Way to go, R.T.

As the first snow falls and the dust settles from the first mayoral run-off election, and Minneapolitans get used to the idea that we’ll no longer have His Honor Raymond Thomas Rybak pushing the action and leading cheers for what every goofy quality-of-life poll agrees is one of the finest cities in North America, I’m reminded of a lasting image of the man that goes well beyond “the hipster mayor” appellation he’s been saddled with.

It was September 2007, and a few hundred people had gathered at Martin Luther King, Jr. park for a memorial vigil for Mark Loesch, the 41-year-old husband and father of four who was murdered by a man who was initially convicted of the crime and later set free after a second trial. It was a somber evening, with walkers and bicyclists solemnly traversing the park and the walking bridge over 35W.

After a short program, the crowd quickly dispersed. As the sun went down, the mood of the night felt tense, as the killer or killers were still at large, and no clear motive for the brutal beating had been established. I took my time leaving the park and walked my bike up W. 41st Street, deliberately staying in the sadness and pain endured by the Loesch family and the entire extended Kingfield community, when I noticed a lone figure walking on the sidewalk about 20 yards in front of me. It was Rybak.

At first I was going to catch up with him to say hello, but instead I kept my distance, followed him, and stopped short as he suddenly ducked out of the way of the oncoming crowd and into the shadows. No one else was around. I watched as he sat down on a vacant home’s darkened doorstep and put his head in his hands. He was exhausted, grief-stricken, worried, and, with racial tensions high and the weight of the city bearing down on his shoulders, his “dream job” didn’t look like it was as much fun as he always made it seem. I kept walking, and left the good mayor to his thoughts.

In that moment I saw something in Rybak that may have eluded the cameras who caught him stage-diving at First Avenue, tearing up as he presided over the first gay marriages in Minnesota, or his whole-hearted championing of the arts, music, food, business and craft beer scenes and all other things local, local, local: I saw real exasperation in the face of real problems, and a man who cared greatly for his fellow man and his city — to the point that, for one night anyway, it punched him in the gut.

Like any politician, Rybak’s got his share of critics and enemies, but it says here the guy has the heart of a visionary artist and philosopher and the clear-headed mind and imagination of a newspaperman and editor. Throughout his 12 years in office, he’s always been approachable. He never hid in an ivory tower; instead, he was routinely the picture of good energy and health, be it biking through the city, walking around his and others’ neighborhoods, welcoming groups of new immigrants to the city, encouraging students in school, showing up with one neighbor or another on Facebook photos, or lolling under-the-radar with his wife Megan O’Hara and groups of elderly birders or horticulturists at Lake Harriet.

Ever the genteel gentleman, Rybak remains something of a throwback, the kind of mayor who enjoys pressing the flesh and being the face of his hometown. Whether he was preaching the merits of Nice Ride and fitness, or helping people find jobs and pursue dreams, his over-arching mission has been to make things better and make things happen. He hands the reins over to his replacement Jan. 2, and next year he’ll be teaching a class at the University Of Minnesota called “Mayor 101,” which might feature sections on the potentially unteachable Rybak trademarks of positivity, passion, and pushing for growth.

Growing up in this neighborhood, guys my age had a way of complimenting one another for achievements in school, sports, life: “Way to go.” It was the highest praise one kid could bestow upon another, and as Rybak completes his turn as one of the most inspiring figures in city politics history, I’d just like to say, from one city kid to another, “Way to go, R.T.” You gave it everything you had, you did a helluva job, and we’ll miss you.

Jim Walsh lives and grew up in East Harriet. He can be reached at madripple@earthlink.net and www.jimwalshmpls.com