Rybak kicks off 'Mayor 101' class at the U

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February 4, 2014 // UPDATED 3:58 pm - February 11, 2014
By: Christopher J. Hamilton
Photo by Lisa Persson/Minnesota Daily.
Christopher J. Hamilton

It’s not often that a university instructor introducing himself on the first day of a Monday night class in February is received with rousing applause. But, then again, most aren’t R.T. Rybak, the popular former three-term Minneapolis mayor who also happened to recently dodge death.

About a month after leaving office on his own accord, then suffering a near-fatal heart attack while skiing, the ever-spry Rybak, 58, was back in front of a crowd this week, cat quick as usual, pressing flesh and espousing ebullient messages.

However, this time Rybak, whose new day job is running a children’s education nonprofit, wasn’t coaxing votes. The post-public servant looked to be teaching by example during his nascent “Mayor 101” weekly night class at the University of Minnesota-Twin Cities.

Rybak, whom the university bestowed with title of “distinguished visiting practitioner,” waded through College of Design auditorium aisles filled with about 100 students to heartily introduce himself and quiz his pupils. 

Before the spring semester class began, Rybak said he hoped it produces “at least a mayor or two, hopefully, our first Somali one. Maybe a president or two.” 

“If you ever want to run for office, or if you ever want to do much of anything, you have to be able to tell people who you are and what you are,” Rybak said as he laid out an assignment within the first 10 minutes.

Rybak told the confluence of students from the design and public policy schools to craft personal narratives, or succinct “elevator speeches,” on the spot. 

They’d later break into groups and practice the age-old political art/shoe-leather slog of neighborhood door knocking in Rapson Hall’s common area. The idea is to convince one another “why they should be mayor,” he said   

Rybak said the 16-week course, which is a unique collaboration between the design school and Humphrey School Public Affairs, most definitely will involve a lot of “me talking.”

“But I don’t want it to be just an old guy who had a job and is telling war stories,” he said.

The nearly three-hour-long class (“Even my wife won’t listen to me for three hours,” Rybak warned students.) will use real-life case studies from Rybak’s 12-year administration and lots of practical exercises. 

The idea is for students to take that information in order to “gain an understanding of the philosophical approach and rigorous methodology required to develop effective solutions to societal problems,” according to the class syllabus.

Rybak said he’ll ask students to research and define issues, then propose and test solutions. 

There are a lot of students today who want to do good in the world. A lot of very smart young people here. He said he just wants to help them get things done. 

Today, effective public policy and urban and architectural design often go hand in hand in communities, School of Public Affairs Associate Dean Laura Bloomberg said of the partnership. They combine to impact myriad issues, from finding compromise on a controversial development or remodeling a dilapidated landmark building to addressing citywide housing or poverty, she and Rybak said. 

The man who’s had seven different careers by his count said he’d been born a frustrated architect as well. Rybak said he has a tremendous appreciation for important spaces and places and also understands intimately the bureaucratic and political impediments to protect or improve them. To continue to be successful, “we need good politicians,” he said.   

“It’s incredible to have him here,” said Tom Fisher, the College of Design dean who helped bring Rybak to the university. “Not only does have so much experience and knowledge to impart, but he’s inspirational.”

As for his future political aspirations, Rybak didn’t rule out another run someday, for something. Maybe. 

Now, though, he said he’s focused on teaching at the university through at least next spring and his new position as executive director of Generation Next, a group that seeks to narrow the achievement gap for kids from various socioeconomic backgrounds. 

He also was repeatedly asked how he’s feeling.  

Rybak, a self-proclaimed health nut, suffered a heart attack Jan. 4 after cross-country skiing in Theodore Wirth Park. He’s since said the incident was due to a genetic predisposition and now feels better than he has in years after surgery to unclog and fortify arteries.

He included a heart health check-up reminder message for the public and added, when prodded, that because of his active lifestyle he was able to recover so quickly from a heart attack and without any permanent damage. 

In fact, this past weekend -- after getting his physician’s approval -- he skied in the City of Lakes Loppet Festival’s night trek on Lake of the Isles’ trails lit by golden lumineers.

“If I could ski for four miles on Saturday, I can stand (in front of a class),” Rybak said.