All posts by harrywelty

Oh say can Mark Sing?

Last night’s Nightline had a segment asking whether US Congressmen who are trying to pass a law making it illegal to sing the national anthem in any language other than English even know the song. Most muffed the lyrics including Mark Kennedy who is trying to become Minnesota’s next Senator. He put the “dawn’s early light” in the wrong spot. Maybe they should make it a punishable offense not to have it memorized. This is one Republican wedge issue that proves that Mark Kennedy is not fit to serve in the Congress.

Blood on our hands

As America was winding down in Vietman and “peace” activists demanded we withdraw I was very troubled about what would happen to our South Vietnamese allies who remained. I don’t recall any of the peace activists ever expressing remorse for the consequences of our departure so eager were they to “give peace a chance.”

I can say the same thing now about the peace activists who demand our withdrawl from Iraq. Oh yes, as in the case of Vietnam the peace activists were quick to point out how the war had done terrible things to the Iraqies just as the former war did terrible things to the Vietnamese. My recollection is that almost three million Vietmanese died in the war while we were engaged there. I can only conclude that today’s peace activists are so eager to have peace at any price that they have simply written off the Iraqies.

Anyone who thinks that we should abandon Iraq should read this article which is as horrible as the preceeding one about the Congo.

Even before George Bush did a switch and bait on Iraq from finding WMD’s to saving benighted Iraqies from Saddam I would have agreed that saving them was a worthy cause. In fact I was making the same argument before George’s bait and switch. Saddly we started something we were not prepared to deal with Iraq in the way that might have assured the Iraqies peace.

What happens when you buy a cell phone or a play station?

It starts with a ward full of women who have been gang-raped and then shot in the vagina. I am standing in a makeshift ward in the Panzi Hospital in Bukavu, the only hospital that is trying to deal with the bushfire of sexual violence in Eastern Congo. Most have wrapped themselves deep in their blankets so I can only see their eyes, staring blankly at me. Dr Denis Mukwege is speaking. “Around ten percent of the gang-rape victims have had this happen to them,” he says softly, his big hands tucked into his white coat. ‘We are trying to reconstruct their vaginas, their anuses, their intestines. It is a long process.'”

Good Long Day

Late last night I worked on my Reader column. It’ll be a doozee. I sent it in an hour ago after sleeping on the last few edits but I’m not ready to upload it to my website yet. Just be patient.

The Northland Reader is undergoing staff changes. Richard, my trusty old editor is stepping to the side. He’s still working in the wings but a new, possibly temporary, editor sent us an email asking us to turn our columns in almost four days earlier than I used to. Even Richard had been trying to push our deadlines up. I was probably the most laggardly of the columnists.

Fortunately, I have a number of ideas circling my head so if I’m forced to push up the deadline I should be able to manage.

I worked on the column yesterday afternoon after a mile swim. My better half and I both went to the fitness center together. Afterwards we found a new restaurant on Superior St. Its a great place! Va Bene. Its manager rushed over to give us instructions on ordering which you do from the counter. He suggested ordering one course at a time. Its italian themed. I had a lovely soup and panini – pear and proscuitto and goat cheese and finished with a chocolate gelato. I skipped the wine so as not to dry out my vocal chords. The fellow sitting next to me in the Symphony Chorus told me that alcohol and coffee are killers. I abstained from the sauce to give my all to Verdi’s Requiem tonight. “Tuba mirrum spargens sonum.”

Claudia is on the Symphony Board and we were invited to dine at the Kitchi Gammi Club just before the performance. I went in my tux. Claudia said they would expect me to serve. Ha Ha Ha.

I ordered a bison ribeye but thought better of it when our waitress heaped praise on another 20 oz steak that was on special that night. I wasn’t that hungry but when another diner ordered a half portion I regretted that I hadn’t thought to do the same. A couple minutes later the server popped back and explained that the chef could only do this if someone else ordered the other half. I jumped at the chance and said I’ll take it.

When, ten minutes later, the server brought me my dinner and explained that it was my Bison ribeye I was a little flummoxed as were the other’s at the table. When someone commented on this she explained that my half portion of beef would be up shortly. Heck, I only had ten minutes to wolf down the ribeye before rushing off ahead of the others at the table to get to my seat on the risors. I had to start eating while everyone else waited to be served. Then when I was almost done my second meal arrived.

