the Star Tribune and appeared on Barbara Carlson’s radio show as a political commentator.
Connolly was a fierce advocate for writers of all stripes, serving on the board of directors of the St. Paul Almanac, a nonprofit annual publication that showcases emerging writers as well as established ones.
For 22 years, she hosted “Readings by Writers,” a monthly writers series she began with Carolyn Holbrook of SASE: The Write Place. The reading series eventually moved to the University Club on Summit Avenue, where she hosted new and established writers, literary greats and humorists. She would pass the hat midway through the evening to raise money for projects close to her heart, such as the Almanac, and also St. Paul’s sidewalk poetry initiative.
Connolly stepped down from hosting the readings in 2018 as her health grew frail. A plaque in her honor hangs on the wall of the fireplace room at the University Club where the readings were held, and where they continue.
In 2011, she was honored with the Minnesota Book Award’s Kay Sexton Award, given annually to a person or organization who has contributed greatly to the Minnesota writing community.
Connolly’s infant son, Roderick, died at birth. She is survived by seven children: twins John Connolly and Katie Rice, both of St. Paul; daughters Annie Hansen of Maple Grove, Shelagh of St. Paul and Brigid of Bloomington; sons Bill of White Bear Lake and Ignatius of Las Vegas; 10 grandchildren and several great-grandchildren; and a brother, Bill McLellan of Austin, Texas.
The family is planning a private funeral and burial, with a public gathering once the pandemic lifts. “She would have loved that,” Katie Rice said. “She was Irish. She loved a good funeral. It’ll definitely be a big celebration of her life.”
Laurie Hertzel • @StribBooks