By Tom Lawrence
Forum Communications Co.
VERMILLION, S.D. — Two old friends reunited Oct. 4 at the university where they launched their journalism careers.
USA Today founder Al Neuharth, 88, and Grand Forks Herald columnist Marilyn Hagerty, 86, shared the stage at the University of South Dakota. Both spoke at an afternoon press conference and Neuharth presented the 2012 Al Neuharth Award for Excellence in the Media to Hagerty in an evening ceremony.
“You just never know in this world what’s going to happen,” Hagerty said after receiving the award. “This is the frosting on the cake. It’s the greatest honor I could imagine. So I guess my cup runneth over. Thank you, thank you.”
“I’ve never been more delighted and thrilled than to welcome my former boss back to receive this tremendous award,” Neuharth said.
The award honors Hagerty for working more than 60 years in newsrooms, and also recognizes her for becoming a national figure after she wrote a restaurant review of the new Olive Garden in Grand Forks, N.D., that became an Internet sensation.
“It is just amazing,” Hagerty said at the press conference. “It’s like I am having a wild dream that doesn’t end.”
She is the 26th recipient of the award. It has been given to journalism icons like Walter Cronkite, Tim Russert, “60 Minutes” creator Don Hewitt and PBS anchor Jim Lehrer.
The Olive Garden column ran on March 7. Hagerty wrote that the “chicken Alfredo ($10.95) was warm and comforting on a cold day,” and noted the décor of the new place to eat in the small city on the prairie. She also reported that she drank water, turning down a suggested raspberry lemonade.
The next day, bloggers started commenting on her piece, and linking to it. At first, many of the comments were “snotty,” Hagerty noted, but she ignored them. Soon, the tide turned, and she gained more and more support.
“Some guy had a bee in his bonnet that day … and that set off a bunch of other people,” Hagerty said, eliciting laughter from the crowd at the press conference.
She said the restaurant’s opening was news in Grand Forks.
“We thought it was a pretty big deal,” Hagerty said. “They thought we were kind of simple-minded.”
As the column spread across the Web, she said she was more concerned about a regular social engagement she had.
“I don’t have time for all that crap,” Hagerty said she thought at the time. “I have to get to bridge club.”
But Hagerty said she knew the column had struck a chord somehow.
“Something’s going on,” she recalled thinking. “I don’t know what it is, but something’s going on.”
Hagerty said she felt people didn’t like “that little old lady in North Dakota” getting brow-beaten by snide online writers. Instead, the Web world rallied to her support and the Olive Garden column “went viral.” There was only one problem: She had no idea what that meant.
Hagerty called her son, Bob Hagerty, a Wall Street Journal staff writer, and asked him. He told her, and the meaning of it was amplified over the next few days. Bob Hagerty later wrote a column in the Wall Street Journal about his mother, which she said she greatly enjoyed.
Marilyn Hagerty was in New York days after the column was published and has appeared on CNN, “The Today Show” and “Good Morning America.” Anthony Bourdain, the famed chef and media personality, said he is a fan. Hagerty said she didn’t know who he was, but now calls him “Tony” and feels is a handsome, charming man.
“So, we’ve come a long way,” she said.
Bourdain now plans to publish a book of her restaurant reviews. She wrote one a week for 40 years — “I never missed,” Hagerty said. She has signed a contract for the book. It will be her second, after a collection of her columns was published in 1994 that is now sought by fans of her work.
Hagerty said she has saved copies of that book for all her grandchildren. This new book will probably sell more than the 1,200 that were printed of that column collection.
Hagerty admits all the attention is bit overwhelming.
“I don’t really understand what has happened to me since last March, but I know I have had a lot of fun,” she said. “I’ve heard from anyone I have ever known since I was born in Pierre, South Dakota. So it’s not real. You’re not real. I’m just dreaming this.”
