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Fire chief offers city nice dose of Minn.

The Baltimore Sun

After some 150 years of promoting fire chiefs from within, Baltimore City has gone outside the department for the first time ever - way outside, like to the banks of Lake Wobegon.

Well, not quite, but imagine Garrison Keillor as a fire chief, and that's pretty much who showed up this week when Mayor Sheila Dixon introduced her pick to head Baltimore's department. Currently Minneapolis' fire chief, James Clack came off as towering and self-effacing, a 6-foot-6-incher who could blend into the woodwork with his earth-tone suit and reserved style, quietly affable and also slightly quirky.

In other words, so Minnesota.

"It's the self-demeaning humor, the reluctance to say too much and the use of understatement," said Howard Mohr, a former writer for A Prairie Home Companion, the public radio staple that mines the Minnesota soul. "It doesn't mean there's a lack of confidence; it's just the way things are done."

The naming of the native Minnesotan to head the Baltimore Fire Department at first seems like a surprising choice, at both ends of the deal. Clack was just three years from a planned retirement from the only department he has ever worked for - he even had a lot in the state's north woods waiting for him - and Baltimore's department is famously insular and coming off a particularly tumultuous period. And yet the reassuringly mild-mannered Clack could be exactly what the fractious department needs right now.

While acknowledging its woes - Clack said he read the entire report that criticized the department for the death of a cadet during a training accident, and he is familiar with the racial and union tensions within the ranks - he also said he would seek solutions from within. No wholesale blowing up of the existing command structure, no top-down fiats on How To Do Things Better.

"I don't have all the answers," he said, in what was a typically modest line during his exchanges with the media this week. Typical, that is, except when he verged into personal territory, to tell a droll tale about what an "interesting lady" his mother was, a one-time player on a women's pro basketball team called the Red Heads, for which, of course, she had to dye her black hair.

Totally Minnesota, said Berit Thorkleson, who with a name like that surely knows whereof she speaks. The St. Paul, Minn.-based writer - yes, she's a native and of Norwegian descent - has compiled observations of her native state in books such as You Know You're in Minnesota When ... and Only in Minnesota.

Thorkleson devotes a chapter of the former book to a state characteristic so archetypical it has its own name: Minnesota Nice. Hard to define - and yet so easy to mock - Minnesota Nice refers to the reflexive helpfulness and considerate behavior of its natives. While some chafe under the label - how uncool to be nice! - or suspect it is a way of masking a certain passive-aggressiveness, Thorkleson said Minnesota Nice is pretty much what it is.

"Truthfully, we are nice," Thorkelson said, a bit guiltily. "Minnesotans bring over the hot dish when you have a baby. They dig you out of the snow when your car gets stuck. I actually have friends who, when it snows, are out there; they put mugs of coffee in their car and they drive around looking for people to help."

We agree Clack will have quite a laugh - although privately not publicly, because that wouldn't be nice - when he goes through his first snow here, and the attending grocery-storming, school-closing freakout over a mere whisper of snow.

(Oh, and that hot dish, by the way - it turns out not to be just any casserole, but a uniquely Midwestern one that involves ground beef, tater tots and Campbell's cream-of-something soup, and apparently reached its culinary peak when someone figured out how to turn it into state fair fare, as in, frying it on a stick.)

But Minnesota Nice only goes so far in defining the state, Thorkleson said. Underneath its seemingly bland exterior, the state has harbored some decidedly idiosyncratic characters - from the Coen brothers of Fargo fame and Minneapolis stripper-turned-Juno screenwriter Diablo Cody to perennial presidential candidate Harold Stassen.

"Prince is a Minnesotan," Thorkleson said. "Minnesota is more than it appears to be."

Truly - maybe the reason Clack seems unfazed by the recent troubles in the Baltimore Fire Department is that his current post hasn't exactly lacked for drama. Clack was named acting chief in the wake of a sex scandal, replacing a chief who had been accused of favoring a current departmental lover and retaliating against an ex when it came to a promotion.

Describing himself as "a pretty boring guy," according to news reports, Clack was appointed by a City Council grateful under the circumstances for boring.

So now he comes to Baltimore - where he will have to be confirmed by the City Council before taking over the department - for his next challenge. Luckily, Minnesotans are nothing if not mess-fixers and cleaner-uppers, said Ed Fischer, an author and retired editorial cartoonist for the Rochester, Minn., Post-Bulletin.

"My wife always cleans and makes the bed in motel rooms before we leave," he said.

jean.marbella@baltsun.com

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