Memories of Red Carroll

Red Carroll died on Saturday at a hospital in Beckley, West Virginia at the age of 92. He was recovering from surgery on a broken hip from a fall a few weeks ago. I first heard the news from Joe Hotkewicz, a good friend of Red’s who lives in Louisville, Kentucky. The fact that neither Joe nor I have ever lived in Coalwood is significant, because it tells you a little bit about what kind of person Red was.

Ernest “Red” Carroll was one of the first people I met in Coalwood, West Virginia in October of 2005. I was there as part of a group of teachers from Minneapolis on an unusual and (for me) life-changing professional development experience called “Coalwood to the Cape”, organized by Brad and Julie Blue.

We had come to Coalwood for the annual October Sky Festival to visit the home town of Homer Hickam and the Rocket Boys, made famous by Homer’s book and the movie October Sky. Father of rocket boy Jimmie “O’Dell” Carroll, Red was the last surviving rocket boy dad. Julie Blue knew Red well from her several previous visits to Coalwood and she made sure we got to spend lots of time with him.

Brad and Julie with Red during our tour of Coalwood, October, 2005 (photo by Steve Date)

Red led us on a narrated tour of the town, the rocket launch site (dubbed “Cape Coalwood”), a working coal mine, and he was part of a panel discussion in the town of War. He also invited us to his house. There, he showed us some of the “treasures” he’d collected while hauling trash in Coalwood, plus his vegetable garden, his bee hives and his beloved dahlias that lined the fence around his yard.

Julie and Red in his backyard. His shed (left) was a museum of old machines and gadgets he had collected. Some of his dahlias are visible in the background. (photo by Steve Date)

Red was in his late 80s in 2005 and while he moved slowly and took frequent short breaks, he still had plenty of energy to show us the town he loved so much. He was born in Coalwood and had live there all his life. He worked at the “tipple” for the coal mine for 16 years. The tipple is where the coal is loaded into trains or trucks after it comes out of the mine. Red’s job was “picking bone”, in other words, sorting the coal and discarding other types of rock that come out of the coal cars. He told me that he loved that job – “Couldn’t wait to go to work every day”, he said.

When the tipple closed in 1954, Red needed to find another job. He applied for the position of garbage collector. He was thankful to get the job and did it well for the next 33 years. Red was one of the instrumental adults that helped Homer, O’Dell and the other rocket boys get the materials they needed to build their rockets.

Red Carroll giving kids pony and wagon rides, 1956 (photo by David C. Ridenour)

The Red Carroll I knew was a quiet man – kind, generous and gentle. He was above all, a man of faith. To say he was deeply religious understates it. His faith in God was stronger than anyone I’ve ever met and God was just barely under the surface in every conversation. Peggy Blevins always says that Red had “DSL to the Lord”.

By some accounts he had a little harder edge in his younger years. He was a strict, but loving father to O’Dell and his brothers and sister. O’Dell says that one of the things his dad wouldn’t allow him to do while growing up was go to movies. How ironic that years later, Red not only liked the movie October Sky, but embraced it with all his heart and encouraged everyone he met to see it.

After Homer’s book and then the movie came out in 1999, tourists started coming to see the town that was now known as “Home of the Rocket Boys”. Red would usually be around somewhere and stop to talk with visitors. He told them about the history of the town and showed them the sites they had come to see. When a few people in town decided to have a yearly festival honoring the Rocket Boys, Red quickly became an important part of the festivities.

Red opened every October Sky Festival with an emotional prayer and then spent the rest of the day roaming around town, greeting visitors and catching up with old friends.

Here’s a little video I did from the 2009 October Sky Festival, featuring Red Riding the fire truck into town with the Rocket Boys and then saying a prayer to open the day’s festivities.

Red kicks off the 2006 October Sky Festival by delivering the invocation as only he could. (photo by David Goad)

Red had two sets of children. The older generation — with Virginia, his first wife — including Jimmie (O’Dell), grew up in a very different time in Coalwood. There isn’t much left (in Coalwood or anywhere) of the life and times that Homer Hickam wrote about in his memoir. Red was very proud of Jimmie (O’Dell) and the rocket boys. Sadly, Red lost another of his sons, Donnie, a few years ago.

Red in his backyard with Caleb and Ivy, October, 2007 (photo by Steve Date)

Long before Larry King ever got the idea, Red had two sons at an advanced age with his second wife, Ivy. Josh is now in his twenties and Caleb is a Junior in high school. Red always talked about hoping to live long enough to see them grow up. It was one of the things that kept him going.

During the 5 years that Brad and Julie brought Minneapolis teachers to Coalwood, Red’s tours and a stop at his house became a regular and special part of the group’s activities. Each year he moved a little slower, he needed a little more nap time, and his voice became a little weaker, but he always gave us all the energy he had. He was a good friend to us and a great ambassador for Coalwood.