After the Verdi Requiem and lots of emoting and bellowing and an exhausting round of applause from an appreciative Duluth audience we went to Pizza Luce to hear my son’s band Sight like December. One of his bandmates, the violinist, conveyed his best wishes for my singing tonight at the DECC before I had gone on. Afterwards it was my time to reciprocate. They were really groovin and the audience was getting into it. I told him after their set that they sounded great. He told me he knew I was lying but thanked me for the thought. Lousy little cynic!

I’m leaving shortly for my Brother’s house in the Twin Cities (one of the suburbs actually). My niece/god daughter is having her first communion today and I must be there. Its a big event in the Catholic church and all the little girls will look like brides. My niece is determined to wear the dress she wore as the flower girl at my daughter’s wedding almost three years ago. I hope it still fits.

Congressman Oberstar’s 1st serious GOP challenge

Jim Oberstar will get his first Republican heavyweight competition ever. He’s lucky its a bad year for Republicans. Even so, I can’t imagine Jim pulling 60% of the votes this year if he’s outspent.

Its pretty sad that the Duluth News Tribune has to carry this story from an AP wire report. It costs money to report from the scene of one of the biggest political news events the area has experienced in three decades.


Family Gossip

I got a flurry of email yesterday concerning a proposal to set up a center for the history of World War I, named after my Grandfather George Seanor Robb, at his alma mater Park College.

I forwarded the email to eight siblings and cousins for their feedback. It would be an honor. The Center would be associated with America’s only museum devoted exclusively to World War I which is in Kansas City. My Grandfather shipped out to the great war from Kansas City. In fact he had written to a “mormon girl” hoping to meet her at KC on his way to New York. Somehow he missed her in the hustle and bustle of the station. He may have been thinking of proposing to her but that did not happen. When she wrote him later to tell him that a wealthy, older, New Yorker had proposed to her my Grandfather wrote back from the trenches of France and told her that as he could not be certain of returning home she should accept the marriage proposal. Had she waited for my Grandfather I would never have been born.

I know this story because my Mother loved to tell me stories about her family. I guess you could call it gossip but my Mother so loved her family warts and all so that what she told me never seemed like gossip with that word’s spiteful overtone. Even so, not all the stories were flattering. This is the email I sent my second Cousin this morning.


I’d love to see that letter. I’ve wondered about Mina for years. Mom had some stories about her and the family.
I believe her husband, Mr. Burke, was disabled. That may be too euphemistic a way to put it. I think Mom reported that one or both of his legs had been amputated. Mom never met him and I have no idea how long he and Mina were together.
Mina was the oldest and from what I understand the least popular of the Robb kids. She was close to her temperamental Father, Thomas, and regularly tattled on the boys who often got lickings because of her. I think she was supposed to be very bright.
She apparently made it her responsibility to make sure that her sickly ,maiden, sister Susie got an education and a teaching degree which, as we all know, Susie put to formidable use keeping errant, third-grade, Salina boys in line.
Apparently homemaking was not Mina’s cup of tea. On one occasion, perhaps before WW I her little brother, George, helped her clean up her house. Grandfather was disgusted with the state of its house keeping, it being the human equivalent of the stables that Hercules cleaned out in one of his seven labors. He told sister Susie that he “would never take a wife of his” into Mina’s house and I don’t believe that he ever did.
He did visit California once and Aunt Susie evidently warned Mina to clean her house like crazy so as not to appall her little brother. Evidently Mina must have worked feverishly to pass muster because Grandfather never expressed any disapproval of Mina’s California home.
Mom remembered meeting Mina’s daughters at some point. I’ve got their names somewhere in family records and a few years ago I googled them but since I don’t know what their married names are I have no idea where they are now. If I find some clues for you perhaps you could follow up as California is a likely place for their descendents to be hanging out. I’d be fascinated to hear any recollections from Mina’s side of the family story about her ratty little Robb brothers. My guess is that three generations on their Kansas stories have been all but washed away.”

