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Manley Goldfine, Duluth entrepreneur, leaves legacy, and many good stories

A 1982 portrait of Manley Goldfine from the News Tribune's files1 / 2
In this 1984 News Tribune file photo, Manley Goldfine (far left) and Erwin Goldfine (far right) pose with their families in front of the Vista Queen, (from left) Manley; his wife, Lillian; his son, Andrew; his daughter, Ellen; his son, Ken; Erwin's son, Steve; Erwin's daughter-in-law (wife of son John), Dondi; Erwin's grandson, Teddy; Erwin's son, John; Erwin's wife, Beverly; Erwin. The original News Tribune photo caption notes: "Not pictured are Daniel and Amy, Erwin's children." 1984 file / News Tribune2 / 2

It would be hopeless -- or mishegoss really -- to try to encapsulate in 700 words the life of Manley "Monnie" Goldfine, who died at 80 on Wednesday after a lifetime reshaping Duluth.

But it is possible, through the memories of those who knew him well, to capture a glimpse of his character.

Or his spirit.

"He was the spirit behind Spirit Mountain," Duluth's Muriel Abram said of one of many projects Goldfine championed in the face of discouraging odds -- not the least of which was a dearth of snow as the December 1974 grand opening approached.

"Even the snow machines weren't working," Abram recalled. "He kept everybody quite calm, saying, 'It'll work out, it'll work out.' And wouldn't you know it, we had a snowstorm right before the opening. The paper ran an editorial, saying, 'Monnie spoke to God!'"

Divine intervention or not, it wasn't the first time Goldfine would tap his optimism, if not his imaginative financial acumen, to keep a project moving.

Eight years earlier, the Duluth Arena -- now the DECC and along with Spirit Mountain the other public entity for which Goldfine is deemed most responsible -- found itself $250,000 short at construction's end, with a $1 million federal grant hanging in the balance.

"Now it was time for creative accounting," Goldfine wrote. "We prepared a new balanced budget with this item: unpledged donations -- $250,000 ... and [got] the $1 million check!"

Family members trace that perspicacity to Goldfine's parents, Abe and Fannie, in whose livestock and dry goods businesses Monnie and his brother, Erwin, who died in 2002, were immersed as small children.

"When he was a little boy, his dad would put him in the pickup truck and they'd go out," Monnie's son Ken said Friday from Arizona, where Goldfine died at his winter home. "Abe would say, 'You've got two Guernseys over there and three Jerseys over there.' Monnie would have to keep track of all that inventory in his head."

Nephew Steve Goldfine of Duluth said Fannie may have imparted an even shrewder business sense in the two boys.

"My grandmother would take him to Fort Snelling as a tiny little boy and hold him on her lap" at government bids for livestock contracts, Steve said.

"His role was to be a shill so that [competitors] would think she was there taking care of the kids rather than being a serous businesswoman" -- and they got the contracts, he said.

If the early Goldfine enterprises read like folklore, others, from the Goldfine's Trading Post to Goldfine's By the Bridge department stores to the ZMC hotel chain and Vista Boat fleet, have become local business legends, as have the marketing ploys of "Soft Touch Erv" and "Easy Mark Monnie."

But Monnie also exhibited a passion for sharing the region's overall success stories, told by the rainmakers themselves ranging from Jeno Paulucci to Kathryn A. Martin in "The Will and the Way," a 2004 chronicle of a half-century of Duluth's progress published and edited with his ad man and colleague Donn Larson.

He made sure every journalist in town had a copy even if not all have yet to crack it open. (Mine is inscribed "Best wishes, Monnie Goldfine," and I can still feel the handshake that went with it, strong then and the last time, early last winter, even as his health failed.) "It's not journalism. It's first person history," Larson said of a volume historians would call primary source. "He wanted to inspire the next generation. He just wanted to get it written down. He didn't care if it was copied with a staple in the corner."

He had higher hopes for another unpublished work, however.

"He had an idea based on the Haggadah," Abram said of the Jewish text telling the story of Passover and used by families during the holiday meal. Goldfine would do the same for Thanksgiving, inspired by the then-upcoming American Bicentennial.

Retrieving a 1975 letter Goldfine sent to Al France of the Duluth Bicentennial Commission, Abram read: "The idea is to create a short 15-30 minute service that would encourage all Americans to use before their Thanksgiving dinner." It also would include singing and be "extremely nonreligious and nonsectarian" and open to ongoing changes, Goldfine wrote, presaging political correctness.

"Nothing came of it, but it's a hell of an idea," Abram said.

From a heck of an inspiring guy.

Robin Washington is news director of the News Tribune. He may be reached at rwashington@duluthnews.com.