In fifth grade, Veda Ponikvar decided that she would someday run a newspaper. She did — two of them, for nearly five decades. With them, she also ran the Iron Range, friends and politicians say.
Her political force became so legendary that it earned her a nickname: the Iron Lady.
"She was incredibly influential," said Sen. David Tomassoni, DFL-Chisholm. "If Veda was involved in something, it generally got done."
Ponikvar died Tuesday in Chisholm, her hometown. She was 96.
The eldest of five children, Ponikvar was born in 1919 to Slovenian immigrants and first learned English in kindergarten. Her father, a miner, would return home each night "covered with ore dust," she told the Pioneer Press. She also recalled him sitting at the dining room table, reading the newspaper.
After studying journalism at Drake University in Des Moines, Ponikvar became editor of Chisholm's weekly paper. But with World War II, she felt called to enlist. Aided by her ability to speak Slovenian, she became an interpreter for the Office of Naval Intelligence, working in Washington, D.C.
She returned home in 1946 and founded her own weekly newspaper, then called the Chisholm Free Press. In 1955, she bought the competing newspaper, which was "basically being run by the mining companies," said Tomassoni, and didn't reflect the workers' views. She kept the weekly papers separate, publishing them on Tuesdays and Thursdays.
"I realized a newspaper was a powerful force — for good or bad," she told the Star Tribune in 1996. "I made up my mind to be positive, but I'd be honest. I'd do my homework and get my facts straight."
She covered City Council meetings, fashioned editorials and sold advertising. From one meeting to the next, she carried a huge camera around her neck and a battery pack over her shoulder.
"Never an impartial observer of the day's events, Ponikvar used her newspapers to prod politicians and to help shape public policies," according to a 2007 book by the Minnesota Historical Society Press.
That same year, the Minnesota Historical Society named Ponikvar one of the 150 people, events and things that shaped the state.
A vocal DFLer, she gave advice to generations of politicians. In turn, congressmen John Blatnik, Jim Oberstar and others trusted her as a sounding board. Working at "the shop" as a teenager, her nephew John Nobens remembers chatting with his aunt about politics when "the next thing you know, Jim Oberstar would walk in the door," Nobens said. "Next thing you know, she's on the phone with someone at the White House …"
Oberstar, who died last year, delivered Ponikvar's paper as a child. He once called her "the voice of the miners — of the underdog."
He also praised her writing as "lyrical." Her pieces have also been called pungent, baroque. She was self-assured, on the page and off. "Have I ever been wrong on an issue?" she asked, according to a 1996 article, with a long pause. "No. Nope."
Ponikvar lived in a world of black and white, said Nobens, 51, of Hibbing. "There wasn't a lot of gray in her life. If she believed in something, she believed in it wholeheartedly."
Ponikvar "was in the thick of every major political struggle that concerned the Iron Range in the 20th Century's second half," according to the book "Minnesota's Twentieth Century: Stories of Extraordinary Everyday People." She pushed for federal protection of the Boundary Waters. She backed the Taconite Amendment in 1964.
"To recognize Veda's impact on her hometown, you just have to travel the streets of Chisholm, or anywhere on the Iron Range," said Wanda Moeller, who became friends with Ponikvar in 2005, when Moeller was publisher of the Hibbing Daily Tribune and the Chisholm Herald.
Ponikvar convinced national political figures and three-star generals to attend events in little Chisholm, hosting them at her house. Her famous walnut potica, made according to her mother's recipe, "was one of the reasons the generals always came," Tomassoni said, chuckling.
She told of 'Moonlight'
Ponikvar's promotion of Chisholm's best also led to a moment of fame: Novelist W.P. Kinsella came to town to find out more about Dr. Archibald "Moonlight" Graham, the major league baseball player turned small-town physician. She handed them an obituary she wrote in 1965, describing "Doc" as a benevolent, long-standing presence in town.
Kinsella's exchange with Ponikvar ended up in his novel, "Shoeless Joe," which was adapted into the 1989 movie "Field of Dreams." Ponikvar, as played by Anne Seymour, ended up as a character in that film.
Even after selling the biweekly newspapers in the mid-1990s, Ponikvar continued writing, penning more than 4,300 editorials over the decades.
"Once you get that printer's ink in your veins, you can't replace it," she once said. "It isn't blood — it's ink. I really mean that."
Ponikvar's survivors include her two sisters, Frances Nobens and Mary Lou Meadows, both 85, and 10 nieces and nephews. A funeral will be held Monday at St. Joseph and Our Lady of the Sacred Heart in Chisholm.