It’s taken a lot of time and trouble to accomplish my main professional goal: to get my byline in the Algona (Iowa) Upper Des Moines, the Des Moines (Iowa) Register and the Minneapolis Tribune, now the Star Tribune.
Check on Algona. I was a reporter and editor there for seven years.
Check on Des Moines. I was a stringer and had a few columns published through the years.
But it has taken 37 years to check off the newspaper of the Twin Cities, where I got my humble start as a night copy boy while sorta studying at the College of St. Thomas.
I had to win the Pulitzer Prize to pull it off.
Reeling back: I was at home in Storm Lake, Iowa, on college break whining about how I was broke and did not know how I could ever afford to add to my collection of Schmidt decorative beer cans. Big Brother John, who was working at the Storm Lake Register and Pilot-Tribune as sports editor, told me to get off the couch and get a job.
Shooed back to St. Paul, I whined to my journalism adviser, Prof. Norm Larson, about how mean my big brother was. He told me to get a job, too. He knew just the person to call, Gary Heer, supervisor of the copy boys, as Norm had worked at the old Tribune as a copy editor.
There was no way out. I had to go get a job. Heer was nice enough to hire me.
That’s where I got my real introduction to Journalism 101 — ripping teletypes, jumping when Assistant City Editor Terry Murphy (who had my number) yelled “COPY!”, occasionally fetching coffee, and hanging around to eavesdrop while big decisions were made by the sharpest minds in the Twin Cities.
Steve Ronald, night managing editor with his ragtip cigarettes and even keel. Doc Parker, the picture editor with the orange grease pencil. Tom Holten, the kindly news editor who forgave me my sins of omission as a lazy slacker.
Ronald patiently explained to me why they ran the photo they did of the Jonestown suicides. Holten explained to me how to write a lede on a straight news story. Parker gave me a ride home at 1 a.m. when I had no driver’s license.
I shot pool with Bob the Hippie Biker after hours at Gentleman Jim’s on Lake Street. He liked me because I covered at work for him when he wiped out on Interstate 94 on his chopper in January. He wore leather in the newsroom before it was cool. He showed me the Hopperesque nighthawk side of Minneapolis a hick from Iowa would not know how to find. Those are the lessons a reporter wannabe needs.
I loved being in the newsroom and observing at the margins.
But I never had a byline.
The best I could do was to sneak my initials into the Sunday weather tables that I composed every Saturday night. “GAC” went in place of “Wichita” one day in the agate sent to 600,000 households in three states.
And then my time was up. St. Thomas had enough of me. Father James Whalen had done everything he could. I went to the authorities at the Trib and told them that I had to leave unless I could get a job as a reporter. They told me to inquire in the human-resources office, where I sat down for a lovely exit interview. I think they stamped my file “drunk, disorderly, disheveled.”
Big Brother John came to the rescue and got me a job at the Algona Upper Des Moines, where I learned about local banker Gardner Cowles. His editor friend Harvey Ingham moved to Des Moines to edit the Register and Leader, which were faltering in their battle with the Capitol and the Tribune. He implored Cowles to buy the R&L, which he did and turned it into the juggernaut that was to become the Des Moines Register and Tribune, the Minneapolis Star and Tribune, WCCO in Minneapolis, KCCI in Des Moines, and Look Magazine.
There I was in Algona sitting in Harvey Ingham’s old chair.
I resigned myself to the fact that I would never get a job in the Twin Cities I so loved. But someday I would get my byline in the Trib, I swore.
Michael Gartner and Gary Gerlach came along one day and bought the Algona paper. They had just been fired as the editor and publisher, respectively, of the Register for trying to buy the paper from the Cowles trust heirs. It was a complicated deal, but it ended up that Gannett bought the Register and the Minneapolis operations were sold and a lot of hearts were broken. Thank goodness the Strib is in the steady hands of Minnesota lover Glen Taylor today.
Gartner called Algona the “flagskiff” of their chain that came to include the Daily Tribune of Ames and, briefly, the Worthington Daily Globe. They packed me off for Ames when they got the keys, and my buddy Tom Wallace went down with me. Tom is now a features photo editor at the Star Tribune and is godfather to my oldest son.
Changing breezes propelled me to a hitch in Mason City, and then home to Storm Lake in 1990 when Big Brother John had the crazy idea to start a weekly newspaper in our hometown that would compete against an incumbent chain-owned paper (that John once edited).
John told me to put up an editorial page that would be the soul of the newspaper and the conscience of the community.
I drew on Harvey Ingham and Michael Gartner and Chuck Bailey and Father Whalen’s pipe-tamping Persuasion in Writing lectures, and Prof. Lon Otto’s poetry exercises in the English department in Aquinas Hall.
It all paid off at 2 p.m. on Monday, April 10, when the Pulitzer Prize Committee announced that we had won for editorial writing — as Gartner had in 1997 at the Daily Tribune in Ames. He was 58 then. I am 59. He knew Gardner and John Cowles. I felt I had come full circle.
The committee cited our 3,000-circulation twice-weekly in a town of 10,000 people for a series of 10 editorials published in 2016. They all dealt with nitrate pollution of Iowa’s waterways. It is choking the Des Moines Water Works downstream on the Raccoon River, so the water utility filed a federal lawsuit against three Northwest Iowa counties (including ours) seeking to have ag runoff regulated.
Corporate ag interests created a fund with secret donors to cover the counties’ legal defense. The Storm Lake Times and the Iowa Freedom of Information Council used state public-records law to shut down the fund and remove dark money from the court system. In March a federal judge dismissed the lawsuit.
The committee gave the award “for editorials fueled by tenacious reporting, impressive expertise and engaging writing that successfully challenged powerful corporate agricultural interests in Iowa.”
I learned the reporting from Bob the Hippie Biker. I learned writing from Lon Otto and Big Brother John and Tom Holten. I learned how to shape an argument from Father Whalen. I learned persistence from Steve Ronald, who never missed a deadline. I learned about how to tolerate fools kindly from Doc Parker. And I got a start in figuring out macroeconomics, which I use every day, from Mary Supel inside the Mankato sandstone walls along Summit Avenue.
But I never got that byline.
What a great feeling.
This is where a Pulitzer for a tiny little country paper was born. Thanks to the people who got me here, 37 years later.
Art Cullen is editor of the Storm Lake Times. He is a 1979 graduate of the College of St. Thomas. E-mail: email@example.com