Saturday, May 4, 2024

A farewell to a fine musician- politician...

Florian Chmielewski, 2017 Polka Party
Jamie Lund/ Duluth Media Group File
Written by 
By Jim Heffernan for the DuluthNewsTribune/5-4-24

 I hate politics. I love politics. Depends on the day and the politician.


I spent the last decades of my full-time career at this newspaper working on the opinion/editorial page. In that job you meet every area and state politician holding elective office or running for one — Congress, state government, city government, county government, school boards. Never met a dog catcher I didn’t like. 

They all come to the newspaper at the paper’s invitation to submit to what we call endorsement interviews. These result in the newspaper, just before elections, telling readers which candidates the editors think would serve best in the jobs they are seeking, not telling readers how to vote.


You knew that — at least I hope you did — but I wanted to reiterate it to explain how I met virtually every upper Midwest politician (we covered northern Wisconsin too) in the last two decades of the 20th century and early in the 21st.


One of my favorites was Florian Chmielewski, who died recently at age 97. Florian used to stop by the paper and talk to us quite frequently when he was a DFL state senator representing a district south of Duluth. (I call him by his first name because that’s how we related with most of the politicians until they got elected to a really high post such as governor, although I’m not sure we didn’t call Governor Perpich Rudy or Congressman Oberstar Jim.)


Of course, most people remember Chmielewski as a consummate accordion player and leader of a family-plus polka band with a popular television show. A man of many talents.


Just about everybody’s seen him perform at one time or another, in person or on TV. Not everyone had the opportunity to talk public policy with him when he was a state senator. He was particularly learned in the area of health care, among other issues I recall discussing with him. Very dedicated.


Serious stuff, but that broad smile seldom left his face. That is how I prefer to remember him. That and how he tied his ties. No knot, but rather a regular tie arranged like a cravat. 


One time I happened to be visiting the hilltop studios of WDIO-TV when they were taping a segment of his TV show Chmielewski Funtime, Florian out front pumping that accordion.


Suddenly one of the technicians said something had gone wrong with their recording equipment — they were filming the band but not picking up any sound. What were they going to do? I was told it didn’t matter, they’d just fill the soundtrack with past recordings of the group, not attempting to match the particular song with what was filmed being played. Hmmm.


I’m not much of a polka fan but I hope they included “Just Because.” It’s a classic: “Just because you think you’re so pretty,/Just because you think you’re so smart,/Just because you think you’ve got something/That nobody else has got./You cause me to spend all my money,/You laugh and call me Old Santa Claus;/Well I’m tellin’ you, baby, I’m through with you,/Because, just because.”


Smile, you’re on Chmielewski Funtime.


I recall often seeing the Funtime ensemble roll by on a flatbed truck in the annual Moose Lake July 4 parade. (“I don’t want her,/You can have her/She’s too fat for me…” — another old non-P.C. polka they might have played.)


I almost did Florian a disservice one time when he was running for re-election to the Minnesota Senate, where he served for just over a quarter of a century. All of the candidates we interviewed for various offices would emphasize, in their endorsement interviews, that they were “committed” to various things: committed to lower taxes, committed to better roads, committed to education, and so on.


One election cycle when Florian came in for his interview, he emphasized that he was seeking to help the city of Moose Lake with its plans for a new high school, among many other things.


People of a certain age will recall that Moose Lake was once best known for what can politely be called a mental health facility located there, although for years it was often impolitely referred to as an “insane asylum,” which sounds politically incorrect today. It has since taken on an entirely different role.


In any event, in writing a newspaper endorsement for Florian, I emphasized his efforts to help Moose Lake, but I inadvertently headlined it: “Chmielewski committed to Moose Lake.”


Fortunately, that never saw print. Until today.


Sad to see Florian is gone. He kept going with the music well into his 90s, always broadly smiling and seeming to be singing, “Roll out the barrel, and we’ll have a barrel of fun,/roll out the barrel, we’ve got the blues on the run.”