People have always been too obsessed with being remembered for being paragons of virtue. Frankly paragons are boring. I wouldn’t mind meeting one but I wouldn’t hang out with them. I’d prefer a person with a little vinegar in their veins any day of the week.






Soda Schmoda

Another interesting item in school news. ExPrez Bill Clinton has brokered a deal with the soft drinks industry to pull soda pop out of the nation’s schools by 2009-10.

Here’s a little Duluth backstory to this:

Last night I was talking to a former high school principal and he mentioned this in regards to our efforts to raise money for the Duluth Public Schools Endowment.

While he and I were with the District we were always scrambling for funds. Former Board member Pati Rolf, a strong advocate for healthy living, once pushed to have soda pop vending machines removed from the schools and for good reason. Soda pop (along with other high sugar and high fat foods) is leading to an epidemic of obesity in children with a resultant spike in diabetes, heart disease etc, etc, etc.

Some people may shrug this off as liberal whining but there’s no question that our government subsidized agricultural and food processing industries are plying us with food so that we are stuffing it down our faces like never before.

The talk of banning vending machines raised the hackles of all three of our high school principals. They discourage in the strongest terms from doing this. All our high schools have arrangements with soft drinks suppliers to split soda sales with the schools. The School Board’s concern about our children’s health threatened their ability to give children after school programs. What a two edged sword! (For crying out loud speech and debate has all but disappeared in the Duluth Schools!)

Our local bottler Bernicks set up a ten-year deal to supply soda to the schools in return for $30,000 to help furnish and equip Public School Stadium. How can we renege on that deal?

Time will tell what will happen locally or even nationally but I can’t help but think this is a good and worthwhile effort. Believe it or not when I went to High School we only had an apple and milk vending machine if memory serves me correctly. But then, my memory isn’t what it used to be.

Pension Schmension

This story pricked up my ears yesterday. It was reported that several of Minnesota’s public employee retirement funds were underfunded by almost 10 billion dollars.

I’m always nervous when benefits are mandated by law as they are in Social Security and Medicare, without regard to future availability of funds to pay for them.

When I was elected to the Duluth School Board I made it a point to ask the Director of the Duluth Teachers Retirement fund about how it guaranteed its member’s pensions. As a fellow who sold annuities briefly in the private sector (I was a lousy salesman) I was aware that there are a few fairly simple methods of disbursing money to people from the lump sums that they have built up during their work years by the time of retirement.

Retirees can take a fixed amount of money for a specific time, say twenty years. This monthly amount paid out will not change whether inflation does or not. The payments are calculated in advance to last until the fund peters out and they are guaranteed. Because the payments are time limited they can be larger.

Retirees who do not want to gamble on the length of their life can set up an annuity which will last until the end of their life. Of course, the retirement fund managing such a pension has to presume a long life for people choosing this payment option. (I recall the story from a few years ago about the death of a French woman who fifty years before had agreed to sell her house to another buyer for a fixed price. She would be allowed to continue living in her home, however, until her death. Unfortunately for the buyers the woman lived to be 112 years old. She outlived them and they were never able to take possessioin of the house that they had paid for. Pension Funds can’t allow themselves to get caught short that way) Pension funds granted for the remainder of a recipient’s life are considerably smaller than time limited annuities.

The problem I’ve seen with the T (teachers) RA, PE (public employees) RA, and the Duluth, Minneapolis, and St. Paul Teacher RA’s (retirement funds) is that they often pay their recipeints more when their stock earnings are good but do not reduce payment levels when their earnings diminish leaving a shortfall with regard to their future obligations. The results for over-generous funds can be disasterous. The Duluth and St. Paul Teachers Retirement Funds have both strongly resisted being combined by the State legislature with the Minneapolis teacher’s fund for just this reason.

The state is not required to shore up profligate and overgenerous retirement funds. Nonetheless, it might be strongly tempted to shore up a weak fund with state taxes in order to tempt resistant retirement funds to merge with and thus bolster the mismanaged funds with their own better managed assets. 

I was so shocked by the implication in the second to the last paragraph of the story that I called its author and asked him if he could confirm what I thought it said:

“The Public Employees Retirement Association fund agreed to raise contributions by cities, counties and workers to reduce its deficit. The government contributions are expected to cost $380 million over the next five years. Increased contributions are also under consideration for the pension plan for state workers.

