Last December, I decided to write a column about Rubén Rosario. The thesis was pretty simple: because he writes for the St. Paul paper and is not named “Joe Soucheray,” he might be the least-known daily columnist in town. But what compelled me was that Rosario seemed a tireless reporter, buttressing his conclusions with street work, rather than twirling in his chair and lazily spraying opinions.
We had a great one-hour discussion at the Egg & I. I remember being surprised that a guy older than me was still playing pickup basketball. Like Jimmy Breslin — for whom Rosario was a copy boy — he is a great story teller whose street tales are only enhanced with his Bronx accent. He has a fighter’s toughness when it comes to the reckless powerful and mindless victimizers, but a heart of gold when it comes to victims and the perps honestly trying to turn their lives around.
He writes ledes like: “Pat Hogan will never forget the day he dug a mass grave wide enough to fit the bodies of six children side by side.”
Because it was intended as a get-to-know you, I didn’t take notes, relying on the trusty digital recorder that turned out to be 98 percent full. A combination of reportorial shame, winter break and a subsequent family emergency kept me from screwing myself into my chair and writing the piece.
And now it turns out Rubén has incurable cancer, discovered after one of those pick-up games.
Rosario wrote about it over the weekend, a typically resolute yet realistic piece that was not a pre-obit. That’s not how I choose to cast this, either. I’d just like to say a few things about the guy, based on my recollections and some interviews I never got around to using.
First of all, as former colleague Lynda McDonnell told me, “He’s got some moxie.” At a paper with a conservative editorial page and Soucheray, you can practically see Rosario’s chest expand when he writes columns like, “Hey union haters, don’t read this. You won’t like it.”
It’s the sort of muscular populism you don’t see much among non-rightie newspaperfolk in this town, and of course, it makes Rosario a lightning rod on the PiPress comment pages.
When Rosario interviews a guy who denies being involved in a five-kid murder, these knuckleheads think he’s defending the guy by merely talking to him. Anyone with a brain knows Rosario is telling a human story that in no way exonerates. Without the breadcrumbs of popular prejudice, some readers get easily lost.
Opinions among cops are also unpredictable. Dave Titus, head of the St. Paul Police Federation, says, “I have no problem with anyone described as a bleeding heart, but your heart has to bleed for a cop, too. When he writes about officers doing assertive police work, he tends not to be very kind, from an officer’s point of view. Many members tell me, ‘That motherfucker, I’m getting rid of the Pioneer Press, he’s pissed me off for the last time.’”
However, John Delmonico, president of the Minneapolis Police Federation, says, “I think the thing about Rubén is he’s not afraid of the truth and asking the tough questions. I have the utmost respect for him. He’s tenacious, digs deep and he doesn’t sit at his desk. When Rubén speaks, it’s sometimes not what you want to hear, but it’s the truth.”
Star Tribune reporter Randy Furst, who won a statewide award for his coverage of the Metro Gang Strike Force abuses last year, isn’t shy about tipping his cap to a rival.
“I like Rubén’s work and I appreciate the thoughtfulness and compassion that he brings to his columns,” Furst says. “He is also extremely well sourced, and I hate to admit it, but he beat us on several Metro Gang Strike Force stories. [H]e deserves to be recognized for the quality of his reporting, writing and insight.”
Ironically, Titus said he appreciated Rosario writing a column about the good things done by Strike Force officers (who came from St. Paul and Minneapolis as well as other jurisdictions): “In fairness, he has called me up for input on stories, and there’s never a point where he has not taken my calls.”
(I should note all of these comments came before Rubén’s recent diagnosis.)
One of the striking things about Rosario is how much he gives back. The dimwits who think Rosario excuses criminals don’t know his dirt-poor family carried their valuables in pillowcases to the neighbors when they went to the beach.
According to McDonnell, who runs the ThreeSixty journalism-mentoring program at St. Thomas, Rosario is a tireless volunteer who “can connect because of his own background. He teaches classes at the Y in Cathedral Hill. Usually we get a lot of girls, but he’s got guys, 8th graders, kids thinking about dropping out of school, writing stories about where they live.”
McDonnell says Rosario “always shows up in a dress shirt and tie, I think, because he takes them seriously and they take him seriously. He doesn’t look where everybody else is looking during the big event — he asks how it affects the ordinary person, and a lot of them become his sources. But he loves to mock Minnesotans — their ‘frou frou,’ way-too-many earnest people telling you about their tender feelings. There’s sort of a streetwise edge and a great heart.”
Rosario is a cornerstone of the PiPress’s internship and minority-recruitment programs. While a columnist has license to be a party of one, Rosario is the opposite. A former metro editor until he cut a deal to go back on the street, Rosario has hired several colleagues and supported many more.
“He hired me and been a mentor to me,” says Mara Gottfried, a PiPress cops reporter. “I sit about three desks away from him — you can hear him. He’s loud. Sometimes he takes a tone, cursing.”
One colleague chuckled recounting Rosario’s side of the conversation which consisted of “Do not bullshit me. I can tell if you’re bullshitting me!”
Quips former PiPress editor Thom Fladung, “He doesn’t need a phone. He [was] more than willing to call bullshit on me if he thinks I’ve done or said something that doesn’t live up to his idea of what an editor should be.”
Adds Fladung, now managing editor for the Cleveland Plain Dealer, “I think he truly believes in himself, styles himself as a ‘Joe Bag-adonuts.’ I think it’s real.”
Notes Gottfried: “Sometimes I hear him conducting interviews in Spanish and just hearing his end, he’s a good interviewer. He’s really well-sourced — he has sources no one else has — but he works side-by-side with you.”
Friend, teacher, hard-ass, colleague. May we be reading you for many more years, Rubén.