Neuharth said the selection committee, which he serves on, takes a look every year at journalists who made an impact during the year, as well as during their career. Just as it began its work, Hagerty’s fame exploded, and Neuharth thought of his old friend and former colleague at the USD Volante, the school newspaper.
“It became so obvious then that nobody in the country was better known or more deserving of the award, so it was simple,” Neuharth said.
“This was really the most wonderful thing,” she said.
Hagerty said at first she didn’t feel she deserved it, since so many high-profile journalists have been honored. She said people may say “Marilyn Who?” when they see her name listed with the other recipients. But then she reconsidered.
“Perhaps there are a lot of people who do the kind of work I do,” she said. “To me, it’s recognition of people who work on medium-sized newspapers and do their work and enjoy it.
“I love writing columns because you have so much freedom,” Hagerty said. “You hope it’s fun for the readers or you won’t get to keep writing it.”
They worked together for almost four years at the Volante in the 1940s and have stayed in touch, he said Thursday. They teased and joked during the press conference as memories from the 1940s resurfaced.
Neuharth said he was astounded his friend was still producing five columns a week when he sometimes struggles to write one.
“Maybe my five aren’t as good as your one,” she said during the press conference.
During the awards ceremony, she had a suggestion for him when he’s stumped for a column: Go to an Olive Garden. It drew a roar from the crowd.
Several USD journalism students lined up to ask Hagerty and Neuharth questions during the press conference. They were asked to reflect on the changing world of journalism as well as other topics.
“Overall, I think it is better, but I think we have lost some of the human touch,” Hagerty said of the industry.
She said reporters and editors seem a bit quieter and better behaved today.
“We were kind of a little bit wild,” Hagerty said.
She hired Neuharth when he came to her looking for a job after losing a post as a sports play-by-play announcer. Al Neuharth Media Center President Jack Marsh, who moderated the events, said it’s interesting to speculate how that decision impacted the future of journalism.
Hagerty said she felt Neuharth, a veteran on the GI Bill looking to break into the field, should work for a newspaper and not “that crummy radio station up there.” She gave him a chance and their careers grew together. Neuharth said she was his “first boss” and taught him vital lessons and showed him the “high principles” that she still exhibits.
“There is nothing I would rather do,” she said. “It’s fun. It’s a game.”
Neuharth said there was another reason for her success and longevity.
“She’s nosy,” he said. “That’s what you have to be.”
The family interest in journalism is continuing. Her granddaughter, Carrie Sandstrom, a college freshman at the University of North Dakota, is pursuing a journalism career and took part in a discussion with Bob and Marilyn Hagerty and Neuharth after the award was presented.
“We like stories,” Hagerty said. “The conversation at the breakfast table and the supper table was always the story of the day.”
There have been some challenges. She said her husband’s mother told her she would never get rich working for newspapers but would lead an interesting life.
“That’s about the only thing my mother-in-law was right about,” Hagerty said.
She and Neuharth said while the business changes, most things stay the same.
“You have to be accurate, you have to be fair, and if you want to have a following, you have to be interesting,” he said.
Hagerty said reporters need to remember they are “doing a job” and have to pay attention and do quality work while making the stories interesting to the readers.
The veteran journalists were asked their thoughts on the new design of the USA Today. Neither offered admiration for the new look, although Neuharth said he didn’t want to make his opinion public.
“I have expressed it privately and we will see what happens,” he said.
Hagerty said she was “kind of a little bit bewildered by it” and wondered if it was necessary. She said she is a creature of habit and that includes her reading choices.
Neuharth, who writes a column every Friday for USA Today, said he plans to continue working and seeking information.
“I certainly don’t intend to quit being a nosy person reporting news,” he said.
Hagerty, two years younger than Neuharth, said that she will continue to work for quite some time.
“I enjoy what I do and will probably continue to do it, unless the Grand Forks Herald fires me or I get a better opportunity,” she said. “At the age of 86, if I’m going to be discovered, they better discover me now.”