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Chmielewski: musician, senator dies at 97

Polka celebrity, farmer and retired Minnesota state senator Florian Chmielewski died Tuesday at his home in Sturgeon Lake at the age of 97.

He should be buried with his accordion, which he played for nearly 80 years and famously played on the steps of the Minnesota Capitol building in his first Minnesota Senate term in 1971. "Freshman senator stages 'polka protest' at Capitol," a newspaper headline shouted, the story detailing how Chmielewski had broken out his accordion and performed a special rendition of the song, "Please Release Me, Let Me Go," on the ninth day of a special session.

Florian's daughter, Patty, said he passed away Tuesday morning of congestive heart failure. He had played for his own birthday party at the Cloquet VFW on Feb. 7 (his birthday was Feb. 10) and five more gigs before going into the hospital Feb. 18. He did six weeks of rehab - playing the accordion and singing to the nurses there - before coming home for hospice care with Patty the last month.

He was in good spirits to the end, Patty said, breaking into a rendition of "It's Springtime in the Rockies" when his granddaughter Kati told him it was spring outside Monday night.

"You would never know he had congestive heart failure for years," Patty said. "He just continued to play, and never complained. He always said as long as he was alive and breathing, he would play the accordion. He loved to see people's smiles."

Chmielewski never retired from the music business, even as he sold the family farm in 1968 and ended a successful 36-year political career in 1996 after a scandal caused by a family member using his Senate phone account and raking up $3,841 in charges. Chmielewski had been having heart trouble then, and missed much of his last session.

Longtime gig

Friend and fellow accordionist Lorren Lindevig asked Florian to play at the VFW with him the first and third Wednesdays of the month 36 years ago.

"Lorren is gone, but I'm still there," he told Pine Knot reporter Lois Johnson three years ago.

Music was a family affair, starting in America with his great-grandfather, Frank, a well-known fiddle player. The Chmielewski Brothers Orchestra featured Frank's four sons - Tony, Nick, Dennis and John - in the early 1900s, when they traveled to gigs by horse and buggy.

Tony married Tillie, and six of their 15 children became musicians, including Florian, although they updated the favored mode of transportation.

In 1955, Chester, Florian, Robert, Leonard, Donnie and Jerry performed their first live telecast for WDSM-TV in Superior, Wisconsin. By 1970, the show was syndicated for expansion into Canada and other markets in the United States, catapulting Florian and the Chmielewski Funtime Band into a television career, totaling more than 2,000 shows. Reruns are still going; find them on Channel 21.2 antenna TV, Mediacom channel 105 or channel 198 with Charter/Spectrum.

Chmielewski met his wife, then Patricia Stolquist, in 1955 at the Elmwood Inn, in Atkinson. Lucky for him, heavy snow had prevented the band from traveling to a gig in Michigan. They got married that September.

The family music tradition continued through their children: Florian Jr., Jeff, Mark and Patty.

"We were born into a musical family, and helped our father fulfill his dream," Patty said. "He gave all the kids a choice between music or milking. We all chose music, so he had to sell the cows."

In the 1970s, the Chmielewski Funtime band consisted of Florian and the four kids. It wasn't always easy. The band performed across the United States and Canada and traveled to Germany, Switzerland, Norway, Hawaii and Mexico. They would also play from one end of the state to another, Patty said, often sleeping only on the bus.

In more recent years, Florian added various grandchildren and great-grandchildren to the performance mix on occasion, as well as in-laws and anyone else who could keep up with him.

"Junior can replace me," Florian said in a 2021 interview. "Patty's three kids are good musicians and can play drums, trumpet and accordion. Granddaughter Katie plays the trumpet and the drums."

In the mid-1990s, Florian was inducted into the Minnesota Music Hall of Fame in New Ulm and the Ironworld USA Polka Hall of Fame in Chisholm. He received the Pioneer award from the International Polka Association in 2014.

"My dad was born with two gears: full throttle and sleep," said Patty, who inherited his energy and is carrying on her dad's music, travel (now ChmieBell Tours) and positive outlook on life.

Visitation is 5-7 p.m. Monday, May 6 in Hamlin-Hansen-Kosloski Funeral Home, Moose Lake. Visitation continues at 10 a.m. until the 11 a.m. Mass of Christian Burial Tuesday, May 7 in St. Isidore's Catholic Church, Sturgeon Lake.

Sympathy cards can be mailed to Patty Chmielewski, 15972 Havelock Court, Apple Valley MN 55124.