Five Years On, Greg’s Still Gone
Greg Sellnow—longtime Post Bulletin columnist, regular Rochester Mag contributor, guy with the worst tennis serve I’ve ever seen, the kind of friend that you could tell to his face had the worst tennis serve you’ve ever seen—died five years ago this month.
It was March 10, 2012. Greg was 54, and had spent the day doing the kind of thing he loved—he went to the Minnesota High School State Hockey Tournament with one of his kids and a friend. He died of a heart attack that night.
It was a terrible time for him to go, mostly because he owed me $8.
That may sound crass, but you’ll have to trust me that that’s the kind of line Greg would have loved. Also, he really did owe me $8.
Four days later, in front of an overflowing memorial service at Mount Olive Lutheran Church—a service filled with friends and family and, most telling, people who felt they knew him through his column—I had the honor of eulogizing his writing at the funeral.
Here’s that eulogy, without all my choking up, which I would still do, five years later:
First of all, everyone here better be damn sure their cell phone is turned off.
And I can only pray that none of you in the front saved these seats by sneaking in here early and leaving your coats on the good pews.
Let’s get one thing straight: Greg would be annoyed by all this. All of you inside on such a beautiful day. Ideally, we’d be sitting at a Honkers game. Third base line. And the beer batter would strike out every at bat.
I’ve been asked to talk about Greg as a writer, but you can’t do that without talking about Greg as a person.
Because once or twice a week for the past 20 years—maybe a thousand columns, maybe a million words—Greg opened up his home and his heart in the pages of the Post Bulletin.
It rarely felt like you were reading Greg’s column. It felt like you were listening to a good friend tell a good story. (A slightly cranky friend, but a good one nonetheless.)
And in those stories, we listened to him proudly describe his kids as they grew up.
Or as Greg told us in one of his most recent columns: “I will tolerate just about anything my kids want to do for happiness—up to, but not necessarily including, a face tattoo.”
We heard loud and clear his love and loyalty to his wife and family.
Along the way, we also heard Greg’s take on some of his other loves—baseball, Bruce Springsteen, Missouri basketball.
But Greg’s writing—and this will surprise none of you—was not all touchy-feely and positive.
You didn’t want to get him started on cellphones, cigarette butts, or seat-savers.
You did not dare ask him about Special Sessions of the Minnesota Legislature.
Greg could be brilliantly cranky, bitingly insightful, politically charged, and surprisingly tender.
Sometimes all in the same column.
Here’s Greg writing about fashion trends, specifically a young guy he saw sporting exceptionally baggy pants:
“So the kid is wearing a pair of jeans with a belt fastened around his thighs through the loops of what should be the waist of the pants. He’s walking in baby steps because when there is a belt fastened around your thighs you cannot walk normally.”
Here’s Greg on accepted physical distance during greetings:
“After the handshake, we Minnesotans need at least 2.75 feet of personal space, but no more than 3.25 feet once the hand is released.”
Here’s Greg on relationships:
“There’s a difference between dating someone and letting that person sleep on your couch.”
Greg’s real writing gift emerged in his profiles of people.
If you get a chance, go back to the PB archives and listen to his story of Sarah Hackenmiller, a young woman waiting for a double lung transplant.
Here’s an excerpt:
“Sarah can’t taste or smell food right now, but she can imagine the heavenly aroma and flavor of her mom’s fried chicken and milk gravy. That’s not what she craves, though. What she wants most desperately is the ability to breathe on her own.”
That’s as humanizing as writing gets.
The real reflection on Greg’s writing, though, is the fact that he made people who had never met him think of him as a friend.
Here’s one of the hundreds of emails and phone calls and comments that have poured into the Post Bulletin over the past few days:
“Hearing of the sudden death of Greg Sellnow hit me like a punch in the gut,” wrote one reader. “Though I’ve never met him, Greg’s writings made me feel like I was reading an email from my brother. … I keep thinking about the recent column where he stood in line for an insane length of time for a ridiculously expensive hot dog in Chicago with his kids because he didn’t know when he’d get back to Chicago…”.
“We’re all glad he stood in line,” that reader wrote. “From now on, so will I.”
There’s never a good time to die, but this seems like a cruelly bad time for Greg to go.
Springsteen’s new CD just came out.
Missouri landed a top seed in the NCAA tournament.
It’s Spring Training for the Twins, and Joe Mauer is not yet injured.
And, from a selfish standpoint, we still want to hear another million words in Greg’s voice:
About those damn seat savers.
Or about that little kid at the Ronald McDonald House.
Or about wasting an hour and $8 waiting in a line for hot dogs, just for the excuse of spending a little extra time with your family.
The Greg Sellnow Memorial Journalism Scholarship Fund, set up in 2012, supports RCTC students pursuing degrees in print or online journalism.
Call 507-281-7770 to donate.