TALK ABOUT AN unlikely pair.
Tom Baldini, the elder statesman, the reserved gentleman, the non-athlete. And Mike Koskiniemi, the muscular, hyper-energetic younger guy who runs Motions, the fitness gym in north Marquette.
Baldini was 33 years older than Koskeniemi, and yet, remarkably, they were best of friends for the last 15 years of Baldini’s life.
“We met at the Landmark Inn,” Koskiniemi explains. “We were having drinks one night and we struck up a conversation. We just hit it off from the start. I think we intrigued each other, and it just grew from there.”
Baldini had a plethora of good friends–companions he dined with on a regular basis, some whom he vacationed with, and so many others whom he engaged with in convivial conversations daily.
But the Koskiniemi connection was a little different.
Koskiniemi was only 26 at the time, and he saw in Baldini, who was 59, a man he could truly admire. “I guess it was his worldliness and the way he carried himself. And I could sense his character and his values. His integrity especially.”
Their relationship grew month after month and then Baldini took a major step. He decided as he was aging that he needed to truly start taking care of his body. What better way than to hire a trainer, more specifically his young buddy, Mike Koskiniemi?
“He said, ‘I want to get started at your gym. I know you can help me,'” Koskiniemi remembers. “He was not an athletic person, he never went to the gym. His life was all about speaking and writing and getting up in front of people. My world was very scary for him at first. Very scary. He was afraid he’d hurt himself.”
But they started up, with workouts five days a week, 6 am at first, eventually at 5 am. While they trained, they’d talk about life, health, and family, but almost never about politics and government which, of course, were Baldini’s great obsession. In those early morning sessions, Baldini probably needed a break from his life as a Congressional aide, a city commissioner, a university board member, and a slew of other jobs he held throughout his career of public service.
“Our conversations would sometimes get very intimate, very personal,” Koskiniemi says. “I was humbled by it, by the fact that he would take me into his confidence. Especially with all the people he knew. Tom didn’t have a significant other, so if there was something bothering him, I listened to him and allowed him to get it off his chest.”
Koskiniemi moved into an apartment on the upper floor of Baldini’s house on the Eastside of Marquette, and their relationship grew closer still.
And then came a major change. Koskiniemi was getting married. He needed a best man.
“When I was thinking about all the guys involved in my life, their values and their character, and also looking forward,” Koskiniemi explains, “I wanted to know who was going to be there for me when problems arose. And Tom checked every box.”
Koskiniemi’s bride Sarah moved in upstairs with him and the friendship expanded. And expanded further with the arrival of the Koskiniemis’ daughter, Kamryn.
“When she was born, we had to sneak him into the hospital,” Koskiniemi says with a twinkle in his eyes. “The flu was hitting, everything was shut down, it was family only for visits. Especially in the birthing section, they were really serious. But we snuck him in so he could hold Kamyrn. That was really important to us.”
Kamryn became Baldini’s newest, youngest friend.
“Nothing would touch my heart more than when I would walk into his apartment and see him and Kamryn there chatting or playing games on the iPad,” Koskiniemi says. “He always had special treats for her. She liked corn so he had corn for her. She loved whipped cream so he always had that for her.”
Then another daughter–Piper–came along, and now Baldini had two young playmates.
“From the time they were born,” Sarah says, “he’d get down on the floor and play with them. He beamed when he was with them. They did too. They just loved their Thomas.”
Thomas. That’s what the whole Koskiniemi family called him. Never just Tom. Thomas conveyed both affection and respect, and made their relationship special. And Thomas always referred to Koskiniemi as Michael. It just seemed natural.
The Koskiniemis had their last dinner with Baldini three days before Christmas at the Landmark Inn, gave him big hugs at the end of the meal and wished him Merry Christmas. The next night, Baldini was having dinner at the Villa with his family members from Ishpeming when they noticed his strange behavior and speech. A stroke.
Koskiniemi was notified immediately and rushed down to the Emergency Room at the hospital.
“I walked into his room,” Koskiniemi says, “and said, ‘Thomas…’ and he said ‘Oh hi, Michael.’ He seemed to be in a cheerful mood. I asked him how he was doing, and he said, ‘Oh, I don’t feel so well.’ And that was it. Those were the last words he spoke to me.”
Baldini had suffered a massive stroke. He’d never recover. He died three days later.
“Christmas night, we told our kids that Thomas would not be waking up,” Koskiniemi says. “They were devastated. Kamryn cried and cried and cried. And then Piper thought about it and said it’d be okay and we should just be thankful for the time we had with Thomas. Piper’s five and a half years old, by the way. And then she started listing everybody he would be with in heaven. And the first one she mentioned was Brutus, our English bulldog who had died.”
Now, a week later, they’ve got their own special, intimate memories of Thomas Baldini, the public man who had so many friends and commanded so much respect.
“I think of his smile and his laugh and how happy he was around our family,” Sarah says. “We’d just be in his living room, with our kids and him. We loved it. We loved it.”
“That was the only time I saw him totally relax,” Koskiniemi says. “He would totally exhale.”
Koskiniemi doesn’t cry when he talks about Thomas because he’s by nature an optimistic, forward-thinking man. But the emotion is there, deep inside.
“He was my best man,” he tells you. “He’s still my best man and will forever be my best man.”
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