Humor, sharp questions marked Podulke's time
Early this year, I got an e-mail with the subject line, "podulke coronation remarks."
It was from Mike Podulke. This year was his turn in the rotating chairmanship on the Olmsted County Board, and, as a courtesy, he had sent me an advance copy of his speech.
"Be sure to refresh yourself on the spellings of the polysyllabic superlatives you are sure to need in describing the importance of my ascension," he wrote.
Classic Podulke. The county's senior commissioner was a bubbling brew of the grandiose mixed with subtle self-deprecation, ever friendly and self-assured. He told a lot of jokes.
I've covered Rochester City Hall for 10 years and Podulke's county board — on which he served since 1987 — for the past five. He was one of a kind.
As a rule, reporters keep their distance from the sources they cover. I never visited Mike's house or saw him outside of the work environment, yet I had an immediate and everlasting feeling of connection with him — we shared the same birthday, after all. Or maybe he just made everybody feel that way. In fact, come to think of it, I'm sure he did.
Most times, Mike ran for re-election unopposed. He joked that most of his inner-city constituents probably didn't realize they lived in Olmsted County.
Or maybe they just appreciated the way he represented them. Mike had a frequent habit of raising thorny, difficult questions — the kind that cut to the heart of things and the kind you had a feeling the questioned person either couldn't answer or didn't want to be forced to.
Then, just when the tension in the room would reach a certain level, he would diffuse it, with a wave of his hand and an amused-sounding "never mind." As a reporter, I often wished he would have let the question ride, just to hear what the answer would be. But Mike's purpose, I suppose, was more to plant a seed than to score a Pyrrhic victory.
It's strange to think he's gone. Fellow commissioner Paul Wilson said he had to call back twice after hearing the news, just to make sure he really heard what he thought — or hoped — he had only imagined he'd heard.
I remember the first time I saw Mike, at a public event put on by then-DM&E railroad president Kevin Schieffer. In the ballroom at Mayo Civic Center, Podulke stood up to holler a challenging question at Schieffer. A crowd of hundreds shouted him down, but he stood and kept hollering, though his words were drowned in the din. He finally sat down with that characteristic wave of the hand.
The last time I saw him was after Tuesday's county board meeting. He caught my eye and seemed to want to come over to talk, but I was already talking to somebody else, and so he just drifted off.