Paul Oman died as he lived: barefoot and wet.
A veteran member of the Twin Cities River Rats Water Ski Show Team — known best for its annual Minneapolis Aquatennial show on the Mississippi River — Oman won 186 first-place medals in barefoot skiing and still holds the world record for barefoot jumping in the Men's 7 division.
Oman, also a computer engineer and avid volunteer from Brooklyn Center, died Sept. 12 at age 69 from injuries sustained while skiing.
"The thing that gives us comfort is knowing that Paul died doing what he loved," said his friend Amy Nordquist. "What a way to go — doing what your passion was."
At the time of his death, Oman was training for the 2022 IWWF World Masters Barefoot Championships. He was honored at the event, held in San Marcos, Texas, the last week of September.
Oman was by all accounts a hard man to know — a strong, silent type who spoke through his actions more than words. He grew up in the Twin Cities, the only child of Ralph and Lois Oman. After graduating from Minneapolis North High School, Oman served in the Air Force from 1972 to 1976, during the Vietnam War era. He worked as an electrician, then attended the University of Minnesota for computer science, and enjoyed a career as an engineer for places including IBM Corp., Medtronic and Boston Scientific.
Oman never married; he found family in the communities he loved. One was at St. Joan of Arc church in south Minneapolis, where Oman sang bass in the choir. "He was very, very quiet and shy," said music director Anna Mae Vagle. "Everyone knew him, but he was a kind of mystery as well."
Oman always showed up early to help set up and stayed late to stack the chairs, said Vagle. When a fellow parishioner lost her husband, Oman volunteered to help with yardwork and to run errands.
"He was this little quiet angel among us that was just about doing the work," she said.
Oman discovered his life's passion for barefoot water skiing at age 40. Fellow River Rat Andrew Nordquist remembers Oman teaching him and his wife how to barefoot ski on his lake after meeting him in 1999. "He was all about teaching people," said Nordquist.
Oman was the first to put his dock out and last bring it in every year, said Nordquist. He'd frequently be water skiing with snow on the ground. He held several water skiing clinics, in which world-champion skiers would stay at his house and teach for a week at a time.
"Paul lived his life to the fullest, whether it was on the water or off the water," said Amy Nordquist.
Oman was also passionate about volunteering, and he spent the last 11 years of his life working twice a week with north Minneapolis-based Urban Homeworks, helping with home repairs in underserved neighborhoods. "Paul would always volunteer for the hardest, the dirtiest — the job that no one else wanted to do," said volunteer program manager Ashley Satorius.
She remembers Oman as a quiet man who rarely spoke about himself, and she enjoyed trying to elicit personal stories on their doughnut breaks, such as his love for skiing, blues music and the environment.
When he didn't show up to volunteer one day in September, she knew something was wrong, "Because him not showing is unheard of, and him not showing and not reaching out — I just couldn't think of any scenario."
She was comforted to know he "was doing what he loved this whole time — even to those last moments."
More than 150 people attended his memorial service at St. Joan of Arc on Sept. 28, and many said they were surprised to learn at the ceremony how many lives Oman had touched.
"It's sad to say, but I learned so much about my cousin as a result of his death. And it really warmed my heart to see how many people knew him," said Dan Oman. "This quiet man nevertheless had an impact on very many people."