Patrick Coleman had just lost in the bidding for an early Bob Dylan manuscript, written in the Bard’s own hand when he was a still parroting Woody Guthrie in Dinkytown. The sheaf of poems, won by a private German collector, would have been an invaluable asset for the Minnesota Historical Society, where Coleman, 58, is the longtime acquisitions librarian. But it was not to be.
After the auction, Coleman strolled forlornly through an aisle at the antiquarian book fair he was attending in New York City. That was when he noticed several posh-looking book collectors approaching him. In unison, they stopped short and raised two fingers to their foreheads, in an “L” shape. L, that is, for loser.
“I got even with them last year,” says Coleman, 58, clearly amused by the memory. “Last year I had the auction of my life.”
In 2010, Coleman was in New York at yet another book fair, hoping to purchase some Floyd Risvold manuscripts. Risvold, a wealthy Edina resident, died in 2009 leaving orders that his huge American historical documents collection be auctioned off. Coleman tried persuading Risvold to donate some Minnesota-related manuscripts to the historical society. But he declined.
So Coleman was forced to go to New York and wave his white auction card like everyone else. He had set his sights on 60 Minnesota-related Risvold items. He won 22 of them. To him, that was a triumph.
“During one session, I was sitting between the greatest antiquarian book dealer in the world and the greatest manuscript dealer in the world,” Coleman says. “When I won an auction item that all three of us were bidding on, the room spontaneously burst into applause. ‘The little guy won!'”
Among those items was a letter addressed from Joseph Rolette Jr., a 19th-century fur trader and Minnesota Territorial Council member, to Maj. Thomas Floyd Smith in St. Louis, Mo. The letter talked about a slave being held at Fort Snelling who wanted to be set free. It was not Dred Scott, whose case helped spark the Civil War, but the circumstances were similar. That makes it a key historical artifact. “It was the kind of thing that, if I hadn’t won it that day, we would never see again,” he says.
Diverging from a famous family
Few would have guessed that Coleman was destined to become the Indiana Jones of Minnesota manuscripts. His is a political family. His father, Nick Coleman Sr., was the powerhouse former Minnesota Senate majority leader. His brothers include the political columnist Nick Coleman Jr.; St. Paul Mayor Chris Coleman; and Emmett Coleman, a Comcast lobbyist, as well as three other siblings – Maureen, Brendan and Meghan.
Patrick Coleman has not avoided politics altogether, and in fact regards himself as “a political animal.” He was part of his father’s failed campaigns for governor and U.S. Senate in the early 1970s. He was a 2008 DFL delegate to the National Democratic Convention. He managed several election campaigns for former state Rep. Kathleen Vellenga. And through his position at the Minnesota Historical Society, he occasionally finds himself with business before the Legislature.
But the political bug never really bit Coleman. His father wasn’t around a lot when he was young, Coleman says, and he did not want to end up an absentee father to his own children.
Nonetheless, while he did not want to follow his father’s footsteps, Coleman loved growing up the son of a powerful politician. “I spent a lot of time at the Capitol watching the legislative process and sitting through hearings, getting the ins and outs of politics,” he says. “I was clearly just destined to go a different direction than politics. For me it’s more of a spectator sport.”
He inherited from his father a love of Minnesota books and history. He remembers the Coleman family driving to northern Minnesota for family vacations. As they rode, the senior Coleman would reach in the glove box and pull out a thumbed-over 1938 copy of the “WPA Guide to Minnesota.”
“He would hand the book back to me or Nick or Brendan and say, ‘Read me the paragraphs on Anoka,'” he remembers. “‘You’d cross the Rum River and he’d say, ‘Look up the Rum River on the index and read me how it got its name.'”
He became such a Minnesota history buff that he developed his own major in Minnesota history at the University of Minnesota – there was otherwise no such major then. While still a student, he took a job working with the university library’s Minnesota Interlibrary Teletype Exchange (MINITEX). It was crucial development.
Part of his job at MINITEX was to go through the Minnesota Historical Society archives and retrieve musty old texts for the university. While there, he noticed that the acquisitions librarian had a desk spread out with antiquarian booksellers catalogs from Paris, London, New York and San Francisco. He was thunderstruck. And he determined that he wanted the man’s job.
