Minnesota Prairie Roots

Writing and photography by Audrey Kletscher Helbling

Old school journalism & lessons learned June 22, 2021

In journalism school and early in my journalism career, I typed stories on a manual typewriter similar to this. MN Prairie Roots file photo.

IN A WINDOWLESS ROOM of Armstrong Hall on the campus of Mankato State University, I pounded out a fictional obituary on a manual typewriter.

The year was 1976. And I was learning the basics of newspaper reporting. Lesson number one: Always spell a person’s name correctly. Never assume. Ask for the spelling. There is no reporting sin worse than misspelling a name. I remembered that during my first reporting job out of college when I interviewed Dayle. Not Dale.

I learned from two of the best—Robert O. Shipman and Gladys B. Olson. They were old school journalists, determined to teach Woodward and Bernstein-hyped students how to gather facts and report with truth, accuracy and integrity. They taught the basics—how to write a strong lede, how to infuse interest into feature stories, how to get the story right…

But beyond that, they cared. Deeply. They cared about the roles newspapers play in communities. To report hard news. To share human interest stories. To inform. To keep tabs on government and schools and other groups entrusted with public monies and policies. To share and express opinions on the editorial page, considered the heart of a community newspaper. To publish obituaries. And much more.

A section of a feature I wrote about Mike Max, now a sports anchor at WCCO TV. MN Prairie Roots file photo.

All these decades later, I remember those lessons learned from Shipman, Olson and others who taught mass communication classes at what is today known as Minnesota State University, Mankato. I graduated in March 1978 and shortly thereafter started working as a newspaper reporter at a small town weekly, The Gaylord Hub. My career would also take me to full-time reporting jobs in Sleepy Eye, Mankato and Owatonna, and to a short-term assignment in Northfield with freelance work also tossed in the mix.

Through the years, I’ve maintained my passion for writing and grown my passion for photography. Even while raising three children, with minimal time to write. Yet, I’ve had no desire to return to the long and odd hours of working for a newspaper at low pay with the stress and pressure of deadlines and a public that criticizes more than values the free press.

Much has changed since I typed a fictional obit in Armstrong Hall on a manual typewriter. For one, technology. Two: Newspapers charge to publish obits. I still struggle with that change. But I understand given the declines in ad revenue. Three: Attitudes. The easily flung accusation of “fake news” simply angers me as does constant criticism of responsible media. “Don’t kill the messenger,” I advise those who target the media for reporting “only bad news.”

A feature I wrote in 1979 republished in the June 4, 2020, issue of The Gaylord Hub. MN Prairie Roots file photo.

I wonder what Professors Shipman and Olson would teach students today. I expect they’d still focus on the basics. On accuracy and integrity and spelling names correctly.

While writing this post, I wanted to assure I spelled their names right, which led me to search online. It was then that I discovered some interesting facts about Olson, a petite spitfire of a woman. Shortly before she turned four, Gladys and her infant brother were orphaned as a result of the 1918-1919 flu pandemic. Their parents died within 24 hours of each other, among more than 8,000 North Dakotans who died of influenza in 1919. The siblings were raised by their paternal grandparents. I wish I’d known this when Olson taught me how to become a good, decent and fair newspaper reporter.

From the front page of the Faribault Daily News. MN Prairie Roots file photo 2020.

Today, as I read Olson’s 2016 obit, I understand her backstory, what shaped her strength and resilience and kindness. The list of her accomplishments beyond journalism professor emphasizes service to others. She lived to age 101. That she died only four years before the COVID-19 pandemic is not lost on me. I’m thankful she didn’t have to endure another pandemic. I’m also thankful that she, and Robert Shipman, taught me old school journalism style. To write with fairness, integrity and accuracy. And to value the role of newspapers in a democracy.

© Copyright 2021 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

How to write an obit 101 from Jim’s family March 1, 2017

Filed under: Uncategorized — Audrey Kletscher Helbling @ 5:00 AM
Tags: , , , , , , , ,

THE OLDER I GET, the more I find myself reading the obituaries published in the Faribault Daily News. And, yes, I’m old school. I still subscribe to a print paper.

I also have education and work experience in journalism, including writing obituaries. It’s one of the first skills I learned in the journalism program at Minnesota State University, Mankato. If you can’t write an obit—and make damn sure the name is spelled correctly—then you best choose another career.

