What a long, strange trip it continues to be . . .

A tricked-out old bus parked near the beach in Oceanside, California (All photos by Steve Date)


I just spent a few days in the San Diego area. I was the guest of some new friends that I met last October. It’s a long story, and one that I’ll tell more of in upcoming posts, but let’s just say that Casey and Hilary Gauntt and their family have been through a awful lot over the past couple of years. Their story is both tragic and hopeful. It includes the loss of a son and an unexpected connection with his grandfather who died 40 years ago. They are wonderful people and an amazing family. I’m trying to help them tell their story with the use of video so others might get some strength and inspiration from it.

They have a lovely house in Solana Beach


They treated me like royalty. Sometimes, I almost felt like I was part of the family, but of course I’m not, and I can’t know the pain and heartache they’ve been through. But we had some really nice times together over the long 4th of July weekend and I’ll never be able to thank them for letting me into their lives in this special way. Their graciousness and generosity is incredible.

Hilary comes home and enters their beautiful yard.

Casey’s son-in-law, Ryan Kirby, invited me to play golf with him and Casey at the Fairbanks Ranch Country Club, where he’s a member. It was VERY nice — way different than my usual golf outing. I must admit that I’m not used to being attended to in the manner of a private club such as this. I think I could get used to it pretty quickly, though. The weather that day was perfect — high 60s and sunny. An ocean breeze always (they tell me) comes up the valley from the Del Mar beach. The golf course itself was stunning. A big thank you to Ryan for a round of golf I’ll never forget.

Casey hits a shot to one of the many picturesque greens at the Fairbanks Ranch Country Club.


I also had the privilege of meeting Casey’s mother, Barb, his daughter, Brittany, and grandson Wyatt, a noisy little guy who has brought optimism, hope and joy back into their lives.

4 generations - Casey, Brittany, Wyatt and Barb


We’re considering ways to help get the video project seen be those who might benefit from it. The immediate plan is to enter the video as a 10-minute documentary in the Minnesota Historical Society’s “1968 Project” in September. The story has a strong connection to that year. The Gauntts have also set up a scholarship fund in the name of Casey and Hilary’s son, Jimmy, that is helping Torrey Pines High School grads go to college and study the arts. It would be nice to help raise some money for that. We’ll think of other ways to get it seen as we go.

Casey and Hilary taking in the view at a nearby beach.


The weekend was both enjoyable and emotionally draining for everyone. They tell me they’re glad I was there to get more of the story on video, but I know it’s hard to have a house guest for 4 nights and it’s got to be tough to talk about these things so much for several days in a row. But the story is so great because the lives of everyone in the family have been changed in unexpected and hard-to-explain ways. I’m amazed at everyone’s strength and positive spirit.

One day, Casey and I went for a run in a beautiful wetland area nearby. We stopped at a bench that they had inscribed and dedicated to Jimmy. Casey told Jimmy who I was as we sat on his bench on a hillside looking out over the valley. I sat there feeling the cool breeze with tears in my eyes. Can you feel both incredibly sad and exhilarated at the same time?
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Mostly, I feel lucky to have met Casey and Hilary last October in Coalwood, West Virginia.

More to come.
Stay tuned.

Cosmoline regains their pride the Acadia

Twin Cities group Cosmoline released their first album, “Give Me Back My Pride”, at the Acadia Cafe on the West Bank in Minneapolis on Friday night. I stayed out WAY past my bedtime because my friend John Kurtis Dehn plays guitar and sings in the group.

It was a fun night for me. The place was packed, the band sounded great and everyone loved the music.

As much as I liked the live set, I have to say that I LOVE the CD. I listened to it twice the next morning and I was singing along by the second time. It’s a solid record with some great songs that cross boundaries — country-style tunes with ringin’ guitar riffs and some sweet vocal harmonies. The title song has been in my head for 3 days.

John Kurtis is joined by Scott Malm, Steve Clay, David Hepenstal and on this night, Grant Dawson on piano.

