Retired University of Minnesota professor Dick McDermott, 85, sits in the living room of his St. Paul residence where F. Scott Fitzgerald was born in 1896. McDermott is creating a nonprofit organization celebrating writer F. Scott Fitzgerald's life in the city.
He didn't know it at the time, but Dick McDermott drew the lucky straw.
Between the dozen people who stepped up in 1975 to buy and renovate 12 condos in the 400 block of St. Paul's Laurel Avenue, McDermott picked the second story of 481.
Everyone knew that, according to his birth certificate, F. Scott Fitzgerald was born somewhere at that address. But it wasn't until several of the owners-turned-occupiers were caroling across the street one Christmas that an elderly woman filled them in on local lore. The second story was where the novelist was born.
Since then, McDermott, 85, has been letting up to a dozen people each month into his apartment.
"If I'm out on the porch watering plants and see they're from out of town, I
often invite them up," he said of the tours that often pass his six-unit building. "The happenstance of my living here has transformed my life."
Now, McDermott -- in hospice with terminal lung cancer -- is thinking of ways to continue Fitzgerald's legacy.
He thought about donating the condo in a multi-unit building to a foundation -- but the legal complications made him decide against it.
"To have a nonprofit own it, would they sit on a board? How involved would they really be?" Plus the thought of tour groups trudging up several flights of stairs, past his neighbors, didn't seem particularly appealing.
Instead, McDermott decided to sell the condo and use $250,000 from his estate to start a new nonprofit, the Fitzgerald in Minnesota Fund.
"In the last, somber days of my life, this wonderful thing has developed. ... I want to keep it alive."
Several years after the building at 479 and 481 Laurel was built in 1893, Fitzgerald's family moved in. He was born there in 1896, and his family lived there until he was 2.
The neighborhood changed, the apartment was split into three units and the building, as well as an identical one next to it, fell into disrepair. In 1974, it was declared unfit
The condominium at 481 Laurel Avenue in St. Paul.
for habitation, and a local group stepped in to stop it from being torn down.
The group found a dozen buyers -- one for each unit -- including McDermott. A University of Minnesota professor of speech, language and hearing sciences who lived in Roseville at the time, McDermott yearned for more tight-knit relationships with his neighbors.
As for the idea of owning the apartment where Fitzgerald was born, "I had known of him, but hadn't known a lot," McDermott said.
He and two others drew straws for the apartments at the 481 address, but it wasn't until all of them moved in in 1976 that they learned the second floor had once housed the Fitzgeralds.
A woman who lived across the street, "who had to be in her 90s," and who offered the renovators a drink of water every day when she saw they were fixing the buildings up, finally informed them of what many in the neighborhood knew, McDermott said.
"You folks, you don't know how you've added years to my life," the woman told them, according to McDermott, who was 48 at the time.
McDermott retired from the university in 1991 and has been inundated with visitors since. Mostly academics, they come from as far as Mongolia and Iran to see their favorite author's birthplace. He has accumulated a comprehensive library of Fitzgerald's works and absorbed minutiae from countless passing scholars.
Some of that, he hopes, will remain.
The new nonprofit -- which has been registered with the state but has yet to receive federal 501c3 status -- seeks "to promote the history and artistic work of the author F. Scott Fitzgerald," particularly in the St. Paul area, and preserve his legacy.
Exactly how it will do that is still in the works, but some ideas include an annual prize for local writers, using funds to add to the Fitzgerald holdings at the St. Paul Central Library and sponsoring an annual conference.
McDermott is hoping his quarter-million stake will lead to additional donations.