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

 

The saga continues: Unsustainable & unaffordable health insurance November 12, 2020

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Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

ELEVEN MONTHS CANNOT pass quickly enough for me. And, no, this has nothing to do with COVID-19 although I certainly wish for an end to that, too.

What I most anticipate, what I’m most excited about and looking forward to from a financial perspective in 2021 is turning 65. And getting on Medicare. Why? Because of the cost of my health insurance.

Recently, Randy brought home the new premium numbers for 2021. Since I’m self-employed, I get my coverage through his work plan. Based on media reports and based on the across-the-board decline in medical services provided this year (due to hospitals canceling elective surgeries early in the pandemic and fewer people seeking medical care, etc.), I expected our premiums would remain the same or even decline. I couldn’t have been more wrong.

We are facing another increase, of nearly $200 a month, to monthly premiums of $1,245 each. Times two, that’s $2,490 a month (up from $2,297/month) for policies with $4,250/each deductibles. That’s an 8.4 percent increase.

This is a photo of an x-ray showing the implant I have in my left wrist. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo 2018.

Let’s break that down. Randy’s employer pays half of his premium. None of mine. Therefore our portion of the premiums will be $1,868 a month, $144 more than the $1,724/month we currently pay.

This is unsustainable. And ridiculous. This is not affordable health insurance, to all you politicians out there who claim you’ve made healthcare affordable. Talk to me. I’ve remarked to Randy that soon he will need to pay his employer to work for him, just to cover our health insurance premiums. While I may be stretching that a bit, I see the numbers on his paychecks. When I do the math, I see that nearly three weeks of his base gross wage each month goes toward health insurance premiums.

I also recognize that employers, especially small businesses, feel the financial impact of such high health insurance premiums. If you are fortunate enough to work for an employer who covers your full premium and maybe even contributes to family coverage, consider yourself “lucky.” I have no doubt Randy’s employer is looking forward to his getting off the company plan in 11 months as that will save the business money.

An incorrect medical bill I received in 2018 after surgery to place a plate into my broken left wrist. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo 2018.

I’ve always been a financially responsible person, someone who spends her money wisely, who doesn’t need the newest/biggest/best. Live within your means, don’t accrue unnecessary debt. That will never change about me. Or Randy. But, still, I yearn for an updated kitchen to replace the 1970s yellowing cupboards, the brown sink with the leaky faucet, the Formica countertops, the worn vinyl flooring…, well, you get the picture. I could have had that lovely new kitchen years ago if not for the exorbitant cost of health insurance.

But, more than that, I dislike that my hardworking husband is giving up a sizable chunk of his paychecks to pay for health insurance that is basically only a catastrophic plan. Any suggestion that we simply go without insurance is not a financial risk we wish to take. Not at our age. So we wait. Eleven more months…

© Copyright 2020 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

About those face masks… August 28, 2020

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A clown mask for sale at a Minnesota antique shop. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo

 

REMEMBER THOSE MOLDED plastic masks, popular Halloween costumes back in the 1960s? OK, if you, then you are younger than me. But I loved those masks because I could transform into someone other than the skinny farm girl I was in real life.

 

A Halloween mask for sale at Antiques of the Midwest. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

 

I still remember the year I pressed a gypsy woman mask to my face, pulled on my mom’s colorful, full skirt and a blouse, and slipped bangles onto my arms. I was not elementary-aged Audrey ready to race about town gathering Hershey candy bars, Tootsie Pop suckers and the occasional rock-hard colored homemade popcorn ball that threatened to break teeth. Rather I was this free spirit of a gypsy seeking new adventure.

 

An Archie mask for sale at an antique shop. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

 

Yet, I wasn’t quite free. I felt trapped inside that hot Halloween mask. It was uncomfortable. It limited my vision as did my missing prescription eyeglasses. In between candy stops, I sometimes pulled the mask up, freeing my face. But I put up with all this uncomfortableness for the fun of Halloween.

 

Face masks crafted and sent to me by Penny, a blogger friend in Texas.

 

Now fast forward to today. Each time I leave the house to go to a public place, I grab a cloth face mask. And hand sanitizer. It’s become as routine as grabbing my handbag, as slipping on my shoes. Like Gypsy Audrey of decades ago, I feel conflicted, though, about that face mask. I absolutely, 100 percent, support the wearing of face masks to prevent the spread of COVID-19 and am thankful for the mask mandate in Minnesota. But I don’t like wearing a mask. Just like back in my gypsy days, I find face masks hot, uncomfortable and limiting my vision whenever my glasses fog. But I put up with all the uncomfortableness because I care about protecting others from a disease that has sickened and killed people in my circle or connected to my circle.