Red welcomes the 2007 Minneapolis GEMS/GISE teachers group to his house. (photo by Steve Date)

I’m not going to pretend I knew Red well. I was just one of the thousands of people who came through town, met him and will never forget him. I have to thank Julie and Brad Blue for introducing me to Red and to Coalwood. They had a lot of affection for Red and he for them. Brad told me yesterday, “Homer introduced us to Red. And Homer wrote The Coalwood Way. Red LIVED the Coalwood Way.”

My favorite picture of Julie and Red together.

I also want to thank David Goad, for helping me get to know Red better and going to Red’s house with me to interview him for my film (the first interview I ever did) and coming along when I did other shooting with Red. Red and David liked each other a lot and David’s presence, approval, and his helping me interview Red was very important to me.

Red and David Goad at City Hall in War, WV, August, 2006 (photo by Steve Date)

The last time I talked with Red was a couple of days before the 2009 October Sky Festival. I had just arrived in town and was talking to someone in front of the Clubhouse. Red was cruising around in his car as he often did. He pulled up next to me and rolled down the window. “Hey Buddy, when you gonna stop up at the house and see me?” I know he called everyone “Buddy”, but I always liked it.

I stopped over there a little later and we had a nice talk. I had just gotten DVDs of my movie printed and it was one of the great moments of my life to be able to give some copies to him. Red was one of the main reasons I made the film. He was the first interview I wanted to do when I began shooting in 2006 and he was the cornerstone of the project.

He seemed tired and frail that day. He would occasionally drift off and lose his train of thought. He told me he thought it would be his last October Sky Festival and the condition he was in gave me no reason to doubt it.

However, it wasn’t his last festival. He hung on for another 15 months and was able to greet all the visitors to his town one last time about 3 months ago.

If we are equal parts mind, body and spirit, then Red did it right. He took care of himself and lived a long, good life. His body and mind gradually deteriorated at a ripe old age, but his spirit continued to the end. To me, that’s the way it should be. He loved life, but I’ve never met anyone so prepared to leave this world as Red was. And now his spirit continues through the memories of all of us who knew him.

Rest in peace, Red.

Do you have any memories of Red that you’d like to share? Leave comments below. Thank you.

Congrats to Norman Vladimir from a sentimental old sap

I watched the Kennedy Center Honors last night for (I think) the first time in my life. It’s the kind of show I haven’t tended to pay much attention to over the years.

Norman Vladimir - a photo from his website, where you can hear some of his songs http://normanvladimir.com/

But my daughter Emily’s good friend Norman Vladimir was singing with the Bill T. Jones / Arnie Zane Dance Company and I wanted to see him.

Emily has known Norman since her first year of college, when he was Norman Vladimir Smith, from a small town in Tennessee. I last saw Norman a little over a year ago at Emily’s wedding. He’s a great guy, currently making his way in the music scene in New York.

Norman and Maya dancing at Emily & Kyle's wedding.


This appearance in front of President and Mrs. Obama, Oprah, Paul McCartney, Merle Haggard, Jerry Herman, a crowd containing seemingly every celebrity in the U.S. — plus a national TV audience — is a big break for Norman. Judging by his Facebook comments about the evening, he’s ecstatic about the experience and I couldn’t be happier for him. He’s a wonderful singer and a great friend to Emily. I’ve only met him a few times over the years, but he’s the kind of guy whose laugh and smile brighten every room he’s in. He seems like an old friend the first time you meet him. I was thrilled and proud to see him as part of this big event.


But my reaction to Norman’s appearance was not the “sentimental sap” part — that was straight up admiration.

What I didn’t expect was how much I enjoyed the rest of the show. Seeing people like Merle Haggard and Paul McCartney — aging entertainment giants for my generation — genuinely moved by the tributes, is what got to me. I’m not a big Broadway musical kind of guy, but even I got a little verklempt when Chita Rivera, Angela Lansbury and Carol Channing sang together to a trembling, glassy-eyed Jerry Herman in the balcony.

There were many such emotional moments — cutaways to Bill T. Jones channeling each movement of his dancers, Merle Haggard’s lips barely perceptively singing along with his own songs – eyes occasionally looking upward, Oprah reaching behind her head for Steadman’s hands during Jennifer Hudson’s performance from “The Color Purple”. Whatever you think of Oprah, this moment was genuine and sweet, and she deserves the honor.

But there was more to it than just watching these stars react to the accolades. I loved the way the honorees represented a variety of genres and the way they all genuinely seemed appreciative of and happy for each other. The audience also seemed to “get it”. We saw white country music fans (let’s admit it – not the usual African American ballet crowd) transfixed by the Bill T. Jones dancers, black people (let’s admit it – not the usual country music crowd) joyfully clapping along with Vince Gill and Brad Paisley doing “Working Man Blues”, Oprah knowing and singing the words to Haggard’s “Silver Wings” — and the big finale with Mavis Staples walking on stage to pick up McCartney’s “Let it Be” from James Taylor and sing the hell out it while Sir Paul teared up, probably thinking about his mother, who inspired the song.

