Minnesota 2020 Journal: Bruce Vento and 9-11
Everybody has a 9-11 story. Here’s mine. It took place exactly one year to the day before four hijacked passenger jets tore apart the World Trade Centers, the Pentagon and the western Pennsylvania countryside. My story has nothing to do with terrorism. It’s about a man and a school, both named Bruce F. Vento.
September 11, 2000 was Congressman Bruce Vento’s last public appearance. He was dying of mesothelioma, a cancer of the pleura, the membrane enveloping the lungs, separating them from the chest cavity. It’s caused by asbestos exposure. There are no good cancers but mesothelioma is uniquely cruel.
Earlier in the year, he’d undergone surgery removing cancerous organs and tissue, a procedure that, at best, slowed his cancer’s rapid progress. Still, every time he moved, every time he drew a breath, Vento hurt.
Bruce Vento grew up on Saint Paul’s east side. He graduated from Johnson. He wanted to be a teacher. Vento earned his science teaching degree at the Wisconsin State University-River Falls. He later pursued graduate studies in biology at the University of Minnesota.
The Minneapolis Public Schools hired Vento, assigning him to Nokomis Jr. High teaching seventh and eighth graders. In 1970, State Senator Wendy Anderson ran for Governor. On the East Side, Anderson’s decision sparked elected official jockeying that ultimately opened up a State House seat. Bruce ran and won.
Six years later, Congressman Joe Karth had a heart attack and decided not to stand for re-election to his Fourth Congressional District seat. Vento ran, competing in a crowded field, and won. He was sworn in to the 95th Congress in January, 1977.
Vento was a pro-Labor Democrat. He believed that government served people, that it should be a force for good in their lives. In the 80s, Vento chaired the Parks and Public Lands subcommittee, working to expand public land protection and preservation. He helped create the McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act, bringing federal funding to homeless shelters. During his tenure, Vento sponsored over 300 pieces of legislation, a remarkable achievement for any Member of Congress.
In January 2000, it all came to a crashing halt. I was working for Bruce, running his District Office. He was flying in, returning from a European trip about currency stabilization. I picked him up at the airport’s curb. He looked gray. He wasn’t the healthy, robust man I’d seen several weeks earlier.
Bruce flew out to Washington the next day. I called my boss, Larry Romans, Bruce’s long-time chief of staff. Bruce, I warned Larry, looked and sounded like hell. Bruce says it’s just a lingering cough but he really doesn’t look good. I hope, I remember saying, that Bruce doesn’t have pneumonia.
Larry picked up Bruce at National airport, took one look and drove him straight to the House of Representative’s Physician’s Office. The doc took one look and sent Bruce directly to Bethesda Naval Hospital. The mesothelioma diagnosis followed shortly.
That spring, Saint Paul City Councilmember Dan Bostrom called me with an idea. It wasn’t really an idea so much as a fully thought out plan to honor Bruce that only required execution. Bostrom wanted to change East Consolidated Elementary School’s name to Bruce F. Vento Elementary. Bostrom made some phone calls, talking to city and school district leaders. The change happened.
Just after the school year began, the Saint Paul Public Schools scheduled a naming ceremony for September 11, 2000. Everybody came. The St Paul Pipefitters, Local 455, printed t-shirts for every student. I still have one hanging in my office.
Bruce was excited. He was also worn out and in pain but he refused to show it, much less to consider cutting the event short. The ceremony was the well-ordered chaos that only elementary school assemblies can muster. The small gym was packed with students resplendent in their new white Vento Elementary t-shirts.
Many elected officials spoke, everyone sharing heartfelt observations but the morning was so completely, overwhelming defined by the children’s rapt attention and enthusiasm that it’s hard to remember what anyone said. Mostly, they said that Bruce Vento served his community well and never forgot where he came from, that he labored to make hard lives a little easier to live. It was all true.
Afterwards, Bruce was exhausted but he refused to leave. He talked to everybody, graciously thanking them. I wanted to pull him out immediately but he wouldn’t hear of it. As the crowd departed and the kids returned to class, Bruce finally asked me to bring the car around and started making his way, slowly and painfully, outside.
A group of sixth grade boys surrounded Bruce, trying to help him down the hall towards the door. They were doing more harm than good but the bond was so pure, so sincere that instead of trying to stop them I just asked them to be as gentle as possible. They wanted to carry him. They settled for touching and holding his arms and hands, guiding him to the school’s entrance.
That was Bruce’s last public appearance. He died a month later on October 10, 2000.