But much has changed since I graduated from MSU in 1978. Newspaper staffers no longer write obits that once published for free. Today obits are paid-for pieces written by survivors of the deceased or penned in advance before death. That allows for creative obits reflecting personalities rather than the straight-forward factual death notices I once composed.

Source: Faribault Daily News

Source: Faribault Daily News

On Tuesday I opened the Faribault paper to find probably the longest obituary I’ve ever seen published. It runs 38 column inches, which takes you from the top of the “Matters of Record” page to the bottom, spanning two columns.

I figured, given the length, that I would find stories and humor therein. I did. I always appreciate humor in an obit. We all need moments of laughter in the midst of grief.

So here, for your entertainment, are some stories from the obit of Faribault resident James Dale Kittlesen, 87, who died on Sunday, February 19:

While at Gustavus, he met his future wife (Karen), of 59 years, although there is confusion as to how this happened…Others blame Karen’s brother Morrie who gave his fellow geology student a bag of brownies and told Jim that his sister Karen had made them especially for him. It became obvious to Jim that Karen knew nothing about the brownies while he was thanking her in the library.

#

In 1991, after 16 years, Jim retired from his position as Director of Business Affairs of the Faribault School District having been hung in effigy only once.

#

In recent years he became a fan of the Minnesota Windchill… After sitting in the bleachers for an entire game he discovered he could barely stand as his back hurt too much. When people would ask about his sore back he would explain it was a “sports injury.”

#

At Trinity he worked with the pie makers where he learned “mad chopping skills.”

#

Recently, while Jim was sitting in his comfy chair, Karen asked, “Is there anything on your bucket list you would have liked to have done?” He replied, “No, not really. I think I’ve done everything I wanted to do.”

#

I never knew Jim. But I feel like I do now after reading his life highlights, stories and quotes.

There’s one more thing Jim’s family wants mourners to know regarding his funeral: Jim will not be wearing a tie so feel free to follow suit.

TELL ME: How do you want your obituary written? Straight forward journalism style? Or a mix of straight facts and stories? How do you want to be remembered?

FYI: Click here to read Jim Kittlesen’s complete obituary published on the Boldt Funeral Home website.

 

The evolving art of crafting an obituary May 12, 2015

Filed under: Uncategorized — Audrey Kletscher Helbling @ 5:00 AM
Tags: , , , , ,

Even after family has departed this life, their memory is as close as the graves that surround Moland Lutheran Church.

This Moland Lutheran Church Cemetery in rural Steele County Minnesota lies next to farm fields. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo used for illustration purposes only.

HAVE YOU NOTICED in recent years, like I have, the trend to personalize obituaries?

No longer are obits just a listing of factual information. Rather, they now often offer personal insights from loving family members. This is exactly what I was not taught in journalism school. I learned right away that nothing is more important than writing an obituary. That long ago lesson involved not a bit of commentary. Just straight facts. Birth, education, occupation, marriage, death, survivors. And, above all, spell the name correctly.

Times have changes. Most newspapers now charge for printing obituaries. Thus, if you’re paying for all those words about your loved one, you may as well write what you wish.

I find myself reading obits more often than I once did. Yes, I sadly now know a lot more people who are dying. But I’m also interested in reading the stories of those individuals whom I’ve never known.

For example, recently The Gaylord Hub, where I worked as a reporter and photographer at my first newspaper job fresh out of college and, yes, wrote my first published obits, printed three death notices that grabbed my attention. All of them were obituaries for retired or semi-retired farmers, men who devoted their lives to working the land in this rural southern Minnesota county.

I learned that Dennis Grams, 70, “enjoyed everything about farming—the equipment, animals, crops and weather. If you had a question about farming, he was the man to go to. He had a way of explaining everything so that you could understand and would not stop explaining until he was sure you understood.” Seems to me Dennis was not just a farmer, but a teacher, too. And a patient one at that.

And then there’s Kenneth Quast, 81, who lived his entire life on the farm his father purchased in the 1920s. Kenneth worked that land and milked cows. His obit states: “He enjoyed farming, it was his life.” Oh, to do what you love. Your entire life.

Finally, Elmer Otto, 93, just couldn’t stay away from his Kelso Township farm. “…even after retiring he still had to go out and make sure things were running smoothly.” Elmer clearly loved his life’s work, just like Dennis and Kenneth.

How about you? Can you say that about your life—that you did what you loved? What would you want included in your obituary?

© Copyright 2015 Audrey Kletscher Helbling