Cosmoline at the Acadia Cafe in Minneapolis, June 5, 2010 (photo by Steve Date)

Here’s a YouTube clip of two songs, “Jean” and “Lay Me Down Gently”, recorded at Stasiu’s in Northeast Minneapolis about a year ago.

John joined the group about 3 years ago, but tells me the nucleus of the band has been around since 2001. Scott and John do most of the songwriting, but everyone has input. They’ve amassed enough new material for another CD and they hope to get started on that soon. In the meantime, John says, “We’re always looking for the new gig experiences and other bands to share the stage with. Otherwise, just the usual requests: Fan us. Friend us. Take us home and feed us. If you like the tunes, harass The Current to play us.”

You can catch them next on June 26th at The New Palace Stage at The Wild Tymes Bar in St. Paul.

L-R John Kurtis Dehn, Steve Clay, David Hepenstal, Scott Malm (photo by Steve Date)

You don’t find many bands who give out free lip balm.

Dragon City – The Fong’s American dream lives on Lake Street

Every few months my co-worker Catherine Lee invites a group of us to gather at Dragon City, her family’s restaurant at 4301 East Lake Street in Minneapolis. We went last Wednesday and had a great time, as usual.

Dragon City, USA


Dragon City is a classic old-school Chinese-American restaurant — the kind my parents took me to in the ’50s and ’60s. The setting is unpretentious, the food is good, the portions are big, and “Chow Mein” dominates the sign out front. My Mom and Dad never ventured outside of the chow mein and egg foo young page of a menu, unfortunately, so I didn’t learn about how vegetables can be deliciously crunchy or how sauces could be spicy until later in life. This place has both kinds of food, so my parents and I could have dined here together and all liked it.

Catherine with her Mom, Donna and sister, Emily


Catherine’s parents, Daniel and Donna Fong, opened the restaurant 33 years ago in what was the office of a lumber yard. They had immigrated, along with 7 of their 8 children (Catherine is the youngest and the only one born in the U.S.) from Hong Kong, where they had lived for several years after escaping from Communist China. Mom and Dad (and the older children) worked and the Nankin Restaurant in downtown Minneapolis, a famous and highly regarded Twin Cities landmark, before taking the risk of opening a place of their own.

Donna Fong with 7 of her children in the 1960s hangs with many other photos on a wall of the restaurant


Catherine's sister Bonnie tells me about photos on the wall. When their father was alive, he covered the entire wall with pictures of family, friends and customers. Since he died about 5 years ago, they've scaled it back. Other sisters are Emily (tie dyed shirt) and Bonnie (at the cash register)


It’s always been a purely family business. They’ve hired very few people over the years. Dad used to do most of the cooking, but now that he’s gone, they’ve hired someone to cook. Catherine says that it’s not always easy for her sisters and her to keep it going. They put in a lot of hours just to keep the restaurant afloat, but they couldn’t make it if they had to pay salaries for all the help.

My Andersen teacher friends enjoyed our recent visit.

Nobody really wants to let go of the place yet, though. Donna still lives upstairs, where she raised the family. The income from the restaurant provided a good life for her children. She and Daniel were able to support their family in a way that we all hope to. This place means everything to her. Catherine tells me the kids will keep it going as long as Mom wants. There are too many memories here for everyone, but especially for Donna Fong. This building is her version of the American dream and represents everything she’s done as a parent. We all should have such a place to call home.

Don't know if this thing still works, but I love it.

So if you’re in the neighborhood, stop in, take a look at the photos, have some Kung Pao or some chow mein — or maybe “Cathy’s Special” — and remember how much this place means to this family and to our community. And maybe start noticing these kinds of family restaurants, run by immigrants, that we drive by in every city of our country without giving them a thought. Let’s hope they all hang on for a while longer.

Here’s to you, Donna and Daniel Fong.

