My earliest memory of Garrison Keillor is a Minnesota Public Radio morning radio show that he created and hosted. It was a mash-up of music, stories, poems, and news, unlike anything else. It kept me company as I showered, brushed my teeth, and then drove the long ride to work in the morning. I always felt Keillor was making things up as he went along, talking to me as if we were friends, albeit a one-sided friendship. This feeling has never gone away. When his morning show ended, it reappeared sometime later as a live Saturday night radio show called “A Prairie Home Companion,” which became more formulaic, professional and better-sounding over the years. A favorite feature of mine was Keillor’s longish monologue referred to as the “News from Lake Wobegon.”
My very good friend, Kevin Brown, retiring after 40 years as a minister with the United Church of Christ, once told me that when asked by seminarians how to deliver a good sermon, he told them to “listen to Garrison Keillor’s News from Lake Wobegon, and do that.” I remained a faithful listener and after I got married, managed to get Maggie to listen, too. We even attended a couple of live shows. When we moved to Los Angeles and later to New York, I found the show on national public radio affiliates. It was like staying in touch with my Minnesota roots. Keillor’s new book is a memoir, “That Time of Year: A Minnesota Life,” and tells the story of his life in remarkable detail and insight and I enjoyed it a great deal.
Keillor is an eloquent craftsman of the English language, with a highly distinctive voice. In the way music fans instantly identify after only a few bars of music a guitar being played by Carlos Santana, Eric Clapton, Jimmy Page, or Eddie Van Halen, Keillor’s prose can only be his. I’ve no idea how or why this works, only that it does. The first few lines from the poem beginning his book are so clearly him. I tested this on my wife, reading the poem out loud to her and then asking, “Any idea who wrote that,” and with hardly any hesitation, she replied, “Garrison Keillor?”
This won’t be an objective review. Listening to his shows, having bought and read several of his books, I almost feel I know Mr. Keillor, that we are friends. I suspect tens of thousands of his listeners feel the same way. We grew up sharing many of the same experiences. I knew he was brought up in a strict, fundamentalist sect of conservative Lutherans called the Plymouth Brethren. I was raised in a similar Minnesota church group called the “Lutheran Brethren” who preached the concept of remaining separate from “the world,” and where the road to heaven forbade drinking, dancing, smoking, going to movies or hanging out with those who did. Sundays began with Sunday school, followed by a church service that seemed to go for hours and sometimes an evening service and potluck supper. Tuesday nights were Bible study, Wednesday choir practice, Fridays were youth night and Saturdays often had events dedicated to missions. No time for bowling, movies, dancing or, God forbid, hanging around the pool hall. Keillor and I both tried playing sandlot baseball. For me, it was never more than 6-8 kids making up both teams and never organized by parents into little leagues with uniforms and coaches. He wasn’t very good and neither was I. Keillor suffered at the hands of the Darwin brother bullies; for me it was the feared Johnson kids, who tortured my brother and me as we walked to and from school, unable to avoid passing their house.
In the book, I learned we shared other experiences. Like me, Keillor had a congenital heart ailment that kept him out of organized sports and resulted in major open-heart surgery (OHS) later in life. Doctors found both of our anomalies during routine football physicals. Like me, Keillor listened to radio shows as a kid. You should read his book to find his favorites, but for me it was the Long Ranger, Gunsmoke, and The Shadow as well as quiz shows with WCCO announcers like Jergen Nash, Charlie Boone, Randy Merriman, and Joyce Lamont, in a family whose first television set came many years after everyone else owned one. I grew up in a small town in Minnesota, Fairmont, which seemed to have a lot in common with Keillor’s fictional Lake Wobegon. I was surprised to learn Keillor’s town wasn’t all that small, Anoka, Minnesota, on the outskirts of Minneapolis. He’d experienced the “big city,” on his own when young. No surprise was we share political views, a suspicion of the hypocrisy and selfishness of republicans, and more comfortable with the foibles and naive hope of democrats. His show introduced me to musicians such as Leo Kottke, Butch Thompson, and Greg Brown of whom I became a lifetime fan. Albums and CDs from them line my shelves and fill the air with music in my home to this day. When musical heroes like Mark Knopfler or the Notting Hillbillies appeared on his show, it was like he was discovering people I already knew.
Schaak Electronics transferred me to the Ridgedale Shopping Center in Minnetonka, where I competed every month with the highest producing Schaak store of all in the Southdale Shopping Center of Edina, Minnesota. Of course, Schaak had a store in the Rosedale shopping center, too. When one of Keillor’s “sponsors,” Bertha’s Kitty Boutiques, had fictional locations in shopping centers named “Clydesdale, Chippendale, Mondale, Airedale and Teasdale,” I felt it was a nod to me as well as to my favorite Aunt Bertha, my mother’s older sister, who founded and ran her own department store in Billings, Montana.
Keillor and I also shared not being particularly good students. He was indifferent to school when my early response was outright rebellion, although I eventually migrated to indifference, the same as him. We both found a love of books early on and spent our school years reading. My dismal school experience and discovery of books are chronicled here. Keillor came across an early call to be a writer, covering local sports teams. Although a couple of teachers took an interest in me and encouraged me when no one else did, I had no clue or idea of any skills I might possess that would allow me to make a living. I loved and admired writers, but what they did seemed far beyond anything I could aspire to. I could no more imagine writing as a career than being a professional baseball or football player. When I began writing articles for trade publications to further my business career it was only possible because I’d married a professional writer, who took my early attempts and fashioned them into something editors would publish. Years later I wrote for a variety of motorcycle magazines. By then I’d learned the rudimentary steps of figuring out the audience for a piece and getting words into print that would satisfy an editor. Keillor and I share admiration for The New Yorker magazine. As the number of my published stories increased, I began reading the New Yorker every week and thinking, “Wow, this is where real writers work.” Soon after becoming a subscriber, I noticed Keillor’s stories in the magazine and was thrilled. It was as if someone in my family had cracked the big time. I was proud of him.
Like me, Keillor graduated college with no marketable skills and thus had to create his own job. The book describes how the Prairie Home Companion came to be, a remarkable feat of a man creating a media conglomerate made up entirely of his own ideas. It is an amazing story. Like Keillor, I left college with no skills and not a clue how to get enough money to pay for an apartment. My college studies had gravitated to classes on religion and philosophy because those classes gave points for participation and oral debate. I was terrible at tests but never shy or afraid to speak up. Theater, too, was fun and I thrived on being in plays. I loved radio and worked at our college station and later the local FM station as an engineer, but my voice was never good enough to get a show. I drove a school bus to pay for my college studies and kept that up afterward. Eventually, I found my niche in sales, getting trained in the art of helping someone spend money on the items my company wished them to buy. Unlike Keillor, no one had told me I had green teeth and I smiled willingly and often. Finally I’d found a game that allowed me to compete and even win, exciting my competitive juices for the first time. I won every sales contest Schaak Electronics conducted, made Rookie of the Year, assistant manager and finally got my own store, learning the basics of how to run a business while motivating others in a common objective. When a big company came along wishing to get into the computer retail business and hired me, they put me on a management track that required formal training. I’d missed in college but now was paid to attend. It was in this new setting that I met my wife and had our first child and found something I could do well, although it wasn’t fun. While rewarding financially, it left me stressed, frustrated, and empty, feelings I suspect Keillor never felt in his career.
In writing his memoir Keillor discovered a clear structure to his life. Where it had felt random at the time, merely reacting to seemingly insignificant and random situations, there was indeed a strong set of pivotal events, adjunct failures in certain areas which closed those paths off, and other accidental events that became crucial. Avoiding sudden death through stupidity, Keillor looks back on key moments as being essential in making us who we are.
Keillor is 78 years old and in this book looks back on the seeming random events making him who he has become. If he didn’t have the optical disorder that causes him to lose focus when looking up in the air, he might have caught the baseball launched high into the air toward his position at first base, gained popularity, and spent his life as a clothing salesman. Instead, he dropped the ball, leading further to his social ostracism which helped make all the difference. If his heart valve issues had not occurred, perhaps he’d now be sore with a body damaged by early sports injuries.
Similar to Keillor, my uncles were carpenters and craftsmen, no doubt looking down on my inability to use tools without the risk of damage to myself or others. My cousins, perhaps observing the heavy toll a life of physical labor had taken on their fathers, also eschewed those careers, choosing banking, medicine, and desk jobs, and to this day I get along better with them than I ever did my uncles.
Keillor and I have both quit smoking and drinking and did it on our own. I stopped smoking a year or so before meeting my wife in the late ’70s and quit drinking in 2016 before my second major open heart surgery. No counseling or therapy, just quit.
I loved reading A Minnesota Life. It told me so much about the life of a man, a celebrity, out of reach but yet, someone with whom I felt close. The point Keillor so eloquently makes in this wonderful memoir is that each of our lives has these seemingly insignificant occurrences, but without them, we’d have become very different people. Those we touch and who touch us, make all the difference. So perhaps, there is a memoir in all of us, and we should get to writing it.
Perhaps what I admire most about Keillor isn’t his writing of which he is justifiably proud. Perfecting words on the page is one thing. Being eloquent and succinct while speaking is something else entirely. Keillor is a master with the spoken word. Conveying stories in a way that makes you think he’s saying something spontaneous, just to you, as if sitting next to him on a train or plane or over a glass of lemonade in the shade of a porch on a hot day, the first time it’s ever been said. This is exceptionally difficult to master and requires a great deal of practice and few understand the difficulty involved. No one else who performs this task does so at the level of Keillor.
When I was working as an engineer at KNXR Radio in Rochester, Minnesota, one of our announcers devoted a portion of his show to interviewing people from the city on projects they were promoting. He would ask them into one of our studios, I’d motion from behind the glass we were rolling, and the interview would begin. Ten to fifteen minutes later, the interview ended and my engineering work started. The first step was deleting the boring and superficial. Then came eliminating all the ums, ahs, hesitations, nervous coughs, and unintelligible sentences from the guest’s speech. Non-professionals sound horribly bad on tape when compared to professional announcers. This left 2-3 minutes of the original interview. The host would then listen to the tape and eliminate another 30-50 percent, and we’d end up with a 60 – 90-second tight, informative interview. I recall being at an event where the president of the local Lion’s club had been interviewed on our station earlier in the week. His friends were telling him how good he sounded. He said something like, “Yeah, I didn’t do too badly.” I recall wishing he could have heard the original tape before we’d fixed him. Keillor mentions in his book his aversion to rehearsal and practice of editing and fine-tuning to the last minute. But the shows were all live, creating a magic that can occur in no other way. Some of Keillor’s most treasured memories are the shows that went on in the face of massive technical or weather-related catastrophes.
I don’t know anyone else with the ability to do this. Joel Gray made a business of doing one-man shows sounding like spontaneous dialog. But in fact, the spontaneous appearing stories were lines in a play, performed almost identically each night. I’ve heard Keillor’s Lutheran-pastors-on-a-pontoon bit several times and each time, I’m halfway through it before I realize “Oh, I’ve “heard this story before.” Even master comedians like Jerry Seinfeld are criticized for doing the same show with the same jokes, year in and year out. Keillor always sounds fresh and new, because it is.
As I read Keillor’s book I could hear him saying the words in my head. No one else can write like that. If you grew up in the Midwest, read this book. If you’ve ever listened to the radio show “A Prairie Home Companion” and liked it, you’ll love this book. If you’ve ever thought, “I should write the story of my life,” you won’t find a better blue print or example on how to do so. Here is where to buy it.
Additional notes: I’ve written about the energy and practice required to do something well and it relates to the thousands of hours Keillor no doubt put into being good at speaking live on the radio. You can find a bit of that here if you’re interested.