Gene's Blog: Soulful St. Paul is on a winning roll

St. John Vianney seminary student Ben Barron ran past friends at St. Thomas on the St. Paul leg of the 2005 Twin Cities Marathon (Mike Ekern photo)


Super Bowl 52 has elevated Minnesota into the national spotlight. Minnesota is temporarily the Land of 10,001 Lakes (welcome, Mr. Timberlake).

Minneapolis' US Bank Stadium is hosting the Feb. 4 game (and Justin's halftime show). But the entire region -- including neighboring St. Paul -- has an opportunity to impress tens of the thousands of visitors, including traveling media.

Outsiders have a chance to see how St. Paul has evolved since January 1992, when our area last hosted this mega-event, SB 26. The best parts of the Saintly City remain, although its transportation, entertainment, and dining options continue to march forward. It calls itself "The Most Livable City in America" and St. Paul is riding a wave of momentum.

The city stirs different emotions in different folks. St. Paul is known more for its neighborhoods than its night life, and it will always be a bigger magnet for undergrads than hipsters. But an ever-growing big-time aura is there to complement its small-town appeal.

Consider that St. Paul has a Summit Avenue, but no Baker Street. That latter was a Gerry Rafferty single, released 30 years ago this week. The song references a city desert that "makes you feel so cold... It's got so many people, but it's got no soul."

St. Paul is missing a few elements, but soul isn't one of them.

If you play the word association game and the clue is "St. Paul," different folks will have different responses. Some think of the Minnesota state government in a figurative sense, and the recently remodeled Capitol rotunda in the literal sense. St. Paul nearly lost the state capital designation in 1857, when legislation was approved to move the government headquarters to St. Peter. Due to some shenanigans, the bill was never signed, and the government stayed put. A later compromise gave a state mental hospital to St. Peter.  

History buffs are also fascinated by tales of notorious Prohibition-era gangsters who migrated here in the 1930s. John Dillinger, Baby Face Nelson, Machine Gun Kelly, Alvin "Creepy" Karpis and the Barker gang were no saints. Today's St. Paul is much safer, although there is an outlaw housecat named Max that keeps breaking into the Macalester College library. 

Others will reminisce about Ford Ranger pickup trucks, which used to be built in St. Paul, or the Pearson Salted Nut Rolls, which still, er, roll off a production line.


School Days

The better the educational institutions, the better a city's resume. St. Paul is home to five private universities/colleges, all within a five-mile circle, along with three seminaries and public schools Metro State University and St. Paul College. Back in 1972, two other private colleges, Northwestern and Bethel, had St. Paul addresses before both moved just north to the suburbs for more land. 

One analysis said that per capita, St. Paul (population 302,000) ranks second only to Boston (678,000 population) for having the most colleges among U.S. cities. 

St. Thomas, founded in 1885, in Minnesota's largest private university, with 6,200 undergrads and 3,700 graduate students. UST offers more than 90 majors. It began admitting women students 41 years ago.

St. Catherine University, founded in 1905, is the largest all-female Catholic university in the nation, including nearly 3,500 undergrads.

Hamline University, founded in 1854 and relocated from Red Wing in 1880, calls itself the "birthplace of intercollegiate basketball." In 1893, the school's AD Ray Kaighn, who had played on James Naismith's first basketball team in Springfield, Mass., brought the sport to St. Paul. On February 9, 1895, Hamline hosted the first intercollegiate basketball game in history as the Pipers fell 9-3 to the University of Minnesota's Ag School team, using Naismith's original "peach basket" rules and nine players on each side. Today, Hamline boasts 2,100 undergraduate students.

Macalester College, founded in 1874, has more than 2,100 students from 50 U.S. states and 93 countries. One fourth of those students are international. Alums include Walter Mondale, Kofi Annan and DeWitt Wallace, the latter who created Reader's Digest.

Concordia University, founded in 1893, has more than 1,400 undergrads. The school moved up from NCAA Division III to Division II in 1999, and its volleyball team has won nine D-II national team titles.

St. Paul can claim something that few American cities can: Four of its colleges/universities have won national team championships, covering nine different sports. In all, St. Paul trophy cases include 29 national championship banners: St. Thomas (16 in eight sports), Concordia (nine volleyball in last 11 seasons), Macalester (one women's soccer), and Hamline (three men's basketball between 1942-1951). Sixteen of these team titles have been won since 2000.