I met Paul Nagel yesterday

Like many truly great people, Paul C. Nagel is quiet and humble. He’s also witty and eloquent. I could go on, but since I’ve only spent an hour with him, I suppose I should leave those kinds of words to those who know him best. My friend Rich Cornell is one of those people. He’s been a friend of Dr. Nagel for many years and is currently making a documentary film about his life.

Rich Cornell and Paul Nagel

I have to admit that two weeks ago I had never heard of Paul Nagel. But when Rich asked me if I wanted to meet him and and then Paul invited us to his Minneapolis condominium yesterday, I was fully aware of how special the opportunity was.

Paul has lived his 80-something years to the fullest. Born in Missouri, he earned a Ph.D. in History at the University of Minnesota in the late ’40s. He became a professor of history, a college dean (University of Missouri) and then was named Director of the Virginia Historical Society. He wrote several scholarly books in the ’60s and ’70s, but by 1980 had decided to leave academic life and and write history books that had an appeal to the general public. His most well-known book is one about John Quincy Adams.

John Quincy Adams: A Public Life, A Private Life - Paul Nagel's best-known book

Here is a partial list of his books.

George Caleb Bingham: Missouri’s Famed Painter And Forgotten Politician (2005)
German Migration to Missouri: My Family’s Story (2002)
John Quincy Adams: A Public Life, A Private Life (1997)
The Lees of Virginia: Seven Generations of an American Family (1990)
The Adams Women: Abigail and Louisa Adams, Their Sisters and Daughters (1987)
Descent from Glory: Four Generations of the John Adams Family (1984)
This Sacred Trust: American Nationality, 1798-1898 (1980)
This Sacred Trust: American Nationality, 1776-1861 (1980)
Missouri: A Bicentennial History (1977)
This Sacred Trust: American Nationality 1778-1898 (1971)

Rich’s documentary film will be finished in a few months, but first he wants to do a couple more interviews with people who know Paul. Through the years, Paul has become friends with a lot of well-known people, not only in the academic and literary world, but also in politics and the news media.

Rich has asked me to interview one of those people for him because he will be out of town for a few weeks and will miss the opportunity. I don’t want to mention the person’s name yet, because it’s not 100% set to go and I don’t want to jinx it. But if it works out, it will be very cool.

Rich Cornell and Paul Nagel chat in Paul's living room

My hour with Paul Nagel yesterday is one I’ll never forget. We chatted like old friends, even though he didn’t know me from Adam. He wanted to know about my children, and really perked up when I told him my daughter, Emily, went to the University if Virginia and had a summer job as a tour guide at Monticello. He visited Charlottesville often when he lived in Richmond. I was quite touched by the interest he showed in me and my family.

Dr. Paul C. Nagel

Paul is a big person in all the important ways, and I’m grateful to Rich for sharing him with me. When we shook hands as I left, he said, “I’m so glad we had the chance to meet. Now I hope we can become friends.” I smiled all the way home.

(post script to this post — Jim Lehrer (PBS News Hour) was the special friend of Paul’s that I was fortunate to interview. Read my post about that experience here)

Sheila gets ‘em ready

Sheila Nelson is one of my favorite people at work.  She is a teacher in the “Get Ready” program, which is sponsored by the Minnesota State Department of Education.  It’s purpose is to help 4th and 5th graders learn how to begin preparing themselves for post-secondary education.

Sheila Nelson

One of Sheila’s many duties is to teach two lessons a month in each of the 5th grade classrooms.  The kids look forward to working with her.  She expects a lot from them . . .  and they deliver.

Sheila is 100% in for the kids.  She bends over backwards to help them become better people.  She’s a great teacher and a very cool person.  I’m so lucky to know her and work with her.

For more info about GET READY, go here:

http://www.getreadyforcollege.org/gPg.cfm?pageID=1615&1534-D83A_1933715A=4774290736f0a4828e5a3a0c7b64bb55b336ac07

Sheila teaching my 5th graders