Garrison Keillor introduced Russ Ringsak to audiences as “our truck driver.” Ringsak called Keillor “G.K.”
For more than 30 years, Ringsak hauled gear for “A Prairie Home Companion” from stage to stage, coast to coast. On occasion, he performed on those same stages.
Ringsak recounted the busted tires and breathtaking vistas of his long hauls in letters he and Keillor read on the air. The architect-turned-trucker was a musician, as well, who played blues guitar and sang on the classic public radio program.
Ringsak died Oct. 3 at his home in Stillwater. He was 81.
“He was one of the finest and most generous storytellers I ever knew,” Keillor said in a statement, “talking about his youth in Grafton, N.D., where his dad was county attorney and where, as Russ said, everyone knew each other’s secrets.”
Ringsak first studied English at North Dakota State University but abandoned the major “because he figured he couldn’t make a living,” said his wife, Denise Remick. So in 1962, he graduated with an architecture degree. While working for the firm Hammel, Green and Abrahamson, he acted as lead architect redesigning The World Theater in St. Paul, later renamed the Fitzgerald Theater, which would become the fabled home base of “Prairie Home.”
At a drafting board, Ringsak would have to get up every 20 minutes for coffee, he told Overdrive magazine in 2005. “It was kind of just a permanent antsiness that finally got to me.”
Keillor and Ringsak met in 1971, playing on the same softball team. “He had a secret yearning to be a truck driver and enjoy the life of the open road,” Keillor wrote.
In 1991, when “Prairie Home” started doing more than half its broadcasts on the road, Ringsak became its full-time truck driver, Keillor said, “listening to blues and country music almost nonstop ... practicing guitar in his sleeper cab.” He “entertained the entertainers,” Remick said, hosting the cast, crew and musicians, in his hotel room.
“He would hold court,” said Joe Newberry, who has played guitar and banjo on the show. “I mean, I loved doing the show, but almost as much fun was going and hanging out with everybody in Ringsak’s room after the show.”
Ringsak delighted in telling long, tongue-twisting jokes that were “incredibly funny,” Remick said. “He would leave people drop-jawed when he’d get done with them.
“There’s joke-tellers, and then there’s Russ.”
Together, the couple wrote “Minnesota Curiosities,” a collection of stories and characters — the world’s largest codfish, in Madison, Minn., for example, or a two-story outhouse in Belle Plaine. Ringsak turned his life on the road into a 2004 book of tales titled “Semi True.”
At a “Prairie Home” show in 2003, with sparse prose and good humor, Ringsak described the drive from Washington, D.C., to Los Angeles: “We carried the ‘Prairie Home’ house and mixing boards and radio gear and Gary Raynor’s bass and Rich Dworsky’s Hammond organ up and over old mountains and through farmland and forests. Across rivers of every size. Across lakes and swampland. Through new mountains. Besides fresh volcanic ash and painted cliffs and across three deserts. All in less than three days.
“It is a remarkable country, with past and future both so close that even a couple of old freight haulers can see them.”
Softly, he closed with, “thank you.”
Ringsak downplayed his “Prairie Home” performances. “My actual contribution is pretty slim,” Ringsak once told the St. Croix Valley Area Lowdown. But audiences loved him. In 2016, at the legendary Ryman Auditorium in Nashville, Ringsak was an unbilled performer alongside country music superstar Brad Paisley. Then 80 years old, he bought a new pair of cowboy boots for the gig. “I couldn’t go out on the Ryman stage in sandals,” he explained. “This is the mother church.”
The show was a “love fest,” Remick said.
Performing “Six Days on the Road,” Ringsak’s voice cracked as he changed the final lyrics, swapping out “six days” for his tenure. “Thirty years on the road,” he sang, “and now I’m gonna make it home tonight.”
The crowd leapt to its feet.
Ringsak’s survivors also include sisters Suellen, Ruth and Randy; brother Mick; children Lisa Nicholson, Hans and Karen; and eight grandchildren. Funeral services will be held at 3 p.m. Sunday, at St. Paul’s United Church of Christ.