But not this week: His funeral is Tuesday in Sturgeon Lake, where he lived.


Jim Heffernan is a former Duluth News Tribune news and opinion writer and continues as a columnist. He can be reached at and maintains a blog at 

Saturday, April 6, 2024

How last winter became a dud...

Written By Jim Heffernan for the DuluthNewsTribune 04-06-24

 It’s been a rough several months for Old Man Winter. Things didn’t go the way they always had in the past for the ageless leader of our snowiest season.


For one thing, his relationship with the Queen of the Snows had deteriorated to the point where all they could agree on for winter 2023-24 were a few flurries.


Old Man Winter had been planning to bring a normal winter to the upper Midwest, just as he had done for the past several hundred decades. A smattering of snow in November to prepare everyone for a couple of good dumps of snow in early December in preparation for a white Christmas.


“That’s how we’ve always done it,” the old man complained to neighbor Jack Frost. “Then that Snow Queen started interfering. She wanted to hold off — who knows why? So, what happens? No white Christmas. Was anybody dreaming of a brown Christmas?”


The old man shifted his considerable weight on the iceberg where his massive throne rises from the ice of the Arctic Ocean. The Snow Queen spends her time nearby on a cake of ice that also plays host to a couple of polar bears and an igloo.


“I’m not getting any younger,” said the Snow Queen. “I’m getting sick and tired of dumping snow on so many older folks who have to get out and shovel all the time. What’s the harm of one winter without measurable snow?”


Jack Frost didn’t see it that way. “What’s with all that above freezing weather?” complained Frost. “I haven’t iced up a window in months.”


North Pole observers say the powers that control our winters have been in gridlock since late 2023 when the cold season began and winter was supposed to get under way.


“Nobody told me we weren’t going to have a white Christmas,” said St. Nicholas, who lives nearby with a bunch of elves in a rustic log house. “I was all set to make my usual Christmas Eve run on my sleigh delivering toys to children when the reindeer balked.”


“How’re we supposed to land on snowless roofs?” asked red-nosed Rudolph, spokesdeer for Dasher, Dancer, Prancer and the rest.


Santa knew they had a problem. Wheels instead of runners on the sleigh? He didn’t know what to do so he contacted Old Man Winter for help.


“I can’t get the Snow Queen to budge,” Old Man Winter responded to Santa’s appeal.


Well, to make a long story short, Santa and the reindeer went ahead with their Christmas journey in spite of the lack of snow, but it just wasn’t the same. They found themselves dreaming of a white Christmas, just like the ones they used to know.


Enter January and the new year. Still no snow to speak of and Old Man Winter was getting more and more agitated with the Snow Queen’s recalcitrance. “Holy smokes, we can’t let North America go the whole winter without snow,” Old Man Winter scolded.


“Try me,” responded the Snow Queen.


So, it went through January and February, which even saw a couple of thaws, not that there was anything much to thaw out. Yards were brown, streets and highways were clear. Jack Frost was disconsolate.


Then came March, the month everybody knows traditional winter starts to let up, although it can sometimes be pretty severe.


Old Man Winter’s iceberg was starting to show signs of melting when the Snow Queen drifted over on her ice cake. She seemed down in the dumps.


“What’s up?” asked the old man.


“It seems like I’ve lost my purpose in life,” said the Snow Queen. “Everybody says what’s the use of having a Snow Queen if it never snows?”


Old Man Winter breathed a sigh of relief. “It’s not too late, your majesty,” he said. “It’s still March, for heaven’s sake.”


So, the two of them put their heads together and hatched a plan. They’d dump a couple of feet of snow on traditional Holy Week and make it a white Easter. Jack Frost was pleased with that.


But St. Nicholas was not. “Who was dreaming of a white Easter?” he declared. The Easter Bunny declined to comment.


Jim Heffernan is a former Duluth News Tribune news and opinion writer and continues as a columnist. He can be reached at and maintains a blog at