This makes it sound like the PERA can force municipalities to give them more money to make up for their poor investment decisions. What? Funds can be demanded without resorting to contract negotiations! This is much like the bind that the City of Duluth is in with regard to the post retirement benefits of its workers.

Duluth may have the option of declaring bankruptcy if it can’t cope any other way. Could PERA put other municipalities in the same position? Would bankruptcy be available to the state of Minnesota in a worst case scenario? Full faith and credit to the person answering these questions.

Tech Schmeck

One consequence of the Minnesota’s fall from 5th in per-pupil spending to 23rd has been a lack of funds to keep our state’s schools up to date in technical training. Even now Duluth Denfeld is asking its grads for money to pay for something called “smart books” which must be some kind of technological gizmo. In the short run this may not be a problem as this story in the Minneapolist Trib reports:

“the report says nothing about a link between technology and student achievement. In fact, the report’s authors acknowledge that many of the lowest-scoring states on this list have some of the highest student test scores.

And some of the top-scoring technology states — such as West Virginia and Arkansas — have a tradition of struggling schools.”

Still, over time, lapses like this will have an impact. Repeat the Republican mantra after me, “No new taxes, no new taxes, know gnu Texas.”

Breakfast with a convict

Last year I wrote a column about an ancient local political scandal involving Jim Oberstar’s questionable funding sources for his 1974 campaign. I mentioned Don Boyd, a fellow who was accused of, but never found guilty of, embezzling a million dollars from the government. A few days after my column hit the stands I got an email from Don suggesting that we meet over a cup of coffee. He’d written a book. He did spend time in prison but not for stealing a million bucks. (There’s always something a fellow can be found guilty if you’ve got the help of a willing perjurer)

Sitting in prison and having his family’s honor tarred gave Don a lot to reflect on. If Don was innocent, as I rather suspect he was there could be a good book in it.

Unfortunately, Don hasn’t written it. His head is too full of details and at six or seven hundred pages no one but a crank like me would ever read or publish it. So I’ve decided to give him a hand. I’ll have more to say about this in my next Northland Reader column. Let the chips fall where they may.

Divided day

My day was split in two by a mile swim. It began with two dozen folks learning how to raise money for the Duluth Schools Endowment followed by swimming then the fine arts.

I went to my second dance class with Claudia and worked on the rhumba and the waltz. I rushed off after that for three hours of rehearsal with the Duluth Superior Symphony Chorus. The Verdi Requiem we will be singing is coming along. Tonight we practiced with the symphony.

Tomorrow I’ll need to call or email our fund raising participants to keep the fire burning but I’ll begin the day with my convict. I’m strongly inclined to write a book for him on the Internet. I can’t prove it but I strongly believe Jim Oberstar and crew set this guy up to take a fall thirty years ago for their theft of public property to use for political purposes. Its a dirty shame if its true and I hope I’m up to the task of writing a book.


Presidential Karma

I traded emails over the White House Coorespondent’s dinner with a friend. My last thought was that whether Stephen Colbert’s routine was appropriate or not in some ways it struck me as a kind of political karma. George Bush has been in his famous bubble for so long that it seemed he had completely tuned out his critics. Keeping that frustration pent up as he did it was bound to burst out somewhere to restore the equilibrium and Colbert took on that assignment.

Lots of Colbert’s admirers, and I’m one of them, applaud him for having the courage to dish it out. I’m sure it did especially as the laughs petered out. On the other hand, beating up on Bush meant beating up a defenseless man. Decorum dictated that Bush take Colbert’s pummeling without complaint of the ability to defend himself. Picking on a defenseless man is never considered particularly courageous.

So there you have it. Karma.

Bush Roasted till his skin peels off

I just watched some of the most painful video I’ve ever seen. Stephen Colbert was asked to give the keynote speech at the National Press Club’s roast of the President. It was very witty but it was so relentlessly sarcastic that the laughs petered out as the audience realized Colbert was the little boy crying out that King Bush was naked.

If you hate George Bush you will be gratified. If you like Bush you will be disgusted. As angry as I am with the President I could never tell him he’s a dolt to his face like Colbert did.

You’ve been forewarned: