Minnesota Prairie Roots

Writing and photography by Audrey Kletscher Helbling

The unlucky leprechaun April 17, 2019

Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo March 2015.

 

NEARLY 40 YEARS after I left my first newspaper reporting job, I still receive The Gaylord Hub each week. The third-generation family-owned Hub holds a special spot in my heart. Here I initially put my journalism education to work, covering the southern Minnesota town of Gaylord and surrounding areas in Sibley County.

Part of my job included checking reports at the Sibley County Sheriff’s office where I sometimes had to push to access public records. Being young, a woman and the first full-time staff writer (outside of family) put me in the occasional challenging position of not being taken seriously. Locals quickly learned, though, that I would stand my ground and intimidation didn’t work with me. Jim Deis, the editor and publisher, always backed me up and for that I was grateful.

All that serious talk aside, I met plenty of wonderful folks who embraced my writing and photography. The diversity of my job ranged from writing a feature about current WCCO TV sports director Mike Max and his brother Marc’s sizable baseball card collection to covering massive church, school and chicken barn fires to filing through initial complaint reports.

But I don’t ever recall anything quite as unique or humorous as the story I read in the April 4 issue of The Hub under a column labeled Sibley County District Court. As I read the story aloud to my husband, I couldn’t stop laughing. Here’s the line that prompted my laughter:

According to court documents, the Sibley County Sheriff’s Office was dispatched to Westgate Apartments in Gaylord at 3:55 a.m. on March 25 for a complaint of a man dressed as a leprechaun running up and down the halls and creating a disturbance.

My first questions: Why would a man dress as a leprechaun? It wasn’t St. Patrick’s Day. And what exactly does a leprechaun wear? Green clothes, hat, pointy shoes?

I read on that the responding deputy spotted a man “with something red on his head” driving a vehicle out of the parking lot. The driver took off but was eventually stopped, admitted to drinking and also driving with a canceled license. He’s now been charged with multiple crimes.

Randy listened without interruption. Then he offered this assessment: “Sounds like his luck ran out.” And that would be right.

© Copyright 2019 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

When a small town Minnesota newspaper implements a “pay for” letter policy August 11, 2016

SHOULD A NEWSPAPER charge for publishing a letter to the editor?

My Minnesota State University, Mankato, journalism professor Robert Shipman would likely turn over in his grave if he read that question. He impressed upon me that the editorial page is the heart of a newspaper. A staunch supporter of community journalism, he would not advocate paying for letters to the editor. Neither do I.

I have great respect for this newspaper man who nearly 40 years ago taught me the basics of journalism—instilling in me a strong sense of fairness in writing balanced news stories. Opinion, he emphasized, should be reserved for the editorial page.

 

Gaylord Hub election letters policy - Copy

 

This brings me back to charging a fee for letters to the editor. Interestingly enough, my concern is prompted by a notice published in The Gaylord Hub, a third-generation family newspaper where I accepted a reporting job right out of college.

Decades after I left my two-year stint at this small southern Minnesota weekly, I still get The Gaylord Hub. Unlike most community newspapers, The Hub does not have a strong editorial page. Rare are the editorials. However, locals often voice their opinions in letters to the editor. There’s been significant controversy in Gaylord related to school issues.

But now the publisher/editor has established a new policy for election-themed letters. Policies for letters to the editor are the norm at newspapers. Many publications restrict length; monitor for libelous and offensive content and personal attacks, etc.; and don’t publish election-related letters in the final issue before an election. But, in a quick perusal of the internet, checking out several major dailies across the country and several Minnesota daily and weeklies, I found none with a “pay for” publication fee.

The Little Falls based The Morrison County Record, for example, states that “Letter writers are encouraged to stick to the issues and the positions on issues and qualifications of the candidates.” Letters that lean toward advertising aren’t published.

In Gaylord, though, under the new policy, if you want to write a letter supporting or opposing a candidate or a political party, you’ll have to pay for it. Thirty dollars for up to 300 words for a Paid Election Letter.

I get where the newspaper is coming from with this policy. Some people will abuse the system by viewing the editorial page as a free advertising opportunity. But to blanket apply that to all election-focused letters seems a suppression of opinions. The policies established by The Morrison County Record seem more appropriate, more balanced in curbing potential abuse while maintaining freedom of expression.

That said, there was a time when newspapers printed obituaries and engagement, wedding and birth announcements at no cost to readers. No more, at least in most publications. Would my college professor opine that change. He likely would. Robert Shipman was Old School community journalism. He was all about integrity, unbiased reporting, getting facts right and, above all, always always spelling names correctly. He taught me well. He taught me that the opinion page is the heart of a newspaper.

Thoughts?

Copyright 2016 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

The new letters to the editor policy published in the August 4 edition of The Gaylord Hub.

 

From small town Minnesota: When no one would be queen July 22, 2016

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As we were leaving, Miss Elysian royalty were handing out Car Show trophies.

Miss Elysian royalty handed out Car Show trophies at the community’s Fourth of July celebration in 2015. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo used for illustration purposes only.