Who Knew?

Hearty Minnesotans know that the St. Paul Winter Carnival has been a staple here since '86. The year 1886, that is. For more than 65 years, that January-February celebration has included a treasure hunt for a medallion buried on public land, with clues printed in the Pioneer Press newspaper. For die-hard treasure hunters, the statement "Get a clue" is a term of endearment.

St. Paul's early progress and its recent momentum has been aided by the growth of rail lines. The city has been an Amtrak hub since 1978, including the last 26 years in the Midway area and the last four years downtown in the renovated Union Depot. St. Paul recently landed a light-rail link which connects it to the University of Minnesota, downtown Minneapolis, the MSP International airport and the Mall of America.

Railroad magnate James J. Hill moved to town at age 18 and would go on to become one of the richest chaps in America. Hill commissioned an architect who grew up in St. Paul, Cass Gilbert, to design buildings that still stand on the St. Thomas campus, including Cretin, Grace and Loras Halls and the Service Center, which all are still in use. Gilbert designed a multitude of famous structures, including the Minnesota and West Virginia state capitols and the U.S. Supreme Court building. His Woolworth Building in New York City was the world's tallest when it opened in 1913.

I.A. O'Shaughnessy was another famous St. Paul gent from the first half of the 20th century. The 1907 St. Thomas graduate became quite successful in the oil business. He went on to share his wealth with several Catholic universities, including Notre Dame, St. Catherine and St. Thomas, where his name is attached to four buildings.

If it's lunch or dinner time, St. Paul has prominent places as diverse as Mickey's Diner, W.A. Frost, the Lexington, Cafe Latte, the Nook, Cecil's, Cossetta's or the original Davanni's just steps from the St. Thomas campus. Twin Cities chains Dunn Brothers, Carbone's and Punch all began in St. Paul.

There is no shortage of watering holes, too: O'Gara's, Tiff's, Groveland and Plums are alive and well. A few even remember some happening late-night parties at the Governor's Mansion on Summit hosted, wink-wink, when the Ventura parents were out of town.

You can raise a toast to St. Paul with a number of homegrown beers: Hamms, Schmidt, Pig's Eye or Summit. The city was among the first aboard the craft beer bandwagon, too.

Others will give you an earful about the Minnesota State Fair, which is held on a plot of land near the city's north border. In fact, the Minnesota State Fair and the University of St. Thomas both consider the fall of 1885 as their birthdays. In 1901, vice-president Teddy Roosevelt gave a foreign policy speech at the Minnesota state fairgrounds where he first espoused that the U.S. should "speak softly but carry a big stick." Twelve days later, Roosevelt became our Commander in Chief with the stunning assassination of William McKinley.


Great Diamond History

St. Paul has been the home of many big sticks on the baseball diamonds, too. A span from 1901-1960 produced St. Paul Saints teams that eventually competed at the highest minor-league level (Class AAA). Those aspiring stars had a healthy rivalry with the bad guys from the west, the Minneapolis Millers. Future major leagues who played for the Saints included Roy Campanella, Leo Durocher, Lefty Gomez and Duke Snider. The franchise had two managers who made the Hall of Fame -- Walter Alston and Charles Comiskey. 

Recent years saw a return of a different breed of minor-league ball endorsed by the Independent-level St. Paul Saints. Their "Fun is Good" mantra and their wacky promotions under the leadership of owners Mike Veeck and Bill Murray make this gang America's most famous minor-league franchise this side of Durham. The parade of prominent Saints players -- if only for a game or a season, in some cases -- include Jack Morris; Darryl Strawberry; Kevin Millar; Minnie Minoso; J.D. Drew; and Ila Borders, the first female to pitch in a men's pro baseball league. The Saints moved into a new stadium near downtown St. Paul in 2015.

Baseball has turned out to be one of this capital city's great exports on the field, too. Three major-league Hall of Famers call St. Paul their hometown -- Dave Winfield, Paul Molitor and Jack Morris, who will be enshined in Cooperstown this summer. Time will tell whether the resume of current Minnesota Twin standout Joe Mauer gives the city a fourth Hall of Famer.

