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