Jim Klobuchar, an intrepid son of the Iron Range who with grace and puckish wit chronicled the lives of ordinary and fabled Minnesotans as a longtime columnist for the Star Tribune, died Wednesday at the Emerald Crest care facility in Burnsville. He was 93.
From 1961, when he left the Associated Press to work for the Minneapolis Tribune, until his retirement in 1995, Klobuchar trained an amused and perceptive eye on the state's culture, sports and politics. His energetic exploits both in and out of the newsroom made his name a household word in Minnesota long before he became known as the father of the state's senior U.S. senator.
In a statement, Amy Klobuchar said of her father: "Even to the end, as he lived the final chapter of his life with Alzheimer's, he was still singing songs and telling incredible stories to my sister Meagan and me. He loved our state. He loved journalism. He loved sports and adventure. And we loved him."
Klobuchar covered the Minnesota Vikings' first five seasons for the morning Tribune (and briefly the St. Paul Pioneer Press) before accepting a job with the afternoon Minneapolis Star in October 1965 as a general columnist. He was told to write whatever he wanted, he said later, as long as it wasn't boring or libelous.
It made Klobuchar the Twin Cities' town crier. In an estimated 8,400 columns over the next 30 years — usually four to six dispatches a week — he fluidly and often irreverently captured the joys, sorrows and foibles of people in the metro area and across the state.
Readers found him jogging with Ginger Rogers down Nicollet Mall, challenging Minnesota Fats at the pool table and jawing with Ed Asner on the movie screen. A lover of classical music, he wrote about the thrill of directing the Minnesota Orchestra, and he took unapologetically liberal stands on issues such as gun control, legalized gambling and publicly financed stadiums.
His were often the first words readers turned to in times of celebration or crisis, whether moon landings or assassinations, a victorious World Series or another crushing Super Bowl defeat. When one of his columns appeared in a Montana newspaper without his byline, the paper was flooded with calls wondering who wrote it.
His wanderlust whetted by grade-school geography books and ignited by his Army service in Germany, Klobuchar regularly wrote about his journeys out West and around the world. He persuaded the Star to bankroll his climbs in the Andes, photo safaris in Africa and wilderness expeditions. In 1968, he wrote a series of columns on hunting for Bigfoot in the California woods.
But Klobuchar's most memorable stories gave eloquent voice to the voiceless, the common person facing an uncommon challenge, and he won wide popularity because readers often recognized themselves in the subjects he profiled — sometimes happily so, sometimes with chagrin.
As a columnist, he got many of his best stories from the scores of calls and letters he received daily. He wrote about a stag party infiltrated by Bloomington police that lassoed 32 red-faced community pillars; a 30-something woman who played hockey to stay sober; a bashful Como Zoo gorilla who needed tranquilizers to get a date.
And there was the 5-year-old girl with a brain tumor who loved trains:
"Her fingernails were gaily polished red, her checked dress freshly pressed. In her hair was the blue clasp she wore to birthday parties.
"She was cradled in her mother's lap on the observation car of the Milwaukee Road's Hiawatha, a tidy young lady.
A dying little girl, taking her last train ride."
The Rev. Mark Hanson, former presiding bishop of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America and Klobuchar's longtime pastor and friend, said that in his last days Klobuchar expressed his gratitude to the people around him. "I think that's the benediction that he would want on his life," Hanson said. "It's been a marvelous life, a life with both pain and grace, but a life bathed in grace and love."
Wearing many hats
It was in the paper where readers also learned of Klobuchar's stumbles.
He drew two-week suspensions for writing a speech for then-Gov. Rudy Perpich and for making up a quote in his column that seemed to invite fans to tear apart Metropolitan Stadium after its last game. Some thought his writing style a bit baroque, and others thought his columns would have been better if he wrote less often.
In 1993, when he was arrested for drunken driving at twice the legal limit — his fourth brush with drinking and driving — the Star Tribune ran his abject apology on the front page along with a sternly worded editor's note. He spent two days in the workhouse followed by chemical dependency treatment where, he wrote, he finally admitted to himself that he had a serious problem. This year was his 28th of sobriety.
Klobuchar's alcoholism drew national attention in 2018, when his daughter, Sen. Klobuchar, talked about his struggles at a hearing for Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh before asking Kavanaugh whether he had ever blacked out from drinking. During her 2020 presidential campaign, she proposed billions in new federal spending to combat substance abuse, citing her father's success with treatment.
His column was only one of the many hats Klobuchar wore. He produced 23 books, including a meditation on faith. For years he held a football clinic for women and taught budding young journalists at the University of Minnesota and the University of St. Thomas. He also was a popular speaker at community centers and service clubs and hosted talk shows for years on local TV and radio stations.
Klobuchar launched his annual "Jaunts with Jim" bicycling treks in the mid-1970s, round-trips across Minnesota that drew up to 200 people each summer.
After he divorced his wife, Rose, in 1976, he began taking long-distance cycling trips with Amy to bond with her. Their initial grueling trip from Plymouth to his parents' home in Ely was followed by cycling marathons in Slovenia and Russia.
In later years he formed his own travel company, taking like-minded adventurers to places like the Amazon and Nepal, which he last visited at the age of 86.
He climbed the Matterhorn eight times, and Kilimanjaro five. Two frequent climbing companions were Twin Cities attorneys Rod Wilson and Doug Kelley, who met Klobuchar at the Minneapolis Athletic Club and went on to climb peaks together on several continents.
"He was Minnesota's Hemingway," Wilson said. "He loved adventure and traveling to faraway places. A lot of his adventures involved significant risk, but he loved that. It was my privilege to share the rope with Jim."
Klobuchar, Kelley said, was "one of the most interesting and complicated personalities I've ever known. He had an inquisitive mind and a sense of adventure, and I was lucky to share that with him. You learn a lot about somebody when you're in situations that can be life or death in the mountains."
A licensed pilot, Klobuchar was one of 40 finalists chosen from across the country in 1986 for NASA's Journalist in Space Project (which was suspended after the space shuttle Challenger explosion). Among the others was Walter Cronkite.
Klobuchar was born April 9, 1928, in Ely, the son of an ore miner and grandson of Slovenians who had emigrated to Minnesota in the late 1800s to work the red rock mines of the Range.
After two years at Ely Junior College (now Vermilion Community College), Klobuchar transferred to the University of Minnesota and received his journalism degree in 1950. He hopped a train to North Dakota, where he had been hired to work as a wire editor for $40 a week at the Bismarck Tribune.
A few months later, Klobuchar was drafted into the U.S. Army. Rather than being sent to fight the war in Korea, however, he was assigned to Germany to wage psychological warfare on unsuspecting Soviets by a personnel officer who had noticed his newspaper background.
After two years in the Army he returned to Bismarck to cover the North Dakota Legislature, but in 1953 the Associated Press in Minneapolis offered him a job covering news and sports. Three days later he was reporting on an inmate riot in Stillwater.
Klobuchar's most notable moment with the AP came in 1960, when he wrote the nationwide bulletin that John F. Kennedy had beaten Richard Nixon in Minnesota, giving Kennedy the electoral votes needed to become president. The story went out around the world and beat United Press International by an hour.
In Washington years later to see his daughter sworn in as senator, Klobuchar met Ted Kennedy and told him about that day.
A few months after the election, then-sports editor Sid Hartman suggested Klobuchar cover Minnesota's new NFL franchise for the Tribune. "Why don't you come over?" Hartman said to him, according to "Minstrel," Klobuchar's 1997 memoir. "You're good at this and you'd never regret it. It would get you out of my hair."
In years to come, Klobuchar wrote, "Sid and I never quite managed to fall in love with each other." Hartman died last year at the age of 100.
Klobuchar's first bylined story in the Tribune, on April 5, 1961, was about the Vikings nearing a decision on where to hold their first training camp; he correctly predicted Bemidji. In its first five years, the team of mostly castoffs went 25-42-3 under Coach Norm Van Brocklin, a smoldering former NFL quarterback with whom Klobuchar famously feuded and at least once almost came to blows. Those years, he said, "were an absolute Alice in Loonyland."
While the young team's play on the field was rarely impressive, the players gave Klobuchar plenty to write about — such as the wrong-way safety scored for the other team by defensive end Jim Marshall, who later accompanied Klobuchar on some of his treks, and quarterback Fran Tarkenton's desperate scrambles to evade charging linemen.
"He lived with us all those years, from a new franchise to finally going to Super Bowls," Tarkenton said Wednesday. "He was a brilliant writer ... [but] we had a unique relationship that went beyond him being just a writer covering the Vikings."
Klobuchar later drew on his coverage to write an entertaining book in 1970 about the Vikings' first decade, "True Hearts and Purple Heads," and teamed up with Tarkenton to write his biography — "a huge success because of his great ability," the former quarterback said.
Active in retirement
What he called "a personality issue" with a Tribune sports executive prompted him to move to the Pioneer Press in 1965 to cover the Vikings. But when the Minneapolis Star came calling a few weeks into the season with an offer to become a general columnist alongside women's editor Barbara Flanagan — a male-female "twin" combo that news managers figured would be a hit — Klobuchar apologized to St. Paul publisher Bernard Ridder and returned to Minneapolis, this time for good.
Klobuchar successfully underwent quadruple-bypass heart surgery in 1992, and wrote a series of columns on the experience. Five months later, and only days after his arrest for drunken driving, he was back in the hospital for prostate cancer surgery. He survived a bout with COVID-19 last year.
Klobuchar wrote his final column for the Star Tribune in December 1995, leaving the building for the last time to a standing ovation from his newsroom colleagues.
But he was very nearly as active in retirement as he had been at the paper. He freelanced for MinnPost and the Christian Science Monitor, and happily stumped for his daughter in her campaigns for Hennepin County attorney and the U.S. Senate.
Besides his daughter Amy, of Minneapolis, survivors include his daughter Meagan, of Tallahassee, Fla.; granddaughter Abigail, of Brooklyn, N.Y.; his wife, Susan Wilkes, of Boulder, Colo.; and a brother, Dick, of Rochester. A public celebration of his life will be announced later. In lieu of flowers, memorials may be directed to the University of Minnesota's School of Journalism and Mass Communication, where a scholarship will be established in his name.