To be honest, many newspaper stories, editorials and columns are routine. Get the report or news release, make a few phone calls, and write up a dozen or so coherent paragraphs. Home for dinner by 6.
Larry Oakes wrote hundreds of those everyday stories during his 30-year career as a reporter with the Duluth News Tribune and the Star Tribune, and he did them well.
But we should remember Oakes, who took his own life this weekend in the hills outside Duluth, for his ability to give voice to the vulnerable and marginalized. That's what drove Oakes, 52, and that will be his legacy in journalism.
If this is an era of specialized reporting, Oakes was a throwback. His expertise was not in a specific topic area, but rather in deeply reported stories about people and places other journalists had largely ignored.
Consider "The Lost Youth of Leech Lake." Troubled by the murder of a blind man by teenagers in his hometown of Cass Lake, Oakes searched for answers and sold editors on the idea that he and photographer Jerry Holt should live on the Leech Lake Indian Reservation for six months in 2002-03.
Oakes had access to thousands of pages of court documents, police reports and death records, but it was his ability to gain the trust of people living on the increasingly violent reservation that allowed him to describe their hard lives with honesty and compassion. It was difficult reporting -- and difficult reading -- but the stories needed to be told.
"The Leech Lake Indian Reservation is a place of breathtaking natural beauty," he wrote. "Majestic stands of pine ring three of Minnesota's largest lakes. ... But in the midst of this tremendous beauty, there is tremendous misery. Here, alarming numbers of Indian children are lost to alcohol, drugs, prison and violence. ... The Leech Lake Reservation is, statistically, among the worst places in Minnesota to grow up."
I was the Star Tribune's managing editor when Oakes first proposed "Locked in Limbo," a series examining Minnesota's practice of locking up sex offenders indefinitely after they finish their prison sentences. Frankly, the idea that the newspaper would wade into this highly charged issue with a series that could be seen as sympathetic to those convicted of sex crimes worried me and other senior editors.
Larry persisted, fortunately, and his award-winning series was finally published in 2008.
"In the 14 years since Minnesota's Sexually Dangerous Persons Act cleared the way for the state to detain hundreds of paroled sex offenders in prison-like treatment centers," Oakes wrote, "just 24 men have met what has proved to be the only acceptable standard for release. They died."
The sex-offender series framed a debate that continues today after a federal judge ruled that the state must explore making changes to its policies. Once again, the stories Oakes fought for needed to be told.
Last fall, I happened to glance out my office window just as Oakes and one of the Star Tribune's younger reporters returned from a lunchtime run. "How great," I remember thinking as I watched the two of them talk at a crosswalk, "she can learn so much from Larry." No doubt she did, and she will be a better reporter because of it.
Oakes leaves behind heartbroken family members, colleagues and readers across Minnesota. They should find comfort in knowing that his contributions to journalism and the state will endure.
We are all better off because Oakes had the courage to tell stories from the darker edges of our complex world.