Maybe it was seeing Norman have a brief moment as a part of all of this that got me in the right mood. Maybe it was seeing some of the aging icons of my life reacting to this kind of a tribute in such a genuine, emotional way — humbly watching, not being full of themselves — and being thankful. Maybe it was the realization that the old stars in the balcony were once young, struggling artists like Norman and many of the other performers on stage — and that the torch was being passed. Whatever the reason, I found myself enjoying the show very much.

Go ahead — call me a cornball.

Norman and Maya ham it up at Emily and Kyle's wedding (photo by Kyle Cedermark)

Way to go Norman! I’m proud to know you. Thank you for being such a good friend for Emily and Kyle.


This dream you’re living has come about because of the talent you have, the passion you’ve found, and most importantly, all the hard work you’ve put into it. My hat is off to you. I can’t wait to see what the future holds for you.

Emily, Kyle & Norman

Cosmoline is my first attempt at recording a live performance

I’ve been thinking about trying my hand at a live music recording for a while now, ever since I saw my friend John Kurtis Dehn’s band Cosmoline last June. (see June 8 post). I finally got around to catching them again on Friday night at the Wild Tymes Bar and Grill in St. Paul. My friend Becky was on a second camera and we got one song were we both had enough decent shots to piece together a video.

I’d like to try again some time. It’s not great, but I learned a lot and had fun doing it. One thing I learned it that this sort of video is harder to do than it looks.

So here’s “Coal Black Love” by Cosmoline from their album “Give Me Back My Pride”.

Touch ’em all, Steve Berg!


Steve Berg has written a wonderful book chronicling the planning, design, construction and opening of Target Field, the new home of the Minnesota Twins. Nobody is better qualified to do this book than he. Throughout his days with the Minneapolis StarTribune, first as a reporter, then as an editorial writer and now writing for MinnPost.com, Steve has been a steadfast proponent of smart development in Minneapolis and of this stadium. At a party for him this evening, I learned that over the years, he wrote 125 columns in favor of a downtown baseball park.

Tonight’s book-signing event in the Kirby Puckett Atrium at Target Field was very nice. A lot of Steve’s friends and fans of the ballpark stopped by to congratulate him and buy a book or two. Steve’s family spoke humorously and lovingly of him. Twins President Dave St. Peter talked about Steve’s qualifications and how happy he and the Twins organization are with the final product.

Steve signs a book for Bob Jansen, an old friend from his StarTribune days. Behind Bob are Debbie Jansen and Steve's daughter Hannah.


A good turnout for Steve's book-signing

As everyone who has visited Target Field knows, it’s a beautiful place. It’s already begun to transform that part of downtown Minneapolis and will continue to do so. Steve’s son Alex, who has lived elsewhere for the past decade or so, talked about how whenever he comes home, there’s something new in town to be proud of — the light rail line, the Guthrie Theater, the Walker Art Center, etc. . . . . and now this very cool ballpark, owed in a significant part to his Dad’s efforts.

The ballpark looks great even when it's empty.

Thank you Steve, for writing this book and for doing all that you have done over the years to help make Minneapolis the great city it is. I’m proud to call you my friend.

A ghostly image of Kirby Puckett hovers over the bar and the atrium that bears his name. It's a beautiful space.

Buy Steve Berg’s book about this place!

God Club results in unlikely entry in the Jonah Project

Becky, one of my friends at work, is a Christian — but she’s one of the good ones. We started having little conversations about our differing beliefs a while back. Occasionally, one of us would give the other something to read and then we’d get together and discuss it. We started calling this “God Club”. Sometimes it’s fun and lighthearted. Sometimes it’s stressful.

Becky lent me a book a few months ago called “The Unlikely Disciple”, by Kevin Roose. It’s about his experience spending a semester at Liberty University — Jerry Falwell’s ultra-conservative college in Lynchburg, Virginia. Roose decided to enroll there for one term and write about it from his more moderate christian perspective.

I read the first couple of chapters of the book, but before I got around to finishing it, Roose announced something called “The Jonah Project”, giving out free copies of the book to the first 500 pairs of people who wrote in and offered to read it, discuss it and send in some sort of joint response for his website. It fit perfectly with God Club, and since I never turn down a free anything, we signed up.

After some good talks (and a few obnoxious comments by me), Becky had an idea to try to write a joint poem, explaining some of what we had talked about. She did most of the work and she did a great job. “The Rooster” thought so too, and said some nice things about the poem on his website. Here’s our poem and some kind words from Kevin (we’re project #10).

“The Unlikely Disciple” really is a great book — a quick, interesting and thought-provoking read. We had a good time (mostly) doing the project. Thanks Kevin, for the book, the project, and the nice comments. Looking forward to your next book.

Becky — looking forward to the next God Club. I’ll try not to be obnoxious.

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.