Lynn Hummel column: Nick Ernst -- who’s gonna fill his shoes?

Nick was well known in the neighborhood as a familiar figure in bib overalls who cleared the sidewalks. Every day he would grab a bag and walk slowly up and down the sidewalk 12 times, picking up trash.

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A portrait of Lynn Hummel, taken for his column, "The Pony Express, several years ago. (File photo)

Pleasant View is a city-owned apartment building on Washington Avenue, Main Street, in Detroit Lakes with about 60 units -- once limited to residents over 55, but now including tenants of any age depending on need, health and other factors.

At this time primarily widows, widowers and single folks in their senior years are living there. Nick Ernst, who would have celebrated his 70th birthday this Christmas, lived there over 20 years. He died last week following abdominal surgery.

Pleasant View is a community of its own, and some of the residents invited me over because they said Nick had no family except maybe a sister somewhere miles away, and that there would probably be no funeral service for Nick, and they hoped somebody would write a few words about their friend.

I met with about a dozen residents in the dining room where they shared their thoughts about Nick. The picture that emerged was that Nick was mostly a loner, a shy quirky guy who was always around to lend a hand, do a favor for other residents and maybe make a strange remark or ask a funny question.

Nick had served in the Navy. He had been married, but his wife had died years ago. While he was still a young man, he suffered a head injury in an accident that left him handicapped, nearly a “special needs” person, but still intelligent.


Nick was well known in the neighborhood as a familiar figure in bib overalls who cleared the sidewalks. Every day he would grab a bag and walk slowly up and down the sidewalk 12 times, picking up trash. He brought the garbage and clutter back to the apartment dumpster. He was particularly upset when he found broken glass, because kids and animals can get cut on somebody else’s neglect.

Nick sat in the same chair every day, just inside the entrance to the apartment building, with a dictionary on the table next to his chair. Whenever someone came into the building with a big bag of groceries or a box or package, Nick jumped up to help them through the next door or to their apartment.

One by one, the residents made comments about Nick and the favors he did and asked questions about who would do them with Nick gone. It got to be like verses of “Who’s gonna fill his shoes?” Let me give you some examples.

  • Nick grew up in Detroit Lakes. This was his hometown. Who’s gonna clean our sidewalks and pick up the glass?
  • Who’s gonna sort out the recycling?
  • Who’s gonna rake the leaves when they pile up?
  • Who’s gonna shovel the snow around my car in the winter without being asked?
  • Who’s gonna feed the fish around here?
  • Who’s gonna feed the birds outside Nick’s window?
  • Who’s gonna sing Nick’s favorite song, Anchors Aweigh?
  • Who’s gonna tell me when a package has been delivered for me?
  • Who’s gonna help the Meals on Wheels guy when he comes to deliver dinners?
  • Who’s gonna tell me “You’re only as old as you feel”?
  • Who’s gonna help me through the church door when I’m carrying my accordion?
  • Who’s gonna remove the dead birds and squirrels from Washington Avenue?
  • Who’s gonna sit in Nick’s chair?
  • Who’s gonna help me in the door when I have a big bag of groceries?
  • Who’s gonna wear those bib overalls? I’m going to miss them.
  • Who’s gonna quiz me on the capital of China?
  • Who’s gonna quiz me on the stars of the movie Casablanca? Nick knew they were Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman.
  • Who’s gonna pick me up when I fall down again?
  • Who’s gonna ask me the dictionary definition of comfort food?
  • Who’s gonna enjoy root beer as much as Nick always did?
  • Who’s gonna be as kind as Nick always was? Kindness was the measure of the man.

As we were winding up the conversation, the friends agreed Nick was one of a kind. It was obvious they all loved him and would never forget him.
One commented that “in the whole box of crayons, Nick was the most interesting color.” It was agreed that at the next apartment birthday party or get together they would all salute Nick with a root beer. One resident said “We’ve just had a private remembrance service for our friend. Nobody can fill Nick’s shoes.”

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