A pair of makeshift memorials are attached to signposts at the corners of Lowry Avenue and Garfield and Arthur Streets NE. The neon-dyed chrysanthemums are frozen, heads down. A deflated mylar balloon reads, “We’ll miss you.” “You” is Craig Sulem, who was killed when he stepped off the curb and was struck by an SUV the afternoon of Jan. 12. Friends, neighbors and coworkers placed the memorials to honor a man his brother Kent calls a “gentle giant.”
Craig Sulem was born 56 years ago in Northeast. He had heart problems from the very beginning, and spent much of his childhood in the hospital. “He was allergic to everything,” Kent said. “When he was five or six years old, he was rushed to the hospital. The doctors had a new medication they wanted to try. Craig suffered renal failure and was in a coma for two weeks. He coded three times.” Lack of oxygen caused permanent brain damage. He suffered seizures once or twice a year for the rest of his life.
As he grew older, Craig grew out of his allergies. The sickly child became a big man, over six feet tall and weighing 330 lbs.
The Sulem family – Lois, her sons Craig, David and Kent — lived quietly in their house just off Lowry and Arthur. They attended church at Grace United Methodist (now Northeast), just behind their house. Craig often stayed home. “He had difficulty reading,” Kent said. “It was hard for him to follow along and participate.”
His brother loved flowers, and rabbits. Kent recalled a time when Craig took the bus downtown to get an aquarium. “It was right after Easter, and Dayton’s was having a sale in their eighth-floor pet shop. There was one bunny that didn’t sell, and Craig brought it home. It had pink eyes.” “Pinky” lived in the Sulem household for nine years, often hopping into Craig’s lap or climbing on to his shoulder. Craig watched out for the wild rabbits in the neighborhood, too, chiding them for crossing the street too slowly.
Craig also loved swimming, and little kids. “He’d float kids across the pool on his arm,” said Kent. “He was very calm, and he helped many youngsters learn not to be afraid in the water.”
Craig had another love – Christmas lights. When the boys’ father left the family in the 1980s, Craig asked his mother if they could put an old nativity set out in the front yard. “It started a fire,” Kent said. “The wiring was old and it crackled and popped and smoked.” The next year, the family put out a new string of lights.
One year, Craig fell in love with a plastic snowman at the Coast-to-Coast hardware store in St. Anthony. When it was marked down 35%, Kent bought it and gave it to his brother for Christmas, along with a 3XL Minnesota Twins baseball shirt.
The display grew every year. Craig and David would begin putting lights out in early September. They decorated the front yard and the back with an estimated 45,000 lights. Their goal was to flip the switch on at 5 p.m. Thanksgiving Day. Neighbors would come out and shout a countdown. One of their neighbors, a church friend, learned to serve her dinner before the lights went on and the power dipped. Kent said their average light bill tripled during the holiday season.
Brain damage may have made it difficult for Craig to read, but he learned to do things by watching. He completed high school in 1983. Building on his love of flowers, he went to Anoka Vo-Tech to learn about horticulture. He graduated from his training at the school and got a job at a wholesale florist. When the plant was automated, the job ended and he and went to work at the Town & Country supermarket in St. Anthony. There he worked for ten years, rounding up shopping carts and doing light janitorial duties. “He was proud of his job,” Kent said. “He contributed to the family.”
When the Quarry Shopping Center opened with a new Rainbow Foods, Craig’s supervisor left Town & Country and asked Craig to join him. He worked at that location, first Rainbow, then Cub Foods, for 20 years. He was walking home from work when he was hit by the SUV. “He was just yards from home,” Kent said.
Shawn Capra, Cub assistant store director, said his staff was “shocked and saddened” by Craig’s death. “He always had a story to tell. He never seemed to have a bad day here. His favorite time of the day was when the guys from the fire department would come in to get their lunch. He loved those guys.”
“Those guys” loved him back. On Jan. 25, members of the Minneapolis Fire Department paid a visit to the Sulem family, bringing two ladder trucks, lights flashing, to pay tribute to Craig. “He had gone to high school with two of the commanders. It was extremely touching,” Kent said.
The fire department is preparing a plaque to hang in the store.
The family was also touched by the outpouring of sympathy from people Craig had befriended. They received 130-140 cards and letters in the week following his death. “We had no idea he knew so many people,” Kent said.
Alisha Volante was one of the people who interacted with Craig regularly. ” We had many conversations as he past [sic] my place on the way to the Quarry,” she wrote on Nextdoor. “Craig was the neighborhood caretaker. He literally lit up the streets with joy. Those lights have brought me so much joy during COVID.”
Megan Johnson concurred. “Craig always said hi to me and my dog on Arthur and stopped many times to talk about lights and daily life.”
Julia Leisz wrote, “He also walked past my house on Arthur every day and gave me so much motivation to get moving. Rain, shine, snow, nothing stopped him. Cub was lucky to have such a kind guy and I will miss him dearly.”
Sue Pawlyshyn said, “He was so kind and friendly and so much fun to talk to. He was so proud of his lights. Loved how his eyes twinkled when he talked about getting the lights ready.”
The Sulem family declined the offer of a GoFundMe page. In an email to the Northeaster, Melissa Ulrich wrote, “It is truly amazing the impact one person can have in the NE community, from training in a cart worker to talking to the neighbors on a daily walk to work.” She said community members are working with Cub to put together a memory book for the family. They hope to put the book on display so Cub customers can write in it.
Others contacted First Ward Council Member Kevin Reich, asking for action on taming speeders and other traffic violators on Lowry Avenue, noting that many drivers often run the light at the Hayes Street intersection next to Windom Park. On his city Facebook page, Reich noted that Lowry is under Hennepin County jurisdiction.
“I am engaging with both the County and with Minneapolis Public Works staff on urgently needed safety improvements,” he responded. “We had a very thorough community engagement process regarding future planning for Lowry a few years ago and what rose to the top was that significant improvement of the pedestrian environment on this street was the paramount goal of our community.”
Reich encouraged citizen participation. “Your input must continue to drive this work and I will continue to emphasize the singular importance of making this street safer for pedestrians.”
In the meantime, Kent Sulem said the family is discussing putting up the Christmas lights for the 2021 season. “I think it would be nice, one more time, for Craig.”
Below: Craig Sulem with one of the dogs he babysat. (Photo provided by Kent Sulem). Some of the thousands of Christmas lights at the Sulem home. (Northeaster file photo by Karen Kraco)