Guest blogger Bruce Roberts: Mike Martin’s gift to Northfield

Mike Martin
Mike Martin; photo by Holly Cairns

Something important happened after Michael Martin’s death the other day in Northfield.

I have known Mike, off and on since he was a student at St. Olaf in 1969 and 1970.  Over the past 15 years or so, I would see Mike on a downtown street, the library or grocery store.  As David Wee recalled during the Memorial Service in the Community Center on Sunday, that on meeting Mike, he would almost always begin with, “You know, I’ve been thinking…”

And then Mike would expound on some idea relating to our common language of psychology, or perhaps drift into the more philosophical waters.   These encounters, or conversations, between us would last from three to 10 minutes.  Never more.  But they represented much more than a stopwatch would suggest.

But I really can’t figure out what they did represent.

I almost always went away from those encounters wondering if it would help if I gave him ten bucks to wash his clothes.  But, then, thinking that, I wondered why I cared how he looked.  I did decide that I cared because I liked Mike.  His cheerful greeting always made me feel good  —  like he was really glad to see me.  His thoughtful, or at least heartfelt, reflections on psychology made me feel that he found me worth talking to about stuff that was meaningful to him – and me. My thoughts were never very succinct when it came to Mike, and they were always mixed with questions like, why, or what, or where.

Then came the Memorial Service last Sunday.  George Sivanich and I mentioned to each other as we conversed about attending that service, that we hoped there would be more than a handful of people there.  How delusional were we — that only he and I and a few others knew Mike well enough to come to his service on a Sunday afternoon.   Sure.

When the dust settled after room separators had been opened, all available chairs lined up, all tables pushed into the back, there was Northfield – our Northfield, packed into two rooms.  Folks from the library, both the professional and hanger-outers,  a barber, postal worker, coach, dozens of runners, at least two lawyers, a bunch of professors, business people, some of whom had given conversation, others help, safety, food and lodging (talk about a Biblical story).

When in line before the service and talking to Mike’s sister-in-law, she mentioned that Northfield had meant so much to Mike.  I replied, “And vice versa.” That remark got vigorous affirming nods from three heads up the line and the addendum, “He meant a lot to us.”

Amazing, actually.  It says a lot about Mike, and a lot about our home-town, Northfield.  But I’m still not sure what it says.  That we care.  That a lot of people care.  That a lot of people who walk different paths care.  That Mike cared.  That Mike cared about a lot of people.  That Mike cared about a lot of people who walked different paths.

Is that it?   Is the relationship between Northfield and Mike some kind of an anomaly?  It has a patchwork feel to it.  Is this what community looks like – a patchwork quilt of sorts?  Our relationships with Mike were certainly hodgepodged.  Some people discussed books with him, some talked philosophy or psychology with Mike, some cared for his mail, some ran with him, or biked with him, some cut his hair, (some both ran or cut hair and talked about almost anything as they did so), some gave him safety from the storms, and food too.

Actually I have never really put into words what a small town community really looks like to me.  Maybe this is one of Mike’s legacies.  Perhaps Mike has given us a lens, an augmenting lens to see our town as a community in a way we have not seen it before now.   In this augmented view, we can spot ourselves, our neighbors, our teachers, familiar faces, shop owners, delivery people and…  We are community, and Mike was one of us.  This is true, for sure, because there we were together on Sunday at the Community Center.

Mike seems to have given us a gift.   A gift of understanding a bit more about what it really means to be a community — in the best sense of the word.

Editor’s Note: Holly Cairns blogged about Mike Martin on in April of 2006 with a post titled, Neighbor to Neighbor: Musing with Michael Martin. She granted Locally Grown permission to use her photo of Mike with Bruce’s blog post.

10 thoughts on “Guest blogger Bruce Roberts: Mike Martin’s gift to Northfield”

  1. Many might recognize Mike but few will realize he was proud. We struggled because he didn’t want or need my help.

    Only once did I get the goods he really wanted. He actually sent me back to the store for the right running pants. Mike often ran 15 miles a day and his running pants had worn out. Mike was truly a runner.

