Shining Your Shoes

Harry Welty

Robert Sumner Mars  May 21, 1926 – July 10, 2016
Robert Sumner Mars May 21, 1926 – July 10, 2016

I’m the odd Republican on a largely Democrat Inspired Facebook page where I’ve been watching the intergenerational tug-o-war between Biden and Bernie supporters and everybody else. There’s nothing new in this. John Kennedy heralded a changing of the guard when he became the second youngest President in 1960 giving the parents of baby boomers their moon shot to remake America. Now in 2019 its the Baby Boomers turn to stand in the way.

I had my own tug-o-war with a representative of JFK’s generation.  It came to an end when Bob Mars died in 2016.
I had the good fortune to serve with Mr. Mars for six, non-consecutive, years on the Duluth School Board from 1996 to 2004. In 1997 he opted not to file for reelection for medical reasons but I helped talk him into running a long shot write-in campaign to protect his vote to open a Charter School in Duluth. The longshot got the better of him until two years later when I used his old playbook to get him back on the Board. Sometime in the JFK Era Bob was swept onto the Duluth School Board along with two other candidates who shared an alliterative M in their names – Mundt, Mars and McKeon. I tied three candidates together with a lawnsign reading “Mary, Mary, Mars.” Bob was elected along with one of the Mary’s. 

In the next three years Bob stubbornly, and rightly I think, stood by the Superintendent on an unpopular decision regarding a hockey coach and then bravely refused to pick a winner before our District investigated closing one of the high schools. But Bob and I had always been vinegar and oil. Having alienated western Duluth Bob told me he intended to run against me in my Eastern district. Only the emergence of a stronger candidate who employed the hockey coach’s wife deterred Bob. He was always a sensible man.

Bob had been a mover and shaker in Duluth from the beginning of his career. He knew where money was and saw to it that those who had it put it to good use in the community. I experienced this personally.  As a penniless candidate running against Mike Jaros for the legislature in 1976, I was told to talk to Mr. Mars. After I pitched him on my improbable ambition to win an unwinnable seat Bob handed me a hundred-dollar bill. It was my first Benjamin. 

Over the next fifteen years I ran unsuccessfully for office six times. On my seventh attempt in 1993, Bob and I were both running for the Duluth School Board. After I lost the primary, I called on Bob to pitch him on supporting a levy referendum that would save our then bankrupt school system. I explained how, if we used the school finance law sensibly, the state would match every local dollar increase approved by Duluth voters with three state dollars. Bob took that information and succeeded in getting the remaining candidates to pledge to use the levy money to pay off the District’s statutory debt and build up a ten percent reserve fund. Bob’s plan was approved by voters and his reserve kept Duluth’ classrooms small for a decade until Superintendent Dixon’s Red Plan looted the reserve, laid off teachers and added five to ten kids to our classrooms.

To a Baby Boomer like me, Bob was a bit of a stuffed shirt. He once told me he could tell a gentleman by the shine on his shoes. As a devotee of tennis shoes that didn’t much impress me. But when he told me how he and some buddies led a cow up the staircase to the roof of his college dormitory I enjoyed seeing a little bit of Mark Twain peeking out of him. And Bob was a warrior too. He was sent to fight the Japanese in the corner of Alaska that they invaded. Bob would have been well suited for that mission as one of four Duluthians I’ve known who attended the Shattuk Military Academy in Faribault, Minnesota. 

Bob never approved of my squeaking wheel approach to politics. He was from a generation that didn’t toot its own horn. He told me once after reading something I’d written that I used the word “I” a lot.
I’ve heard Duluthians repeat the old trope that “all that Duluth needs to turn the corner is six good funerals.” Twenty years-ago they might have had Bob Mars in mind just as today those saying it might have me in mind. I get it. I read Facebook.
Just for fun I counted the number of I’s and the number of Bob’s in this remembrance. There are twenty “Bob’s” and twenty-seven I’s (now twenty-eight). Honestly Bob (twenty-one). You may be right!  

Harry Welty is a local eccentric and perennial candidate for public office in Duluth who also pontificates on his blog: www.lincolndemocrat.com.