 

A sign posted at the Steele County History Center in Owatonna. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo June 2020.

 

So, when I head into public and see people without masks (still) or wearing them incorrectly (not covering their noses), my irritation rises. I don’t buy into the “you’re taking away my personal freedom” argument. If I enter a business, I need to wear a shirt and shoes or I won’t be served. If I get in a vehicle, the law requires I belt myself in. And, in Minnesota we also have a hands-off when driving cellphone law.

 

“Protect the herd” plays off Northfield, Minnesota’s “Cows, Colleges and Contentment” slogan. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo 2020.

 

While I’m limiting my public circulation, I’m still out and about. And I’ve seen, in Faribault, way too many people who are either not wearing masks or are “half-maskers,” a new term I just heard a few days ago in a media report. The report focused on the importance of covering the nose, where the virus thrives and can be spewed by simply breathing. You don’t need to be an infectious disease doctor to grasp that basic health concept.

 

Wearing a face mask the right way, covering your nose and mouth. I photographed this toy monkey in the window of an historic home in Dundas, Minnesota.

 

About two weeks ago when I went to the local dollar store to pick up greeting cards, I encountered a customer without a mask and saw both cashiers and the customer in front of me wearing their masks below their noses. That same day, I spotted two grocery store employees at two different stores with masks below their noses. And my last visit to the dollar store, I once again saw an unmasked customer and a different cashier with her mask not covering her nose. I’d had enough. I politely asked the cashier to pull her mask over her nose and advised her that the mask was doing no good if she left her nose exposed. She reluctantly pulled the cloth face covering up and then, even before I was completely turned away, pulled it back down, her eyes glaring dislike toward me. I reached for the hand sanitizer in my pocket and squeezed a generous amount onto my palm.

I don’t get it. I just do not get it. Businesses want our business. Yet I see employees wearing masks incorrectly. People want this pandemic to end. Yet, some are half-maskers or no maskers (and that includes customers who come into my husband’s workplace) and/or believe this pandemic is all a hoax. It’s not. It’s as real as the two sympathy cards I’ve sent to friends who have lost loved ones to COVID-19.

 

FYI: Click here to read the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention information on how and why to wear a face mask and more.

© Copyright 2020 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Thoughts in the light of recent news headlines December 4, 2019

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Artwork created by Gracie for a student art show at the Paradise Center for the Arts, Faribault. Minnesota Prairie Roots edited file photo March 2018.

 

LIFE CAN BE TOUGH sometimes, really tough.

Five dead in a Minneapolis high-rise fire last week.

Four dead, including two young brothers and their mother, in an act of domestic violence in south Minneapolis just days ago.

Nine killed in an airplane crash in South Dakota.

The headlines and media reports can overwhelm.

Yesterday, a 16-year-old boy was taken into custody in my community after reportedly sending threatening texts to two students that he was “thinking about shooting up the school.” Faribault High School. A similar, but worse, scenario played out in violence in two eastern Wisconsin schools in recent days.

I wish the world was free of meanness, violence, hatred and tragedies. But it isn’t and never will be. Yet we have the power within our homes, our neighborhoods, our communities, our circle of family and friends, yes, within our hearts to individually treat others with kindness, compassion, empathy and respect. And that is a start.

THOUGHTS?

© Copyright 2019 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Thoughts after returning “home” to southwestern Minnesota November 14, 2019

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Just a few miles south of Belview, a John Deere tractor travels along a county road.

 

SOUTHWESTERN MINNESOTA. It is the place of my roots. The fields. The small towns. The people. The land. The sky. Even the wind.

 

A real estate and farm loan office in downtown Belview.

 

When I return here, I return with a sense of nostalgia. With memories. With a fondness for all this wide and spacious place represents to me. Yes, I admit to looking through a rose-colored lens, too often forgetting the challenges of living in rural Minnesota.

 

I love the colorful art on this antique shop in Belview, Minnesota.

 

But I prefer to focus on the comfort that going back home brings to me. A sense of calm. A sense of peace. A sense of quiet in a sometimes too chaotic life.

 

The local gas station/convenience store in Belview, next to the grain elevator. An important place since there’s no grocery store in town.

 

Small towns have their issues. Just like anywhere. But they also have the positives of a strong sense of community, of loyalty, of grit and determination. Agriculture weaves into every aspect of these small towns. Like Belview, rooted in agriculture. You see that influence in the businesses along Main Street.

