Tim Pawlenty, Fish and Photographs
It won’t be long now and the Republican Party will meet in St. Paul, Minnesota to choose a running mate for their presidential hopeful, Sen. John McCain. They will then send both out onto the campaign trail. One of the people on the short list of vice presidential candidate picks is the Republican Governor of Minnesota, Governor Tim Pawlenty. This got me thinking about my favorite Tim Pawlenty story. Since I only have the one, here it is.
You only have to go back a few months to spring of this year. Springtime in the Upper Midwest may evoke memories of many traditions, but one that spans all belief systems and socio economic groups is the Friday Night Fish Fry. Oh sure, there are those establishments that have a fish fry every Friday during the year, but many more jump on the Friday Night Fish Fry train and ride it in battered and deep fried style only from Ash Wednesday to Good Friday. One well known haven for the spring time ritual is the VFW in South St. Paul. Now, South St. Paul is sort of south east from St. Paul. The community directly south of St. Paul is West St. Paul. If you travel west from St. Paul you end up in Minneapolis. I guess a good compass was difficult to find in the pioneer days. Anyway, in these modern times the place to find good fish is the VFW. We came to the Friday Night Fish Fry tradition later in life. I knew about them all my life, but had never gone. Our eldest daughter talked us into going a few years ago and now we make it an annual pilgrimage. I lived in South St. Paul from kindergarten through 2nd grade. West St. Paul was my family home from 3rd grade and all through high school. I haven’t lived in either town for over thirty years, but this is familiar turf. When I’m here, I’m home. I know these people. Up the hill from the VFW is the skating rink where South St. Paul and West St. Paul High School hockey teams battled it out for a shot at the State Tourney. I attribute some of my adult hearing loss to being in the stands at Wakota Arena when either team scored a goal and their fans screamed in support.
We visited the South St. Paul VFW this past spring for a Friday Night Fish Fry. We had a sizable group with us. There were family members and friends. Some of the family brought their friends. Some of the friends brought friends. Anyway, we added to the crowd that waited in line for food. The fish fry starts at 5pm, but the line starts well before that. It snakes through the VFW, past the bar, past the hand lettered sign that says they have served over 10,000 lbs of fish this year, past the main entry way, past the pull tab booth, past the other bar and then all the way out the back door. When you get to the head of the line you pay your money and get your hand stamped. The stamp is a blurry, inky outline of a jumping fish, but that stamp lets everyone know you have paid your fee and you are allowed to cut back in the food line for seconds, or thirds, or…who’s counting?
Ah, the food line. Warm plates wait to be heaped with cole slaw, beans, rolls, mac and cheese and of course, deep fried fish. This is a fund raising event for the VFW so there are a bunch of volunteers restocking the plates and food, pouring water and coffee, cleaning off the tables, and keeping the hungry line in check. We got our food (first round) and headed to a table. Our group was so large we couldn’t all sit together, but we really weren’t there to visit. This was time to eat some fish. After we were full and sitting back talking I was watching the folks coming through the food line. One fellow looked familiar to me. I asked my mother-in-law if I was right in assuming that the guy peeking out behind one of the heaping plates of fish was the Governor of Minnesota, Tim Pawlenty. She pointed out that his wife Mary and the kids were right behind him. She was sure it was the First Family of Minnesota. Governor Pawlenty may live in the Governor’s mansion now, but he grew up in South St. Paul. He even played hockey on that rink up the hill. Tim and I both left South St. Paul, and although we took drastically different career paths, we both came back for the comfort food. The Pawlentys found a table and enjoyed their meal. I hope it was enjoyable for them. There were many interruptions as people stopped to talk to the Governor or shake his hand.
As we continued to visit, and the Governor tried to work his way through a plate of fish, I thought back how my sister-in-law was once at a banquet with Tim and Mary Pawlenty. In November 2005 Governor Pawlenty led a trade delegation from Minnesota to the People’s Republic of China and during their time in Beijing they attended a banquet at the Great Hall of the People. My sister-in-law was invited to the banquet since she had done some training lectures at the Minnesota Trade Office in Beijing and is a resident of Minnesota when she isn’t living and working in China. She had her photo taken at that banquet with the Governor, but much to her pain the photo turned out quite blurry.
The parallels between these two dinners started to impress me. Both had the Minnesota Governor in attendance, both featured sea food (although my sister-in-law described some of the banquet fare as, “slippery food from the bottom of the sea”), and what could be more like the Great Hall of the People than a VFW on a Friday night? We didn’t have my sister-in-law here to finally get an in focus photo with the Governor, but we had her sister, my wife!
It took some coaxing to get my wife to agree to ask Governor Pawlenty for a photo. Her sister may have attended a banquet with our Governor in China, but at least we could have a photo that is in focus. My eldest daughter clinched the deal when she told my wife that she would surely regret it if she didn’t take this opportunity. It was now or never. The First Family of Minnesota were about to leave! The Governor and his family may have had their fill of fish and well wishing constituents, but undaunted we added to the bunch of silly Minnesotans crowding around him and asked for a photo. He and his family were extremely gracious. He listened to my wife’s brief explanation of the blurry photo in Beijing and quickly agreed to a picture. He even asked that she say hello to her sister for him.
The fish fry was over for that Friday night. The tables were cleared and a country band started setting up on stage. More and more people in cowboy hats started arriving. When the first song began and the line dancing started, we headed out into the night. We were happy, we were full and we had our picture. As soon as we arrived home my wife downloaded the photo and emailed it to her sister in China. At almost the speed of light our telephone rang and when I answered it it was her sister on the other end. She wanted to talk to my wife about her “in focus” picture.
I only met the Governor once, and he and his family were patient and gracious. Now I’m not really a political kind of guy and I don’t know if Governor Pawlenty would make a great Vice President, but knowing what I do about his roots, his family and his taste in food, I’m sure he would do pretty fair.