Florian Chmielewski, former senator and Funtime Band accordion player, dies at 97

DULUTH — This past February, celebrated accordion player Florian Chmielewski played his own 97th birthday party at the Cloquet VFW — and even tacked on a few more gigs after that in nearby Cromwell, Sandstone and beyond.

"He just kept going," his daughter Patty Chmielewski said. "As long as he could see, as long as his arms worked, he would play."

Chmielewski, a farmer, a Minnesota state senator for 26 years and a musician for triple that amount of time, died in his Sturgeon Lake, Minn., home on the morning of April 23. He had congestive heart failure, according to his daughter, who was among the family with him at the end.

His Chmielewski Funtime Band, which has included several generations of Chmielewski musicians, was featured on a polka centered television show that aired for decades in both the United States and Canada. The family crisscrossed the country, performing hundreds of shows a year — complete with on-stage antics and jokes. Chmielewski was behind a long-running International Polka Festival that started in Chisholm in the late 1970s and shifted venues in later years.

"Everyone knew him everywhere," Patty Chmielewski said.

Florian Chmielewski, grew up with 14 siblings on the family's northeastern Minnesota dairy farm. He got his first accordion when he was 18, a handoff from his brother whose landlord had grown wary of the sound. According to the family lore, Chmielewski had a four-song repertoire and had booked a wedding within his first 30 days of playing.

He played music alongside his own siblings and friends, and after he married Pat Stolquist in 1956 and their own family grew, the kids joined the family band. They were given a choice, Patty Chmielewski said: The alternative to making music was milking the cows. Music won.

These days, the band includes some of Florian Chmielewski's grandchildren.

Helmi Harringtonthe owner of World of Accordions Museum in Superior, Wis., has known Chmielewski for decades — from playing his polka festival, to teaching music to his grandchildren, to hosting a display at the museum with Chmielewski relics.

"[I knew him as] a fine gentleman and a fine musician," she said. "He was both. That's not always the case. He was a friend to many.

"He always had a ready smile and a joke on his lips."

The band has won Minnie Grammy Awards from the Minnesota Music Academy and performed at the Minnesota State Fair and Hostfest in Minot, North Dakota. Chmielewski and Patty were inducted in the Ironworld USA Hall of Fame in Chisholm. He's in the Minnesota Music Hall of Fame and the International Polka Music Hall of Fame.

Chmielewski was first elected to the state Senate in 1970. In 1974, he ran for a seat in the Eighth Congressional District, but lost to fellow DFL candidate Jim Oberstar in the primary election. He continued to get reelected to the state Senate until 1996 when he was ousted in the primary by Becky Lourey, who went on to win the general election. At the time, Chmielewski was fresh from the "Phonegate" scandal, in which several politicians were found guilty of not supervising the use of their telephone access code. He was sentenced to two years probation for the gross misdemeanor and said at the time that he had paid off more than $3,000 that he owed for calls made.

Lourey described Chmielewski as "really invested in his community." They were friends and she would sometimes see him performing. He would call her out of the crowd to come up by the stage and dance.

"It's wonderful that you can keep these relationships, and caring, after these races," she said. "I'm really impacted by his death. He just offered so much to our communities and loved serving."

On Thursday morning, Palo, Minn.-native Steve Solkela, who plays accordion and is a member of the Solkela Polkela Band, posted a music tribute to Chmielewski. Solkela never met his fellow musician, but he had tried and now regrets it didn't happen. He credits the Chmielewski Funtime Band with making it possible for his polka band to find an audience — and book the 12 gigs they have this year.

"They made a huge mark on American history," Solkela said. "He paved a way. On a more somber note, I feel like polka is dying at a fast rate. I think Florian prolonged the life of polka for far longer than it would have stayed alive."