Although she talks to thousands of people every day, Cathy Wurzer feared she might faint as she stepped onto a stage in Ely last November.
It wasn’t the audience of 200 that put the butterflies in her stomach. It was the topic she had come to share with them. She was about to do what she was asking them to do — engage in a frank, difficult and personal conversation about death and dying.
Ely was the first stop in a series of statewide conversations that she’s hosting called The Convenings. The award-winning journalist is on a mission to break the taboo of talking about — and preparing for — the end of life.
Wurzer arrives at what she calls her passion project as a familiar face and voice. A 30-year staple on Twin Cities airwaves, she hosts “Morning Edition” on Minnesota Public Radio and co-anchors TPT’s “Almanac” with her ex-husband, Eric Eskola. (Wurzer declines to talk about her relationship with Eskola beyond saying they are “the best of friends.”)
Her circuitous route to her role with The Convenings had its start in 2011, when she interviewed Bruce Kramer, former dean of the College of Education at the University of St. Thomas. He was blogging about his diagnosis of ALS, a progressive, neurodegenerative disease.
In a series of deeply felt conversations broadcast on MPR, Wurzer documented how Kramer faced his hopeless diagnosis with bravery, dignity and honesty. They went on to collaborate on a book, “We Know How This Ends,” released shortly after Kramer’s death in 2015.
Raised in the Longfellow neighborhood in south Minneapolis, Wurzer, 54, is the oldest of three children born to a businessman father and a nurse-anesthetist mother. She remembers as a girl writing a fan letter to the era’s top Twin Cities TV weatherman, Dr. Walt Lyons. Back then, she wanted to be a meteorologist. She shifted to journalism when she didn’t ace the math and science classes required for weather forecasters.
After graduating from South High School, she attended the University of Wisconsin-River Falls. She was a few credits shy of earning her diploma when she left campus to take a job writing radio news at KSTP-AM. Ten years later, after being solidly on her professional path, she completed her degree.
Wurzer talked to us about what she has learned from her losses, her next projects and her dependence on Diet Mountain Dew.
Q. I bet you didn’t set out to become an expert on some very serious topics about the end of life. What’s the short answer of how that happened?
A. I was going to have one conversation with Bruce Kramer, but our first interview lasted two hours and I decided I wanted to continue to follow him and his family. Bruce intentionally set out to keep learning as a human being through this incurable disease, and it was fascinating and moving to watch. He proved to me that the last stage of life can be fruitful. Bruce grew through the grief and pain until his last breath. Being present for that was like taking a master class in living and dying well. I thought, could I do that? And I thought, is this teachable to others?
Q. Did what you learned help you in your personal life?
A. I connected with Bruce while my father was ill. They were on a parallel track, but when my dad moved through his dementia and then the lymphoma that ultimately killed him, we never talked about what was going on. I saw how when you’re caregiving, you focus on what’s next, how can you help.
Being with Dad while he was dying made me sad. He’d been this larger-than-life character, but dementia took his voice. Being with Bruce energized me. He said, “You aren’t finished until you are.”
Q. How have these experiences with loss resonated with you?
A. In so many ways. In February, I recorded the narration for the audio version of “We Know How This Ends”; it comes out this month. We wrote the book in record time; Bruce joked that we were on a literal deadline. After the book came out, I talked about it in speeches and at book clubs, but to tell the truth, I hadn’t cracked it since I wrote it.
Bruce’s son came to the studio to read Bruce’s parts in the book and his voice sounds just like his dad. Reading it out loud was harder than I thought it was going to be. I kept stopping to cry; the poor sound engineer had to listen to me snort.
Q. Was the crying cathartic?
A. I would say no. It hit me in the studio that I still have a lot of grieving to do. For Bruce and for my father. I got really busy after the death of my dad and plowed through and that deflected my grief. It’s still waiting for me.
Q. Has the work you’re doing made you more empathetic?
A. I think so. As a journalist, you’re taught and trained not to get too involved with your subjects. You can’t. We cover a lot of horrible stories. That was why this thing with Bruce was so unusual. I couldn’t wear my heavy armor when he was willing to be so vulnerable.
Q. What do you see as your role in the caregiving conversation with The Convenings? Are you an advocate, a confessor, a friendly ear?
A. I’m the convener in chief. That’s what I do on the air — bring together experts and hear from the public. I produce these events like a live show. I interview people on stage, there are readings and music and storytelling and we even have some laughs. People want meaningful conversations about how we live now at the end of our lives.
I don’t want to scare people. But we need to think about why we shy away from death.
Bruce used to say it’s too damned bad we don’t do this kind of contemplation before we are faced with a diagnosis.
Q. Do you think these relationships prepared you to lead these public forums?
A. I’m no expert, just a curious soul. I think that’s my value. I was with my father when he died, and I was with Bruce when he died. I have lived this stuff. Life is finite and death is scary, so we don’t talk about it and don’t think about it. But I’ve seen that when you stop being afraid or in denial you continue to grow.
At The Convenings and other public appearances associated with the book, you’ve encouraged people to get an advanced care directive so their wishes are known at the end of life. Do you practice what you preach?
I’ve seen people who are so grateful when they’ve had these deep conversations and then are prepared to carry out their loved one’s wishes. We all need to do that.
I just finished my care directive, and the attorney who drew it up said it was one of the most precise ones that he had done. What I came up with was pretty clear. I don’t want to be kept alive by artificial means if all hope is gone. After I die, I want a big party with Hawaiian music and classic country and champagne and good food.
Q. People often tell broadcasters, “I feel like I know you.” What do you think when you hear that?
A. More than once, someone said they shower with me every morning. [Laughs.]
Really, I’m a very private person, I’m reserved. We are a society that shares a lot, but I don’t feel the need to. You have to give something away when you’re on the air, but I’ve never been given to let it all hang out. I keep a little piece of me just for myself and my loved ones.
Q. What’s your daily routine? Are you a morning person, or have you become one?
A. Even after all these years I still set my alarm. I get up at 2:15 and have a cup of coffee. When I get to work and start getting grounded on the news of the day, I shift to Diet Mountain Dew; I drink an obscene amount of it. I go on the air at 5 a.m. and sign off at 9. I usually walk out the door around 11.
I know sleep experts say to nap for 20 minutes. I go home and sleep for several hours. When I get up, I have a burst of energy and get things done. I go back to sleep around 9 unless I have a public appearance.
I’m almost always a little bit tired. I’m the person who fell asleep at a Rolling Stones concert. I’ll never live that one down.
Q. You work in both radio and television. What do you like and dislike about both media?
A. I enjoy the teamwork that it takes to do TV. There’s great camaraderie. You age in front of people on TV, but viewers of public television might be more forgiving of all that. With the optics of television, you can work hard on a segment and people call and leave a message that they don’t like your hair.
I love the intimacy of radio. I make a connection with listeners that’s so satisfying. In my little studio it’s just me, I get to be a lone wolf. There’s really nothing I don’t like about radio.
Q. You have a voice like a bell. What do you do to take care of it?
A. Nothing. It just comes out that way.
Q. Your MPR bio notes that one of your hobbies is making mosaics. Are there any parallels between this thing you do for fun and your work?
A. One of my favorite places is the Memorial Chapel at Lakewood Cemetery, which has a breathtaking Byzantine mosaic, a real masterpiece. It inspired me to get a book to learn how to make mosaics and I’ve taught myself. I like it because it’s messy. It’s an art that celebrates the beauty of what’s broken. You reassemble and recast the shards of what was and create something new; with any luck, it’s beautiful. There’s a metaphor in that.
Q. Where do you go to recharge?
The North Shore! After I left home, my parents moved to Two Harbors. I came to love not just Lake Superior but the trips back and forth: I’m never happier than when I’m driving. I got to know the landmarks and took some side trips. That gave me the idea to do a documentary on Highway 61 from one end of the state to the other. The show on TPT then morphed into a companion book. [“Tales of the Road: Highway 61,” Minnesota Historical Press, 2009]
Q. Did you know how to write a book?
A. The truth is, I didn’t. I figured, how hard can it be? Boy, did I learn. Writing a book is not like writing news copy! I knew I was in deep weeds when I handed in this manuscript that I’d worked so hard on and my editor said in the nicest possible way, this is a good first draft. It was a very humbling experience.
Q. Have you chosen your next project?
A. I’m launching into a history of broadcasting in Minnesota — a book and a documentary. I’m just starting the research, but the Minnesota Historical Press and TPT have signed on. It will cover radio and television, public and commercial broadcasting, all the legendary pioneers.
I was blessed to have worked with some of them; I was coming into the business when these guys — and they mostly were guys — were at the end of their careers. Charlie Boone became a dear friend while I worked at WCCO Radio; Charlie and I first had this grand idea of the broadcasting documentary and now I’m sure he will be in it! [Boone died in 2015.]
My first mentor was John MacDougall; he’d been a legendary anchorman at KSTP and had that old-school baritone, the voice of God. He was the news director who hired me at KSTP-AM. I would bang out copy on a typewriter and he would take his smelly marker and cross out most of it. But he really taught me how to write.
Q. How about other plans for the future?
A. I know that I want to continue with this work on the end of life and see where it takes me. There’s so much more to learn and share.
People ask me about my five-year plan; I’ve never had one. I don’t know where I’m going to be but I’m open to the possibilities. I didn’t expect to be here where I am now but I like it.
And I want to go to Ravenna, Italy, where they have some of the oldest and most beautiful mosaics in the world. I want to take classes there. That would be wonderful. That’s one of my dreams.