Remembering Bill

This is one of my favorite times of year. It’s warm enough to go outside with a light jacket, the lawn doesn’t require mowing yet and best of all, it is St. Patrick’s Day.

If you are Irish, this day is almost imprinted in your DNA. It’s a day to be happy about your heritage, to be sad about the history of suffering your ancestors experienced and to be proud of their courage and ability to overcome it.

But for me, it means I get to write our annual St. Patrick’s Day parade article.

This is the one article in the year where fact checking means checking to make sure there aren’t too many. It is a tongue-in-cheek celebration of the Irish experience in Minnesota’s most German community.

It also brings back memories of New Ulm’s original and greatest Blarneymeister, the late, great Bill O’Connor.

Bill originated the Blarney article many years ago. How long ago? One of the first Journal reporters to interview him was Jon Tevlin, who is now a columnist for the Star Tribune. I doubt he has every had an interview like Bill since.

I picked up the duty back in the 1980s and have been handing the job ever since.

Interviewing Bill was easy. He and his long-suffering lieutenant Pat Kneefe would meet me for lunch at the Kaiserhoff. I’d turn on the tape recorder and ask, “Well, Bill, what’s happening this year?” A half hour later, weak with laughter, I’d turn off the tape recorder.

Bill always came prepared with some pre-written jokes and blarney, but the best stuff was always off the cuff, in response to questions.

Ask him about a local political issue and he’d riff on the doings of the city council during the past year. It wasn’t hard to find material in the Bill Gafford vs. Joe Herbeck days of the council. One year, for example, Gafford, the council president, had put the kibosh on getting a new road grader for the city street department. An old implement dealer, Gafford maintained the old grader was perfectly good and the city didn’t need to be wasting money on a new one. Bill maintained in the interview that Gafford didn’t want a new road grader so that Minnesota Street would be extra bumpy to trip up the marching Irishmen on St. Patrick’s Day.

Bill could glare menacingly as he skewered someone, but with such a twinkle in his eye you knew he was enjoying it.

Bill always loved it when someone would take his St. Patrick’s Day comments seriously. For instance, he always said the St. Patrick’s Day celebration would end at midnight when his wife, Mary, would dance the Irish Jig on the bar at the Kaiserhoff.

One Sunday after the annual article appeared, as Bill was about to enter St. Mary’s for mass he was accosted by an angry elderly woman.

“I don’t think a man like you should be allowed in church!” she told him.

“Why not?” Bill asked.

“Any man that would make his wife dance on a bar shouldn’t be allowed in church!” she proclaimed.

We continue doing the St. Patrick’s Day article, trying to keep the humorous spirit of Bill O’Connor alive. It isn’t quite the same, but it never fails to bring back fond memories of one of New Ulm’s greatest characters.

Kevin Sweeney has been the managing editor of The Journal since May 1985. A native of St. Paul, he worked at newspapers in LeSueur and Albert Lea before moving to New Ulm.

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