Minnesota Prairie Roots

Writing and photography by Audrey Kletscher Helbling

A 1979 interview with Mike Max & reflections on community journalism June 12, 2020

A CARDBOARD BOX, stacked in an under-the-roof storage space on the second floor of my house, holds layers of yellowed newspaper clippings. Not stories of personal value because they are about me or my family. But rather stories I wrote, as a community journalist.

In March 1978, newly-graduated with a mass communications degree from Mankato State (now Minnesota State University, Mankato), I started my multi-faceted job at The Gaylord Hub. I was the first-ever journalist hired at the small rural weekly in Gaylord, the county seat of Sibley County. Prior to that, family at the then second-generation family-owned paper covered all the editorial work.

I did everything from writing news stories and features to taking and printing photos to writing headlines to going to the printing plant and then swinging canvas bags full of newspapers into the back of a van for delivery to the post office. I learned nearly every aspect of community newspapers except selling and designing ads and covering sports. Under the guidance of a supportive, encouraging and kind editor and publisher, Jim Deis, I grew my skills and my passion for small town community journalism.

 

A feature I wrote in 1979 republished in the June 4, 2020, issue of The Gaylord Hub.

 

Forty years after I left The Hub, the newspaper still arrives weekly in my mailbox. Jim passed many years ago. His son, Joe, just a kid when I worked at the paper, now serves as the third-generation editor and publisher. And last week he republished a feature, No need for the bubble gum, I wrote in July 1979. Perhaps my one and only sports story. I interviewed the Max brothers—Mike and Marc—for a feature about their sports card collection.

I recall going to the brothers’ home in Lakeside Acres and the piles and piles of bagged, boxed and loose cards numbering some 7,000. But I didn’t remember details of that interview with the 9 and 14-year-olds. So rereading that story I wrote 41 years ago proved entertaining, especially considering where one of those boys landed. Mike Max went on to become the sports director for WCCO-TV in the Twin Cities. And more recently, he expanded to hard news by covering the protests surrounding the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis.

 

WCCO personality Mike Max, up close in a photo I took in 1979. Photo by Audrey Kletscher from The Gaylord Hub.

 

But back to that 1979 feature I wrote. Here’s my favorite quote from Mike:

“I was always interested in sports. I saw packs (of collector cards and bubble gum), so I would sneak some money and buy a whole bunch,” he said.

That was despite his mother’s orders to buy “only one pack.” He would buy about eight packs, hide seven in his pocket and show his mom the “one pack” he had bought.

Barb Max said she found out about her son’s tricks, but years later.

I love that part of the story.

But I find equally humorous this paragraph from my feature:

The two plan on keeping their cards, but speculate on selling some of them if the price is right. “I’ll save them until I get real old,” Marc said. “I’ll save them until they’re worth more and more, but maybe someday sell them if I need money real bad.”

 

A section of the republished story from 1979.

 

Reflecting on that feature of four decades ago, I am reminded of the importance of community newspapers. These are the stories we are losing as more and more small town weekly newspapers, and even some dailies, are folding. Declines in advertising revenue and subscribers, rising expenses and the growth of online media alternatives have all factored into the demise of print journalism. I can’t even begin to tell you how much that saddens me. We are losing such a valuable part of our communities. The watchdogs. The storytellers. The historians. The source of information about public meetings, community events, deaths—news in general. The media is too often under attack, blamed for reporting too much bad news. Don’t kill the messenger, I say.

I will always remain grateful for the two years I worked as The Cub from the Hub, a name tagged to me while in Gaylord. There I learned and grew as a writer, always striving for integrity, honesty and balanced reporting. By far, feature writing proved the most enjoyable aspect of my work. From Gaylord, I would go on to report for The Sleepy Eye Herald-Dispatch, The Mankato Free Press (St. James bureau), The Owatonna People’s Press and The Northfield News. Some were temporary fill-in jobs, others full-time. But no matter where I worked, I worked long, hard hours at low pay to cover the community. I reported the hard news and attended endless city council/school board/county board meetings into the late hours of the night. And sometimes I wrote, too, about kids who collect sports cards. Kids like Mike Max and his younger brother, Marc.

© Copyright 2020 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Insights into my blog featured in magazine article March 9, 2019

This photo shows the first page-plus of a feature story published in the spring issue of Fleur-de-lis. Nick Gerhardt photographed me in my dining room. My father-in-law, Tom Helbling, painted the winter scene behind me. The chest of drawers is a refinished Helbling family heirloom. And the chain of folded cranes were crafted and gifted to me by Sunny, a wonderful young woman from Boston. The four books represent a sampling of the many anthologies in which my writing has published.

 

EVERY DAY WE WRITE our stories. By the way we live. By what we say and do and how we act. Or don’t.

We craft our personal stories whether at a computer, working retail, raising a child… Each story differs. Each story matters. Every single person matters.

 

A selfie of Randy and me taken in September 2017 at the walleye statue along Mille Lacs Lake in Garrison. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo by Randy Helbling.

 

I am honored by the telling of my story in the spring issue of Fleur-de-lis, a lifestyle magazine published by the Faribault Daily News. Freelancer Nick Gerhardt wrote the piece which also features nine of my photos in a six-page spread. Plus Nick’s photo of me. And a selfie Randy took of us by the big walleye statue in Garrison because I am horrible at taking selfies.

Nick got my story right. He captures the essence of me as a person, a writer and a photographer in his focus on my blogging. I appreciate that. When a writer really, truly connects and understands the interview subject, as Nick did with me, it shows.

He spent several hours in my home, not only asking questions, gathering information and taking photos, but also talking shop. Although I haven’t worked in the newspaper field for decades, I can still relate to the profession and its challenges and rewards.

It is clear to me that Nick did his homework, researching my blog in advance of our interview. And it is clear to me that he fully understands my southwestern Minnesota rural background and its influence on my writing and photography. He digs into that in a section tagged “setting the roots.”

 

My husband enjoys his cheeseburger at the North Morristown Fourth of July celebration in 2016. This is one of my favorite close-up images and among those published in Fleur-de-lis. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo 2016.

 

Nick describes my blog as “a hotdish of Americana through a Minnesota lens.” I love that perspective. It accurately reflects my writing and photography style and the content of my blog. My images and words focus on rural Minnesota—Main Street, grassroots small town events, the Minnesota countryside, country churches, issues that matter to me and much more.

 

An abandoned farmhouse along Minnesota State Highway 19 east of Vesta on the southwestern Minnesota prairie. The image is published in Fleur-de-lis. The house, photographed in 2012, is now gone. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

 

When Nick interviewed me, I stressed to him the importance of noticing details. It is a skill rooted in my childhood. When you grow up on the prairie as I did, you notice details in that stark environment. I’ve always engaged all of my senses—not just visual. I can smell harvest, hear the howling wind, feel the bite of winter, taste sunshine in a garden-fresh tomato, see heat waves shimmering over a cornfield in July. That eye for detail weaves into my writing and my photography.

Through the decades, I’ve honed my craft, found my voice. But I’ve never lost touch with my prairie roots. Everything I write, everything I photograph, is rooted directly or indirectly in my rural upbringing. In my Minnesota prairie roots.

 

The cover of the spring issue of Fleur-de-lis.

 

FYI: Copies of the spring 2019 issue of Fleur-de-lis are available from the Faribault Daily News for $2. The issue also includes republication of my blog post, “Winter’s here, so we may as well embrace it,” illustrated by outstanding winter photos by area photographers. That post, I will note, published on January 2, long before this winter became the longest of cold and snowy winters in Minnesota.

© Copyright 2019 Audrey Kletscher Helbling