Some chilly morning this coming spring, not long after the last of the Mississippi River ice has receded, the waters off St. Paul's Raspberry Island will seem oddly silent. For the first time in decades, the booming voice of Miriam Baer won't be bouncing off the river, commanding crews of teen rowers to straighten their backs or quicken their pace.
The Minnesota Boat Club's tough yet caring coach died Nov. 5 after suffering a stroke. She was 76.
Known for her demanding training regimen that got boats and rowers onto open water as early in the season as possible, Baer honed countless teens over the years into some of the nation's best amateur rowers. One of her former students went on to the 2008 Olympics. To the rowers, parents and colleagues who were inspired, improved, and more than occasionally intimidated by Baer's direct and demanding style, those early morning training sessions will never be the same.
"Locally, regionally, even nationally, people are going to miss her," said Tom Perry, who met Baer 46 years ago while rowing at the University of Minnesota. "Whether she was liked or not, she was respected. It's a big hole to fill."
Sarah Risser, whose late son Henry Zietlow rowed for Baer for three years before he graduated from high school in 2018, said there were times he was frustrated — yet he was never tempted to quit.
"He said, 'She's a tough coach. Sometimes, there are days when we don't get it right and she just yells at us,' " Risser said. "But he liked that she was so direct. He always knew what she wanted and where she was coming from."
Baer was born July 14, 1943, on a farm in Bright, Ontario. She was the second of 15 children in a family that spent years living in Mennonite and Hutterite communities across North America. The family left communal living in 1960, when Baer's father went to North Dakota for a farm job. Naomi Baer, Miriam's younger sister by three years, said Miriam was direct — and competitive.
Naomi loved dance; Miriam couldn't stand it. "She didn't like anything you couldn't time and compare," Naomi said.
Baer went on to study nursing at the College of St. Scholastica in Duluth, then became an operating room nurse in Minneapolis. But, she told the Star Tribune in 2015, she yearned for competition. Baer found it on the water. At 31, she joined a rowing club at the U. Perry, who started rowing a year before Baer got there, said the sport's demands appealed to her. "There's no hiding from the hurt, from the pain," he said of the physical and mental toll.
At 40, Baer started coaching. Although "intimidating" and "loud" are common descriptors of their coach, many of Baer's rowers also lauded her loyalty and generosity. After Henry Zietlow was killed in a car crash in January, Risser said, Baer arranged a Boat Club reception to honor his memory. "Miriam was such a big person to me and Henry," Risser said. "She had a giving heart."
Dozens of Baer's rowers and colleagues have filled an online condolence page with stories of their gratitude — and her passion. One wrote of an Easter morning training session. A couple of rowers asked: "Can we end practice a few minutes early?"
Rowers: "Well, it's Easter and we'd like to go to mass."
Miriam: (long pause) "God's everywhere, right?"
Miriam: "Pray in the boat; let's go."
Baer is survived by her son Zephaniah, two grandchildren and 11 siblings. Services have been held.
James Walsh • 612-673-7428