 

Another Belview business.

 

There is comfort in seeing that, despite e-commerce and regional shopping centers, rural communities manage to hold onto local businesses. I often wonder how long. And that is a question only those who live in these communities can answer.

 

Working the land between Belview and Delhi.

 

THOUGHTS?

© Copyright 2019 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

That would be a NO November 5, 2019

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A graphic illustrating options I considered several years ago when I thought our premiums were high. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

 

The answer is NO. No, you don’t qualify for any government assistance to help pay down your health insurance premiums. There’s nothing/na-da/zero/big fat goose egg we can do for you.

I’m not surprised.

Randy met with a MNsure navigator on Monday to see if we could get a subsidy, tax credit, anything to help reduce the absurd health insurance premiums we will pay in 2020. Here’s the definition of absurd: Premiums of $1,149/month. Each. Randy’s employer pays half of his premium so our cost will be $1,723/month. That’s up $120/month from this year. Our deductibles will be $4,250. Each. That’s also up from $4,000/each this year.

I won’t apologize for my anger as I wonder who gets subsidies anyway. I won’t apologize for my anger when I wonder how insurance companies can, in all good conscience, charge this much in premiums. I won’t apologize for my anger toward politicians who constantly talk about making healthcare affordable, yet it never becomes affordable. There’s nothing affordable about our monthly premiums of $1,723.

When a sizable chunk of your income goes toward health insurance premiums for healthcare you can no longer afford because you’re paying too much in premiums and too much in deductibles, something is terribly wrong and broken. Fix it. Somebody. Please.

LET’S HEAR your thoughts.

© Copyright 2019 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

My Halloween horror story October 31, 2019

From a Halloween display in Hayfield, Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

 

WHAT SCARES YOU? I mean really scares you.

Is it the current state of our political climate? Climate change? Changes in your personal life? Life that feels overwhelming? Overwhelmingly high health insurance rates?

There’s so much to concern us. And I would place check marks in front of several items on that list, the most recent being health insurance premiums. Ours are increasing again. And I am seriously stressing about the additional $120/month we will pay for insurance that is nothing but a catastrophic plan. Our deductibles will rise from $4,000 each to $4,250 each come January 1.

I don’t pretend to be good at math. Words are my thing. But no matter that lack of skill set, I understand that the health insurance premium numbers are not good for our budget and have not been for years. I joke with my husband that he will need to pay his employer to work for him given the amount deducted from paychecks for insurance. Randy’s employer pays half of his premium, none of mine. I’m on Randy’s plan because I’m self-employed.

Now let me show you the numbers: In 2020, our monthly premiums will each be $1,149 for a total of $2,298 every single month. Of that, we will pay $1,723/month, which totals $20,677/year. And then we have those $4,250 individual deductibles before the insurance even kicks in.

This is absolutely absurd. There are no other words to describe the financial challenges we are facing because of health insurance rates that are through the roof ridiculous. No wonder we don’t go on big vacations, drive vehicles that are 15 and 17 years old, seldom dine out, have a vintage kitchen in need of a complete re-do, windows that need replacing, siding that needs paint or replacement…and don’t want to go to the doctor because we can’t afford to go to the doctor. Much of our income is funneled directly to the health insurance company rather than being pumped into the general economy. Sigh.

I never thought that at our age—in our early 60s—we would be in this financial situation because of health insurance premiums.

So what am I doing about this? Screaming, venting, crying, stressing. But I’ve also set up an appointment with a MNsure navigator to see if we qualify for any type of financial assistance. When I checked a few years back, that proved fruitless. I’m not especially hopeful this time either.

There you go, my financial horror story just in time for Halloween. I am thankful Randy and I both grew up in really poor families so we are not materialistic. We manage to pay all of our bills, get food on the table…and still donate to charities. We paid off our home mortgage years ago and I’m thankful we did.

But we never expected this overwhelming financial burden as we looked to the future and are nearing retirement.

This Halloween I’m not scared of things that go bump in the night. I’m scared of health insurance premiums.

THOUGHTS? Do you have similar health insurance horror stories?

© Copyright 2019 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Dear legislators, Let’s speed things up beyond traffic July 10, 2019

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The words on the tailgate of this pick-up truck photographed several days ago in a Faribault grocery store parking lot illustrate a new Minnesota traffic law taking effect on August 1.