    I recall bawling him out for not wearing sun screen while riding his bike to Duluth for Grandma’s. Pretty bad sunburn. He laughed and told me he’d already figured that one out.

    Mike truly thought outside the box and never failed to amaze me.

    Goodbye Mike. Thanks for the visits.

  2. Thanks, Bruce and Holly – As a downtown resident, Mike and I shared a neighborhood, as did many other people. There’s a hole in the neighborhood. I think about Mike when I enter Bridge Square or walk to the Post Office. His friendly greetings, thoughtful musings and always-positive spins on the weather, no matter the conditions, will be missed. Goodbye, Mike.

  3. Thanks for your comments Bruce – you summed up my thoughts on Mike as well. I’d also known Mike for many years, as a casual acquaintance, but everytime I would meet him on the sidewalk or even pass him in my car he would give his brilliant smile and wave. There were many a day he would brighten my day and I thank him for that – he will be missed.

  4. Thanks for the comments, Bruce, Holly, Bart and Jim.

    I exchanged friendly “hellos” with Mike for years before having a conversation with him. A couple months ago, I arrived at the Hideaway a good half hour before an arranged meeting with another friend. I ordered a drink, and wondered how’d I’d pass the time. Mike was at a chair by the door and he struck up a conversation. So I sat next to him and exchanged ideas. He repeatedly apologized for taking up my time. I said no apologies were needed, I was happy to have some conversation to pass the time.

    I’m glad to learn a little more about Mike from Bruce and Holly’s blogging and glad to live in a town like Northfield.

  5. I would “run” into Mike on the bike path between Northfield and Dundas and we always had rousing conversations about Dems and Republicans (Mike was Rep and I am Dem)–Mike was interesting and well read, and I had fun trying to convince him he was really a liberal at heart. He didn’t budge and returned the favor.

    I did worry about whether he had a place to stay and felt guilty that I did not do more to help him. I did not expect him to die. I took for granted that he would be there every once-in-a-while to wile away some time on arguing politics and history and faith and running and biking and good books.

  6. It was a comfort to be in a roomful of people on Sunday who knew Mike. Jim Herreid’s account of his last hours was very helpful. No doubt the extreme cold this winter was a contributing factor in his death, but at least he had shelter that last night.

    This past year, I have often run into Mike at Econofoods or the library. His condition seemed to be rapidly declining. I was surprised to hear he had owned a house on St. Olaf Ave. I wish I had known him in better days.

  7. I would guess that there were around 150-200 people at Mike’s memorial service, maybe more.

    In life, Mike had the ability to make people smile. We all worried for him. Many offered him help. But, Mike was usually not one to take it.

    As Bruce notes above, Mike weaved a connection across multiple, diverse communities in Northfield and I am sure all in attendance on Sunday were surprised by how many “groups” he had touched.

    In that room, we were all glad to learn more about Mike. Many were, I think, quite surprised to learn about his many complete marathons, his school distance records, his run in Grandma’s marathon, to which and from which he rode by bike!

    In Mike’s death, we discovered things we wish we had known while he was living.

    When someone like Mike dies, a piece of us dies. Yet, because of his ability to be a part of some many circles in town which rarely intersect, a new piece of us was discovered on Sunday, there to live on.

    I thank Mike for the times he made me smile and the times we talked. And, I thank Mike for the surprise and joy he gave to his brother, his sister-in-law and to all of us last Sunday.

    May God keep you warm every night, Mike.

  8. I’m sorry that I didn’t hear about Mike’s memorial service in time to attend. I knew that Mike had many friends since whenever I saw him he was waving and smiling or chatting with someone. Often, when I was on the way to an appointment, I would have to tell him that I couldn’t talk right now, and he would just wave me on with a smile. I often wondered where he slept and ate. Only once did he allow me to give him $20, but he would always accept food leftovers. I am glad to know he is no longer suffering on cold winter nights. Maybe his photo could be posted at the library so people can remember all that he had to offer Northfield. He will definitely be missed, but his spirit always remains.

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