By Chuck Haga
One day many years ago, when I wrote a personal column in the Grand Forks Herald four times a week, friends and I had lunch at the Ness Café in Erskine, Minn.
As we sat and talked, a man in overalls kept glancing at us from his seat at the counter. He smiled at me and nodded. “A reader,” I thought proudly, nodding back. “A fan.”
As we left, we walked by the man. He smiled again, held out his hand to me and said, “Aren’t you the guy …” (I stood straight, proud to be recognized) … “who graded my driveway this morning?”
There were other lessons in humility. Pat Owens, the former Grand Forks mayor, introduced me once to her father, who gushed, “I read all your stories.” Pleased, I introduced photographer John Stennes, “also from the Herald,” and Pat’s father said, “Oh, I read all your stories, too!” John enjoyed that.
Barring breaking news that requires an “all hands on deck” response, this likely will be the last piece I write for the Herald. (I know, we made that promise once before. When I left in 1987, the paper put out rack cards with my picture and the date of my final column. “Chuck Haga’s last words,” it said. Sorry.)
This is the third time I’ve left. I like to say I haven’t been at the Herald as long as Ryan Bakken or Marilyn Hagerty, but I’ve been here more often.
Each time I’ve left, it was with mixed feelings. I’ve had to say goodbye to many good friends and colleagues. And readers.
I know advertisers are important, and I’ve learned to put up with the idiosyncrasies of editors, but I’ve never felt I worked for them. It was a conversation I wanted, an exercise in community. “Write as though you’re writing a letter to an intelligent friend,” someone once counseled. Many of the more than 700 columns I wrote from 1982 to 1987, when I left for the big city, ranged from silly to sentimental to whimsical, but I usually tried to make a point.
I wrote once about things I missed and wished I could have back, if just for a while: my 1955 Buick Special, the sound of my Uncle Harold’s laugh. Days later, a batch of letters came from students at Larimore High School. It probably was an assignment, but there was soul in their writing. They missed the smell of finger paint. They missed the safe feeling they had when they were young.
“Leon Williamson recalls ‘going fishin’ with Grandpa,’” I reported in that column in January 1987. “Brian Frank misses his grandmother, who died before he was born. Brad Sweeney said he was there when his grandfather died, and his grandfather spoke his name, and that’s what he remembers. And misses.”
On dirt, squirrels and Hagaland
I wrote about the day I bought six yards of black dirt to use as fill around the house and a truck dumped Vermont in my yard, and I told you about the squirrel I fed raw peanuts on my deck until the day he chewed through the screen door while I was gone. He raided the sack of peanuts and buried some in flower pots in the house, tossing dirt everywhere.
With my “celebrity” as a newspaper columnist, I was invited to be grand marshal in a parade in Cavalier, N.D. (they gave me a large purple sash, as I requested) and judge of the pie-baking contest at a festival in Middle River, Minn. (I wrote in a column prior to the festival that I especially admired blueberry pie. There were, as I recall, 18 pies entered: 17 blueberry and one blueberry-raspberry.)
I claimed a pile of rocks in the middle of the Red River, named it Hagaland and set about writing a history and a legal code, which prohibits — note the use of present tense — the cultivation of zucchini, which I hold to be evidence against the divinity of creation. The official slogan of Hagaland: “No officials, no slogans.”
There was the day I came face to face with a large bear on a woodsy trail in Manitoba, and provided this report:
“In one corner, you had a big, shaggy creature who spends the better part of each day thinking about his next meal … a creature whose appearance startles many but, according to people who know him best, is really quite timid at heart.
“In the other corner, you had the bear.”
‘And how is Hans?’
We had more serious talks, you and I, about war, racism and the dehumanizing effects of poverty. The newspaper let me go to Nicaragua and El Salvador during bad times there, and to Norway, where I found an old farmer who hadn’t seen his brother for more than a half-century, since the brother left as a young man for Hatton, N.D. I brought the Norwegian brother greetings from the American, and we talked about the thrill and pain of emigration, of new hope and separation.
Ethnicity has always been a favorite subject. I’ve been heavy on Norwegians, of course, because my father came from there (and, for better or worse, we are many here). But I’ve written about Germans and Swedes, too, and Indonesians and Japanese and more. The Poles of our region once invited me to enter the horseshoe tournament at their annual picnic, and they cheered when — paired with a man named Grabanski, I think — I took second place.
Now, as new immigrant families arrive, I look into the face of a hopeful and earnest young man from Bhutan … and see my father.
In 1987, I left the Herald and column writing for the reporting job at the Star Tribune. Over 20 years, I wrote a few thousand stories, many of them too long (like this one). I got to meet Mikhail Gorbachev and Lech Walesa, cover the 1989 California earthquake and the 1997 Red River flood, and — best of all — tell the stories of many people who might not have been in the paper if I hadn’t written about them.
My editors let me travel the country in 1988, retracing the route John Steinbeck took in 1960 when he sought to reacquaint himself with America, the basis for his “Travels With Charley.” For two months on the road, I visited with people about their lives, their hopes and fears, and sent an essay back each week for the Sunday paper. In Houma, La., at a boisterous Cajun gathering, I danced — briefly — with a woman who said she had buried three husbands and was looking for No. 4.
There were tougher stories, especially in my last few years at the Star Tribune: the hunter killings in Wisconsin, the shootings at Red Lake (Minn.) High School, the war dead from Iraq and Afghanistan, and the abduction and murder of Dru Sjodin of Grand Forks, Erika Dahlquist of Brainerd, Minn., and Julie Holmquist of Hallock, Minn. I went to too many funerals of young people I’d never met but whose names — and parents — I’ll never forget. It took a toll, and it was one of the reasons I decided to leave and come home to Grand Forks, to grandchildren, and to the Herald. It’s been a good six years, mostly. But it’s been challenging, too … more dead kids to write about.
And the news business is changing. Much of the change is good, necessary and inevitable. But it hasn’t been as much fun in recent years. There’s more meanness in the conversation now, more readiness by some out there to glibly question motive, integrity and competence. Over 40-some years, I’ve made a few mistakes. OK, more than a few. But I’ve usually owned up to them and tried to fix them. I can take criticism. It’s the arrogance of people emboldened by anonymity and ignorant certainty that wearies me.
A special harvest
I’ve never liked the distinction some in the news business make between “hard” and “soft” news. Some of the stories I’m most proud of having written might be dismissed as “feature stories,” but they were true and said something honest about who we are, how we relate to one another, how we matter.
One I think about often was the story of an old man I interviewed in Shakopee, Minn., who had turned his entire yard — front, back and sides — into a garden. He raised thousands of pounds of food every year, and he delivered every carrot, every tomato, every squash and plum, to the local food bank. He sent me a postcard each year, from when I met him in 1992 to when, at 87, he wrote in 2007 to say he was going to have to stop. The running total then: 113,214 pounds of food.
That first year, we sat at his kitchen table, Don Hartley and I, and he told me about his life, and we eventually got to his service in the Army in World War II. He was captured during the Battle of the Bulge in December 1944 and spent months in a German POW camp, where he was designated the prisoner responsible for ladling out the watery soup his captors provided. Sometimes he ran short and had to take a little out of each prisoner’s cup to make it stretch.
He described the sounds a man’s stomach makes as it shrivels, how gums pull away from teeth when men starve.
So … every year, with every inch of available soil, this quietly noble man planted and nurtured a garden of plenty, his statement against hunger.
I’ll miss talking with people like him. I’ll miss playing that role in the larger conversation.
But I’ll still be part of it. I have my paid-up subscription to this good newspaper, where bright and talented reporters, photographers, editors and other journalists, some wise old hands and some eager, talented youngsters, will continue to report the news, one hopes in a context that gives it meaning.
Chuck Haga spent more than 40 years in the newspaper business, many of them writing stories and columns for the Grand Forks Herald, which is owned by Forum Communications Co., a multimedia information company based in Fargo, N.D. FCC owns dozens of newspapers, websites and television and radio stations, and commercial printing plants in North Dakota, South Dakota, Minnesota and Wisconsin.