May 2 2012 12:00 AM

Pat Lindemann paints the big picture


It’s a chilly Sunday in late April, about 2 in the afternoon, and Pat Lindemann is hungry. Ingham County’s larger-than-life drain commissioner of 20 years has just done his laundry and mowed his two acres on Lansing’s west side. He’s tucking into a big brunch of bacon, ham, eggs, hash browns and toast at the east side’s no-frills, 24-hour breakfast joint, Theio’s Restaurant.

“I’m in awe of what I’ve accomplished — me, a dyslexic meat cutter,” he said. “I never in my wildest dreams thought I would be a politician. Mars was closer to me.”

When Hollywood turns the 2012 Democratic primary race for Ingham County drain commissioner into a movie — and God knows they should — it won’t be hard to cast the incumbent. The piercing eyes, the salt-and-pepper beard, the childlike enthusiasms, the sudden flare-ups of righteous indignation, the brisk table thumps — Richard Dreyfuss has the part for the asking.

“The Great Lakes basin has 20 percent of the available water in the whole world,” Lindemann said. “This is a major responsibility.” He blinked, as if distracted from a telescope trained on the Andromeda galaxy by a rat scurrying across the observatory. “You can’t get here and try to manage that through name-calling, innuendoes, threats and all the other crap that a lot of politicians like to pull, including Grebner.”

That would be Mark Grebner, the 32-year Ingham County commissioner with the effrontery to oppose Lindemann, 64, who is seeking a sixth consecutive four-year term as drain commissioner.

“Yes, I get bogged down in political battles every four years, but I’ve learned to take it in stride,” Lindemann said.

“I’ll use this election as a bully pulpit to preach about water.”

Lindemann travels all over the world, but his roots are on Lansing’s east side. He was born at Sparrow Hospital, went to school on the east side and worked in the family butcher shop on Michigan Avenue for 23 years.

“I don’t think people really know me that well,” he mused. “I do photography, oil painting, sculpting, print making. I write poetry. I hand carve Native American flutes and I write music for them. I’m pretty good at the flute, too.” He’s just designed a 7-foot-tall abstract concrete sculpture he’ll mix and pour himself.

“It will take 15 people to lift it,” he said. “It’s pretty sharp.”

If you think the office of drain commissioner doesn’t jibe with all that, you don’t know Pat.

“Do you know who the first drain commissioner was?” he asked. “Geoffrey Chaucer, author of ‘The Canterbury Tales.’ Appointed by the King of England to be Commissioner of Ditches and Dikes.”

Chaucer, Lindemann explained, helped frame the English common law for water use, much of which was kept by the colonies and trickled over to Michigan. 

As the coffee kept on coming, Lindemann found a kindred spirit in our server, an idealistic young woman who not only aspired to become a teacher, but to “change the way people think about schools.”

As drain commissioner, Lindemann champions low-impact water management projects that win national, state and local environmental awards, drawing relentless fire for alleged cost overruns, delays and sheer vainglory. He insists that the projects save money.

“What other drain commissioner, or anyone else, would take the trouble to take care of Blanding’s turtles?” he said.

When the threatened species of turtle was spotted at the Tollgate Wetlands, one of Lindemann’s signature projects, he huddled with his staff and came up with a framed enclosure that extends underwater to protect egg-laying females on their climb up the sloping bank. Lindemann is proud that the simple cage made the cover of a herpetology journal and was the subject of a keynote speech at a herpetology conference.

Lindemann delights in cracking the concrete carapace of suburban development patterns. He picked the grasses at Tollgate (north of Grand River Avenue near the Groesbeck Golf Course) to match Michigan’s native ecosystem at the time of Columbus.

“There are thousands of acres of wetland that exist in this county today that weren’t here when I took office,” he said. “They’re loaded with ecosystem diversity — frogs, salamanders, toads, you name it, they live there. It’s an incredible opportunity for me to paint the earth by sculpting the landscape and creating a better environment.”

To Lindemann, work, art and science are the same thing.

“Every single pork chop I cut when I was a meat cutter was as pretty as a picture,” he said. “Every single time I dig a ditch, it’s gorgeous, it’s like a Monet, every wetland that I build. I’m a scientist, a politician and an artist. It’s purely Jeffersonian.”

When he talks about his life, the breeziest memory can billow, suddenly and without notice, into a windy civics lesson.

“The meat market was like a gathering place. I got to know a lot of people.” The word “people” triggered a gust. “My whole life, growing up, I’ve been drawn to this concept of ‘We the People.’ Freedom’s not free. We have to give of ourselves, take care of the people who are struggling.”

It was hard to see where Lindemann was going, but as he fired on, a dark, Mark-Grebner-shaped outline seemed to form in the artillery smoke.

“As long as we treat people with kindness, that shows us who we are. This isn’t about fighting over this or that, this is about making the world a better place to live.”

Some people think it’s strange that the public votes for so arcane an office as drain commissioner. Lindemann thinks it’s a rare chance for the pubic to weigh in directly on water use.

“Only this year’s debate isn’t going to be about water,” he lamented. “It’s going to be about me. That’s not what we should be debating. It’s sad, and I feel so sorry for Grebner.

“He’s mean. He’s getting desperate.”

Keep Lindemann away from the subject of Grebner and his defensiveness dissipates. He is earnest when he describes his battles with dyslexia and struggles to educate himself. Straight out of high school, he started a family and toiled daily at the meat market. In the 1980s, he decided to fight off his reading disability and took night classes at Lansing Community College, beginning with basic English and math classes. 

He balked at first when some east siders suggested he run for City Council. But as a scoutmaster at Troop 227 at Resurrection Church, Lindemann preached public service. He served on City Council from 1980 to 1991. 

He has a favorite parable about his moral education.

In third grade, he fired a spitball at a classmate and hit a nun (Sister Scholastica, no less).

“I think I hit her right in the cheek, which wasn’t good.”

The nun took Lindemann to see the pastor, Monsignor Gabriel.

“There were rumors of dungeons down there,” he said.

The monsignor took pity. He taught young Patrick how to make a better spitball and they practiced in his office for a half hour, using his office wall as a target.

“Just don’t do it in school,” the pastor told him.

“He didn’t judge or condemn me,” Lindemann said. “He made a correction that changed a lot for me.”

Lindemann tells these stories as object lessons in kindness and fairness, but a subtext always hovers.

“When we played war as kids with neighboring groups, when you got shot, you laid down and pretended you were dead. You didn’t get up and say ‘You missed.’”

The echo is left to bounce in your head. Small-minded people judge instead of constructively engaging. Small-minded people won’t lay down and stay dead.

Suddenly, the subtext surfaced like a nuclear submarine. “Yes, we’re going to disagree from time to time, but shouldn’t we sit down and talk about it?” To date, Grebner hasn’t agreed to a face-to-face debate with Lindemann because Grebner says he would get “too angry,” and Grebner’s anger angers Lindemann.

“What is all this anger? Man, I just don’t understand the anger. It just drives me crazy.”