By 1979, he had gotten it. He has remained the historical society’s acquisitions librarian ever since.
The thrill of the hunt
When Coleman arrived at the Minnesota Historical Society, there was a gap of about 50 years where the center had essentially lost interest in Minnesota authors. It might collect F. Scott Fitzgerald’s tax records and the biographies written about him, he says. But it never bothered to buy a $5 first edition copy of “The Great Gatsby” at the time of its release.
Now items like that fetch untouchable prices. Consequently, the historical society has no first edition copies – with their crucial paper dust jackets intact – of either “Gatsby,” or Sinclair Lewis’ “Main Street” – arguably Minnesota’s two most essential works of fiction.
Coleman has done what he can over the years to rectify the situation. He has accepted that the Fitzgerald and Lewis first editions are out of reach. But not everything else is.
For example, the library recently purchased – for $40,000 from privately donated funds – the Treaty of Washington. It is a key Minnesota historical document obtained from Robert Rulon-Miller, a St. Paul book dealer, and one of only two in existence. The 1858 treaty between the U.S. government and the Yankton Sioux had the tribe agreeing to give up 11 million acres in exchange for money and a reservation of less than half a million acres.
Coleman has studied the document and thinks that the Native Americans who signed it – some of whom he says may have been physically threatened unless they did so – were probably not aware how full of legal loopholes the treaty was. “The weasel words in here are just amazing,” he says.
John Kaul, a lobbyist friend of Coleman’s who once worked as chief of staff to Nick Coleman Sr., calls the younger Coleman “an unsung hero” for preserving so much of Minnesota’s history and making it available to the public. Kaul says that Coleman especially excels in raising money from private donors to purchase the artifacts.
“He has found treasures all over the country,” Kaul says. “He is like Indiana Jones. That’s a perfect comparison. These are incredibly important historical documents about the origins of our state that, were it not for him, would disappear from the public domain.”
Rulon-Miller, who has known Coleman since 1980, says Coleman’s job title might be librarian, but that doesn’t reflect what he is. “He has a collector’s instinct,” Rulon-Miller says. “When he goes out and buys a book, he doesn’t just want the book. He wants the book plus the dust jacket. And if he gets the dust jacket, he wants the finest copy he can get.”
There are far too many stories about books, maps and manuscripts that Coleman has either acquired or failed to acquire to tell in one sitting. For the lanky, white-bearded Coleman, the thrill is in the chase. And he has been involved in lots of them over the years.
That is partly because Coleman feels it is so important to preserve history. He wants children to come to the Minnesota Historical Society and handle a book that was printed in, say, 1492. He wants them to touch and smell it and turn its pages. He wants young people to feel connected to the writer and the times that produced it.
“I want them to get excited and realize that life isn’t all about what is happening right now,” he says. “If we don’t have the perspective of how we got here, we really are not going to have any perspective on the future. What that leads to is a self-absorption that is going to lead to consequences.”
Besides that, Coleman says, what he does is a lot of fun. “This would be my avocational interest if they weren’t paying me,” he says. “I’d do this for free.”
The Coleman file
Name: Patrick Coleman
Job: Acquisitions librarian, Minnesota Historical Society
Education: Cretin High School. B.A., self-developed major in Minnesota political history, University of Minnesota
Family: Single. Two grown children, two grandchildren. Coleman is the son of former state Senate Majority Leader Nick Coleman Sr., and the brother of St. Paul Mayor Chris Coleman; Nick Jr., the columnist; and Emmett, a Comcast lobbyist; plus three other siblings.
Grew up in: St. Paul’s West Seventh neighborhood
Lives in: Roseville
Hobbies: “I canoe (McCarrons Lake) every night until the ice is an inch and a half thick.” He also loves to cross-country ski and backpack with his dog Finbar. He collects Irish literature in his spare time.
Notable side interest: For the past decade, Coleman has been compiling a blog on which he has slowly built a list of the 150 Best Minnesota Books. Its authors include the obvious (F. Scott Fitzgerald) and the forgotten (Ignatius Donnelly). It is online at the MHS website. He encourages all Minnesotans to log on, look at his list and quibble with it at will: http://discussions.mnhs.org/collections/category/150-best-minnesota-books