ARE HIGH SCHOOL teens too busy to reign as small town royalty? That’s the assessment of one local pageant organizer.

According to an article published in the The Gaylord Hub, only one girl applied for the role of Miss Gaylord 2016. That lack of interest caused organizers to call off the coronation which is part of this southern Minnesota community’s annual Extravaganza celebration in August.

Brianna Hahn, chairperson of the Gaylord Royal Ambassadors, cited competition from sports, summer jobs and post-secondary education for the waning interest along with a smaller than usual pool of potential candidates this year. Additionally, Hahn noted that surrounding communities are facing the same problem.

I checked several neighboring towns and found the royalty tradition continuing with a Miss Winthrop at Farm City Fun Fest, Miss Henderson at Sauerkraut Days, Miss Nicollet at Friendship Days and Miss Le Sueur at the Giant Celebration.

But I expect Hahn is right—that other rural Minnesota communities are experiencing declining numbers, too, in queen candidates. Is your community one of them?

Are small town queen competitions becoming a thing of the past? Should changes be made to continue the tradition? What are your thoughts?

© Copyright 2016 Audrey Kletscher Helbling
Source cited: The Gaylord Hub

 

An obit: I didn’t know Jim, but now I do April 27, 2016

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A fence surrounds the Urland Lutheran Church Cemetery in the Sogn Valley area.

A fence surrounds the Urland Lutheran Church Cemetery in the Sogn Valley area. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo 2010 used here for illustration purposes only.

MORE AND MORE, I READ OBITUARIES. Probably because I am aging and more people I know are now dying.

I didn’t know Jim Mueller of Clearwater, though. Yet I still read his 22 column inch obit published April 21 in The Gaylord Hub, a small southern Minnesota weekly where I worked as a reporter for two years right out of college. The Hub arrives in my mailbox each week, a tangible reminder of my past and of the passage of time.

James Henry Mueller left his hometown of Gaylord in 1973, five years before I arrived. If he had still resided there, I likely would have interviewed him. He was that kind of guy. Socially active. A storyteller. A businessman. A character. He would have made for an interesting feature.

Consider this line from the beginning of his obit: Jimmy grew up doted on by his ma and arguing with his pa.

But it is the ninth and final paragraph of this lengthy obit which makes me wish I’d known this 88-year-old:

Jim’s many hats included: Veteran Navy Man, Well Driller, Grain Bin Mover, Beer Seller, Horse Wrangler, and Postmaster. He was a smooth dancer and an ace at bridge. He will fondly be remembered as a Teller of Tales, A Spinner of Yarns, and a Preacher of Sermons.

In addition, paragraph eight notes that Jim donated his body to science. Even in death, his story continues.

NOW IT’S YOUR TURN. How would you like to be remembered? What hats would others say you wore? What do you think of this trend to personalize obituaries with insights and commentary?

© Copyright 2016 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

The evolving art of crafting an obituary May 12, 2015

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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

 

Yes, I sent this to Jay Leno June 11, 2013

I HOPE THE SON of my long ago boss possesses a sense of humor. When I received my June 6 issue of The Gaylord Hub, a community newspaper in Gaylord in southern Minnesota, I chuckled at the in-house subscription renewal ad published on the classified ads page.

Fortunately, I am not about to expire. Or at least I hope not.

Published in the June 6 issue of The Gaylord Hub.

Read the ‘Hub’scription ad published in the June 6 issue of The Gaylord Hub.

And, yes, I mailed this to The Tonight Show with Jay Leno for consideration.

Now, please continue reading of my association with, and deep appreciation for, The Gaylord Hub in a letter addressed to the current publisher and editor, Joe Deis.

#

Dear Joe,

Thirty-five years have passed since I arrived at your dad’s weekly newspaper fresh out of college with a journalism degree ready to set the world afire. Or at least Gaylord, Minnesota.

Your father, Publisher and Editor Jim Deis, set up a corner office furnished with a desk and chair and equipped with a phone and a Remington manual typewriter. He also handed me a stash of thin yellow paper upon which to type my news stories. (Yes, I can hear the quips about yellow journalism.)

Being the first reporter ever hired to cover happenings in Gaylord, I came to The Gaylord Hub in 1978 as a bit of a shock to the locals. Here was this 21-year-old out-of-towner suddenly asking questions, quoting public officials and seeking out stories beyond the usual Legion Fish Fry.

I was particularly disliked by the school superintendent; by a certain teacher, whom I quoted (how dare you do that) at a school board meeting; and by a local realtor, whom I had also quoted at a city council meeting. I will never forget their anger—which to this day I find totally unsuited to men in these positions. When you speak at a public meeting, expect to be quoted.

Your dad, bless him, totally backed me up. On everything. He knew my standards, my dedication, my journalistic ethics in getting it right. Today I still hold to the highest standards in decency, fairness and accuracy.

For two years I covered news and events in Gaylord, transitioning from greenhand to experienced in all aspects of community journalism—reporting to photography to lay-out to overseeing the final product at the printing plant to delivering the bagged newspapers to the post office.