 

COME AUGUST 1, you best not poke along in the left traffic lane on a multi-lane Minnesota highway and hold up traffic. Do so and, if caught, you face a fine under a new law pushed by Senator John Jasinski from Faribault.

When I first heard about efforts to shift slow drivers from the left to the right lane, I thought, we have way more important issues than that to resolve. I still feel that way. I’m more concerned about the high cost of prescription drugs and healthcare and the absurd cost of health insurance ($1,600 in premiums paid by Randy and me every single month with $4,000 individual deductibles).

So there. While moving traffic along may seem of vital importance to legislators, and I do sort of understand the value of the legislation, I fail to understand why something can’t be done about the healthcare cost crisis. Let’s move that issue out of the slowpoke lane into the fast lane of a financially favorable resolution for the consumer.

© Copyright 2019 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

When reporters cover tough topics… January 31, 2019

 

THE NEXT TIME YOU CRITICIZE a journalist or rant that reporters are nothing but a bunch of biased writers, consider this. My local newspaper, the Faribault Daily News, recently placed first in the Social Issues category of the 2017-2018 Minnesota Newspaper Association Better Newspaper Contest. For a series on domestic violence.

The award-winning series, titled “Abuse,” published over a period of a year and covered the gamut from information to interviews with survivors and their families, advocates, police and more. These were powerful pieces, written primarily by reporter Gunnar Olson but also by Regional Editor Suzanne Rook.

It is the personal stories which made this series. Emotional stories. Gut-wrenching, difficult stories. Stories that needed to be told, heard, written, read and, then, remembered.

 

 

When a reporter can take a topic like domestic abuse and violence, interview people in a caring and compassionate way, and then share those stories through dynamic writing, that work deserves recognition. By fellow journalists. And by readers. I applaud the Daily News for raising awareness, educating and connecting people to this social issue via deeply personal stories.

As a former weekly and daily newspaper reporter, I will confirm that writing stories like this is difficult. I once wrote a series on eating disorders that included interviewing a survivor and the mother of a young woman who died from anorexia. Although I kept my professional persona in place while working on the series, inside my heart hurt for every single individual I interviewed. Reporters have a job to do. But they are still human.

I often hear newspapers criticized for printing nothing but bad news. That raises my ire. Do not kill the messenger. Newspapers are not PR mouthpieces. They are newspapers. It is their job to report the news—good and bad. Features and hard news. They do not cause the bad news. People do.

Today, more than ever, journalists are under attack. For writing fake news. For not writing something they should have or for writing something they shouldn’t have. They are losing their jobs. The free press is threatened. That should scare every single person. Democracy needs a strong and free press.

Yes, I’ve sidetracked a bit. But I’ll circle back now and reaffirm how much I appreciate my community newspaper. Reporters keep me informed of local issues and happenings, of good news and bad. I am grateful for their hard work and their willingness to stretch beyond the everyday news to cover important topics. Like domestic violence.

© Copyright 2019 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

About that mailbox closure in Faribault January 7, 2019

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SOMETIMES BUREAUCRATIC DECISIONS make zero sense.

 

 

Like this example from Faribault. The local post office, several weeks ago, posted a note on a collection point mailbox that sits along an alley by the post office.

Customers can no longer deposit mail in the box because, according to the notice, the mailbox had been damaged. I can only assume a vehicle hit the mailbox, a possibility when people drive up and drop their mail therein.

But I’ve used this mailbox for decades and I can’t remember any previous such incident. I recall only the time about a year ago when the box overflowed with mail as did another collection box outside Faribault City Hall.

Whatever, the specifics, I am frustrated by the decision to close this particular collection box. I use it all the time. Yes, I’m among the declining number of people who still mail things like greeting cards, thank you notes and bill payments. Why alienate a good customer?

The signage directs customers to use the collection box in front of the post office. Good, we have an option. But that requires either stopping at the end of the alley and exiting my vehicle or parking street side to mail an item. I’m not lazy. I can get out of my vehicle and I can walk. But I don’t like walking across snow and ice. That’s my gripe. I could stay in my vehicle and avoid dealing with weather-related issues by using this mail drop-off point.

The box is also conveniently located downtown.

After 9/11, the post office pulled many collection boxes around Faribault. I learned to deal with that, although I didn’t agree with the decision. And I certainly don’t agree with removing this much-used collection box.

 

 

Based on two suggestions scrawled on the official notice, other customers are unhappy, too. They’ve even offered a solution: Move this one back a foot.

 

 

Makes sense to me.

 

© Copyright 2019 Audrey Kletscher Helbling