More than 2,000-plus colleges and universities are affiliated with the NCAA. Only five -- Oklahoma, Arizona, Cal State Northridge, St. Thomas and Eastern Connecticut State -- can say they have won multiple NCAA team championships in both baseball and softball. The Tommies joined that elite list last decade, guided by St. Paul-born head coaches with West Seventh Street roots, Dennis Denning and John Tschida. 

Denning and Tschida are both high school graduates of Cretin and Cretin-Derham Hall. That school has turned out a parade of big-time athletes and leaders. More than a dozen CDH alums have played or coached professionally, including the likes of Molitor, Mauer and Jack Hannahan in baseball; Ryan McDonagh in hockey; and Matt Birk, Michael Floyd, Ryan Harris and Heisman Trophy winner Chris Weinke in football.

And it won't be long until St. Paul will have its second major pro sports team, and this one can speak softly and carry some big kicks. The MLS' Minnesota United Loons recently broke ground on a St. Paul stadium set to be ready for the 2019 season -- the sixth new major sports stadium built in the Twin Cities since 2000.

Since the Xcel Energy Center opened in September 2000, a who's who of bands and musical superstars have played in St. Paul covering all genres -- Sting, Shania, Springsteen, Swift, Streisand or Sheeran, to list a few.

And the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra just won a Grammy Award.


Embracing the Ice

St. Paul's blue-collar identity was exemplified by native son Herb Brooks, the legendary U.S. Olympic 1980 "Miracle on Ice" hockey coach.

Serious hockey fans also recall that long before the Minnesota Wild anchored downtown St. Paul, the Minnesota Fighting Saints had a brief but colorful run there with stints from 1972-76 and 1976-77. Both teams played in the upstart World Hockey Association, which tried to compete with the NHL. Both Saints teams ran out of money and didn't finish their last seasons, and the WHA folded in 1979.

Everyone knows that each March at the Xcel Energy Center, one of the best high-school tournaments in the world holds its annual battle to crown two boys' state hockey champions. It's a rare event where a team from a remote area near the Canadian border can school a metro or suburban team, and it's not considered an upset.

How much of a hockey town is St. Paul? Where else in America is good fortune celebrated with both an annual St. Patrick's Day parade... and with an intangible called puck luck? And this: Minnesota Wild head coach Bruce Boudreau appeared as a player in the 1977 film "Slapshot," once called by writer Dan Jenkins "The best sports movie of the last 50 years."

When the under-30 crowd thinks of St. Paul winters, Crashed Ice festivities come to mind. Personally, I would feel safer riding a unicycle down I-94 during rush hour than making one of those high-speed downhill skating runs. But if the daredevil lifestyle is something you embrace, you've come to the right town. Among St. Paul's top job sectors is the insurance industry.

Other historians will point to the Prairie Home Companion radio shows which were created in St. Paul. Many recall the city's connection with cartoonist Charles Schulz of Peanuts fame. Charles' dad once ran a barber shop at Snelling at Selby. 

The city can also embrace world-class writers like F. Scott Fitzgerald and Sinclair Lewis, who each called Summit Avenue their home for a spell. Summit, the longest preserved Victorian avenue in the country, is also where the final six miles of the Twin Cities Marathon is contested as it winds toward home just past the St. Paul Cathedral. The Cathedral is the fourth tallest church in the nation, which comes in handy each Christmas when folks break out their Abe Lincoln stovepipe hats.

St. Paul has a can-do spirit. As a prep senior in June 1997, Melvin Carter III scored all 46 points to lead Central High to third place in Class AA at the Minnesota state track and field meet. He won the 100 meters (10.88), the 200 (21.72) and the 400 (48.64) and took second in the long jump (22-9). At the time, his winning 200 time was in the top 10 in state history, and his 400 time was in the top 20. He went on to compete on a scholarship for Florida A&M. Twenty years later in November 2017, Melvin was elected the first African-American mayor in St. Paul history. 

Whether you're into sprints or marathons, or just appreciate the old college try displayed at its hometown universities, St. Paul is on a winning roll. 


Gene's Blog is a sports column penned by UST sports information director Gene McGivern. Gene is working his 24th season at St. Thomas and 30th overall in the Minnesota Intercollegiate Athletic Conference. He blogs periodically on various topics regarding the Tommies, the MIAC and Division III sports.

If you have comments or questions, e-mail Gene at [email protected]