I covered major fires (church, school and chicken barn), wrote about tragic accidents, sat through endless public meetings, found local angles in national news stories, covered the controversy over chicken barns and more.

Joe, I shall be forever grateful for your dad’s guidance those first years as a reporter. Every newbie needs a mentor and Jim was mine.

All these decades after exiting Gaylord for work at another weekly newspaper and thereafter a southern Minnesota daily, I still get The Hub each week. I read the familiar names, sometimes in the obituaries now (including your dad). And I think back on those long ago years of entering journalism shortly after Watergate was exposed by Washington Post reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein.

The profession was wide open then; I had my pick of jobs.

So much has changed. While community newspapers like yours still exist, many papers today are owned by large media companies. With that often comes a loss of community connection and care. Not always. But finances, more and more, take precedence over the editorial side. The internet, certainly, has factored into the demise of the newspaper as we once knew it.

Times change. I got out of the newspaper profession decades ago, knowing the long and odd hours would not be conducive to raising a family. My family became my focus and I’ve never regretted that choice.

Yet, during those years away, I never lost my passion for writing and have returned to writing, although not at a newspaper. (Click here to read a list of the projects I’ve pursued in recent years.)

All of that said, I find it remarkable, Joe, that you are carrying on the tradition of community journalism established first by your grandfather, Frank “Chick” Deis, and then by your father, Jim. Three generations running a small town newspaper. Outstanding, from my perspective.

Warm regards,

Audrey, “The Cub from The Hub

© Copyright 2013 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Oh, the interesting topics you’ll find in small town newspapers…of bullets, burgers & babies… August 14, 2012

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SMALL TOWN NEWSPAPERS make for some interesting reading. Stories can get downright personal and to the point.

For example, I found a gem last week online at The Redwood Falls Gazette, a twice-a-week newspaper published in Redwood County in southwestern Minnesota. It’s the newspaper I grew up reading.

The Redwood Falls Gazette editor Troy Krause, right, interviews Todd Bol, co-founder of the Little Free Library in Vesta in early July. Bol gave a LFL to my hometown and installed it at the Vesta Cafe.

In the “Backward Glance” section of the newspaper, under 1987—25 years ago, this tidbit of information was published:

In the listings of the Redwood County 4-H county fair champions, Troy Krause of the Loyal Scotties was overall grand champion in flower gardens, while Kelly Zwaschka of the Vesta Vikings won champion child development.

(Note: Troy is editor of the Redwood Gazette, while wife Kelly gave birth to their seventh child, Gideon, this week. Congrats from the Gazette staff!)

How’s that for a birth announcement? Obviously Kelly’s interest in child development, even as a 4-Her, was a clear indicator of her future. As for Todd, I believe flower gardening could be connected to creativity/writing.

You’ll also find a brief about a game warden, shot through the head in 1937 by another game warden who mistook him for a bear. That’s listed in the 50 years ago section of “Backward Glances.” So, yes, apparently Merle Shields survived the incident as he was celebrating his 20th year as a Redwood County game warden in 1962. (BTW, since writing this post, I discovered that The Gazette has upgraded its website and the “Backward Glance” I reference here cannot be found, or I couldn’t find it.)

The third piece of interest was published in last week’s The Gaylord Hub, where I worked for two years as a news reporter and photographer right out of college. Avery Grochow, past president of The Gaylord Chamber of Commerce, penned a letter to the editor which I am certain is the current coffee shop talk of Gaylord.

I’ll summarize parts of his lengthy, six-paragraph letter and quote directly when needed. Grochow begins:

We, as the chamber board, are constantly trying to do our best for our community and are constantly being criticized by some for our decisions.

Apparently locals were grumbling about the food—who supplied it and how it tasted—at the community’s annual Eggstravaganza summer festival. New volunteers, replaced Dewey (whoever that is; my words here, not Avery’s), who “wanted a year off from all the arguments.” They stepped up and worked through a new bidding process for the supplies, awarding the bid to the lowest bidder.

Grochow continues:

We have had comments both ways about the supplying of hamburger. Some have criticized us in the past because the hamburger was too spicy, that they would rather have plain burgers, and we are now being criticized that we are having plain burgers and not spiced burgers.

No matter what we do as volunteers and directors for the Chamber, we can’t please everyone…We did what we thought was fair to everyone by taking bids on everything and stand by our decision.

Now, just imagine how difficult it must have been for Grochow to write this letter. Not an easy thing to do when you live in a small town like Gaylord where everyone’s lives are intertwined.

I give Grochow credit for having the guts to publicly voice his opinion in print. He doesn’t just vent, though. He offers a solution. And therein lies the point best taken by those who read his letter.

…if anyone has better ideas for us, we still are short of directors and could use all the help we can get to make our Chamber even more successful. We also have openings on the board so you can be part of the decision making, instead of just always making bad comments because you don’t like what we did. Remember, we, as the Chamber Board of Directors, are just volunteers trying to make Gaylord a better place to live and hopefully to have a great celebration.

Those closing remarks are words we could all heed because I expect you, like me, are guilty of occasional grumbling and complaining.