Sorry, Charlie!

The Twin Cities mark the occasion of Charles Schulz's retirement by scrambling to turn him into a hometown hero

"Charles Schulz comes along and says we have got to believe in ourselves nevertheless. We've got to believe in our ability to do something," Inge marvels. "It's an effective countervoice to all those negative attitudes."

 

Who are the heroes the Twin Cities have chosen to embrace? By the looks of things, St. Paul has generally been pretty haphazard in recognizing its success stories. Take the example of Union Depot. The names of some of the city's native sons were engraved awhile ago on plaques embedded in the front sidewalk. Schulz is there, along with Charles Lindbergh, Hubert Humphrey, Herb Brooks (who coached the 1980 men's Olympic hockey team to a gold medal) and F. Scott Fitzgerald. Or perhaps it should be said that the names were there: its seems that a drainage problem damaged the walk of fame and forced the city to rip up the concrete; the plaques, according to local lore, are still in storage somewhere.

Fitzgerald is arguably the city's most acclaimed native. But appreciation of him, like that of Schulz, took its time. It was only in 1996--100 years after the author's birth--that St. Paul celebrated him, with readings of his work, programs for high school students, even the unveiling of a statue of him in Rice Park. That weeklong centenary tribute was a few years in the making, and, says Page Knudsen Cowles, founder of the Hungry Mind Press and co-chair of the Fitzgerald celebration committee, the effort was aided by the prominence--as Cowles puts it, the "celebrity status"--of one of its biggest proponents, Garrison Keillor. As part of the commemoration, the World Theater, where Keillor hosts his Prairie Home Companion radio show, was renamed the Fitzgerald Theater in 1994.

And certainly, it complicates a city's claim to fame when a celebrity spent only his earliest years there. Fitzgerald, for example, left St. Paul at a young age for a New Jersey prep school and then Princeton. Schulz, too, departed the Cities for California, and that's where the main Peanuts tourist draw has been.

Cowles muses a moment on the significance of such tributes to hometowners who've long since left their early haunts. "If a person is from a particular area and chooses to make a life outside that area, why should the hometown keep saying, 'Hello! You're from here!'? On the other hand, in a busy, busy world, sometimes you have to have a hook like retirement, or a hundredth anniversary." And that, she stresses, is neither unusual nor inappropriate. "If we don't take time to stop and acknowledge people and events and ourselves for what we've accomplished...we're losing an opportunity to create meaning in our lives."

The fact that it's taken St. Paul nearly half a century to voice its adulation of Schulz may to some make all the recent commotion seem a bit, well, opportunistic. Then again, St. Paul has had other recent trouble paying tribute to those who've made their mark elsewhere. For years Mayor Coleman has been determined to create an art museum for LeRoy Neiman, the contemporary artist who came from St. Paul but went on to study art in Chicago before moving to New York. But the idea--which Mische declares is still alive--has gotten snagged on political obstacles, including a resounding failure to raise funds, protracted negotiations with Neiman's advisers, public disdain for his art, and the artist's eventual (and some say bitter) withdrawal of his support for the project.

Mische says that at this early stage it's unclear whether a Schulz monument might well run into some of the same complications. At the initial meeting to discuss plans, however, he mentioned a number of parties who are likely to get in on the hoopla, including corporate sponsors. At the moment St. Paul's most development-savvy mayor is at the helm, steering a much-touted revitalization of the city's downtown and riverfront, with such projects as a $75 million convention center, a spiffy new science museum, and a state-of-the-art hockey arena. It isn't hard to imagine St. Paul's leaders seizing on the wisdom of incorporating some sort of Schulz tribute as part of the civic-booster boom.

That will depend on whether the salute becomes a spectacle, says Karal Ann Marling, professor of popular culture at the University of Minnesota. If the city chooses to venerate Schulz in a splashy way, with a big statue in front of city hall, say, then the overture is less for Peanuts than for the glorification of politicians, the chamber of commerce, and the city chiefs, she adds, not for Charles Schulz.

The manner in which a city celebrates a local hero tells volumes about the relationship between them, Marling notes. One way is for the community to pump itself up by advertising that its soil nurtured this artist--that it in some way deserves credit for the geographical happenstance of birth. "I think it's kind of bush-league to single out a great hero that came from your locale," she says; but such remembrances can be genuine--and touching--if they instead take up the call of revealing who that person was, to understand his or her values and share those with future generations. Such an approach is different, she says, "from saying so-and-so was born up the road here, and doesn't that make us great."

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