It’s late at night. I’m in the Fortress of Solitude and just popped the VHS of “Goodfellas” into the machine. Not a DVD, an mp3 or a stream, but Old School VHS. Having learned this evening of the death of Ron Rosenbaum, “Goodfellas” on VHS seemed the proper choice. It was Ron’s favorite movie, or at least his most quoted. “Goodfellas” quotes were as central to Ron’s style as quotes from “Caddy Shack” or any Bill Murray moving before 1984 are central to mine. The difference was Ron had Henry Hill’s phone number when Hill was in the Federal Witness Protection Program. Ron had a LOT of phone numbers like that.
Ron was the St. Paul attorney whose investigation won the largest medical malpractice lawsuit in Minnesota history and won a big-time verdict tearing the cover off a University of Minnesota sports scandal. Ron grew up in St. Paul. As a kid he knew St. Paul mobsters, gamblers, neighborhood strong men and politicians. Ron knew EVERYBODY, and everybody returned his calls.
I met Ron in 2000 when I became Program Director at AM 1500 KSTP. Ron was providing legal expertise on several KSTP Radio and TV shows and hosting the weekend show “Holding Court”. I could tell Ron had talent, but the show needed a “foil”. I met former NYC cop Dan Conry as someone’s date at a client dinner featuring a bloviating Rush Limbaugh. I’m not sure either guy was convinced pairing them was the right move, but soon after the show took off. When 9/11 hit, we paired Ron with Mark O’Connell t0 try to make sense of those crazy days, and the two, joined at times by Conry, did some fantastic radio. Ron knew FIB agents, military experts, horse breeders, pro athletes and a thousand and one fascinating and smart people who populated those shows. When Conry resigned just hours before Ron and Mark were headed to NYC to broadcast from Ground Zero on the 1-year anniversary, Ron told me to call Lucy Quinlivan of the St. Paul Pioneer Press. Lucy immediately packed a bag and headed to the airport. Of course, she was the perfect person at the perfect time and the broadcasts were great. Ron and Lucy got together around that time, and I was pleased to learn they wed days before Ron’s passing.
In the mid 1970’s, Ron was appointed by a federal judge to dive into the unrest and violence of Boston’s forced bussing school integrations as a teachers in one of the most violent schools in the US. He also helped people you don’t know from places you don’t know get to safe places you don’t know who otherwise would have died at the hands of brutal dictators. When you were with Ron for lunch at the bar at the Lexington in St. Paul, you were assured of a good cigar and at least a dozen of St. Paul’s movers and shakers stopping by. Ron was always holding court, no matter the time or place.
Ron seemed to be in the middle of everything, including an effort I made to bring one of the budding stars of Twin Cities radio from a rival station to KSTP. Ron was acting as the de facto agent. The deal wasn’t sealed, but I felt we had a good shot at landing this talent. Whatever chance we had went down the drain in the space of about 10 seconds when a KSTP exec in attendance introduced himself by saying, “While I’ve never heard your show I hear you are great”. Ron and I locked eyes, and I knew instantly any hopes of a deal were dead. Now Ron was the master of negotiation, and its possible he’d been playing me all along. Whether he was or not, the result was the same. Had that talent come to KSTP, Twin Cities radio history could look much different today.
There’s one incident in Ron’s “9/11” days where I think he really got jobbed. Ron would quote from “Goodfellas” often, and one he used often was, “Get your shine box”, which he used much like others would use the phrase, “Pack your bags and hit the road”. However, one day he used it when breaking down a story about St. Paul Police Chief Bill Finney, who happened to be black. To this day I think Finney knew Ron was in no way using the movie quote in a racist way, but being a politician, or at least surrounded by politicians, Finney took advantage of Ronby going to the papers and making it a controversy. Ron was many things, but he was as far from being a racist as anyone I’ve ever known. To the credit of HBI ownership they stood behind Ron. I hope he knew I had his back too.
Yes, Ron had an ego the size of St. Paul. There were days he’d chew me out for not giving him enough feedback, and there were days he’d chew me out when he didn’t like the constructive criticism I’d provided. He could be a pain in my butt AND have sage advice and support all in the same three minutes. He was loud, and smart, and funny as hell and all heart. His toothy smile was huge and unforgettable. I’m sad I didn’t get to say goodbye to Ron, but glad I was able to have him in my life for nearly 6 years. I guess on paper I was Ron’s “boss”, but there was little question it was Ron’s world, and the rest of us were merely in it. And that was OK. Adios, amigo.