On highs, lows of 40 years of storytelling

It was during an early summer billiards game at the Henning Pool Hall when a friend heard that I had taken a job working at the newspaper in Forest Lake. My pool-playing pal was from the Twin Cities and knew a little about Forest Lake.

“That’s Houleville,” my friend commented, as he played safe in a game of snooker. “The town is full of Houles.”

I didn’t think much about it at the time.

A few days later after reporting for duty, my new boss, Howard Lestrud, armed me with his 35 mm camera, a long lens, an umbrella and sent me out in the rain on Lake Street to shoot pictures. Just get something of interest, he said.

It was my first assignment and I did what I was told. As a letter carrier hurried south down Lake Street on her appointed rounds, fighting the rain, I aimed the camera and shot. The photo was a keeper.

It was a Houle, Karen Houle to be exact.

Two days later with the paper to bed and the rain gods quiet, Boss Lestrud called me again. It was morning and the town whistle was blowing. It was my first fire call and off we dashed. I was riding shotgun with the camera at the ready.

It was a dud, however, as the fire was out before we got close to the site in Columbus Township. As Howard realized there would be no photo that day, he pulled alongside another car and began chatting with the fellow. He was a firefighter who drove west in his own car just in case. Howard introduced me to the village administrator.

He was a Houle. Bob Houle to be exact.

I’d be hard-pressed today to name or recall all the Houles that have crossed my path in 40 years plus working at this newspaper. But it seems that each time I do so I would think back to that astute prediction that came from a pool hall that day in June, 1972.

It has certainly been a long road these past 40 years, but yet a road quickly traveled. With 40 years behind me, semi-retirement calls. The baton has been passed to Clint Riese who is moving up from sports editor to news editor. He will head a new energetic staff that will continue the strong traditions of journalism that has been the trademark of the Forest Lake Times.

I won’t vanish from sight. My new duties will include feature story writing, business news reporting, some special projects and duties with the ECM Publishers Editorial Board. There are personal projects on my menu, as well, and now there will be time to get to them.

It is a bittersweet time for me, without a doubt. Forty years is a long time to spend at any job. My college degree carried a strong core of community journalism classes and I think my favorite prof, the late Howard Binford, would be proud that I gave my heart and soul to the profession.

To be honest, I only rarely second-guessed my decision to stay put. I truly hope that the decision was the right one, not only for me, but the job that I was doing. No doubt, there are some in the community who may have wished that I had packed my bags years ago and are quietly pleased today.

It is truly hard to second-guess yourself for long when you consider all the friends you have made and people you met. That first week on the job in 1972 landed me in the middle of a Wyoming Village Council meeting and at a barbershop in Forest Lake. Some of the folks that I met in that smoked-filled council room are friends to this day. The barbering story opened the door to the wit and wisdom of one Russell Mansmith who remains a close friend to this day, even though he leans too far to the right most of the time.

There have been so many fantastic people in this area and I feel fortunate to have been able to share their stories and know them in a personal light. I have considered tossing in names here, but the list would be far too long and there would be omissions that I would regret later.

This also the place where I met my wife, Jeanne, and that is another positive that can’t be overlooked.

How does one get a better chance to be part of history than by writing community news? History has always been my passion and I minored in it in college. In some sense, I feel I have been a historian, documenting the life and times of the Forest Lake area. Forty years from now when the archives of this newspaper are read, it will be in part my reporting that a new generation is reading. There is a bit of awe in that knowledge.

And yes there were some big stories over these 40 years. They range from fires and deadly car crashes to a strike by teachers and a laundry list of criminal activities that remind you Forest Lake is not on an island. Reporting the hard news is the difficult part of the job in a small town. Often you write about people you know or relatives of people you know.

It does seem, too, however, that for every difficult story is a story that is rewarding. The newspaper’s function will always be to report the news of the community, good and bad, but always to promote and uplift causes and local celebrations. Some of the most rewarding coverage has followed events like the Forest Lake Centennial, Fourth of July celebrations and telling inspirational stories of people who have met adversity head-on and never blinked.

Just this summer I told Linda Madsen story of her battle with breast cancer. I met Linda when she was in junior high here and have followed her career over 40 years. As Forest Lake’s superintendent of the schools, she has been an inspiration, both for those in the profession and for those who need encouragement that no health battle is too big to fight.

Lasting 40 years in this business wouldn’t have been possible without the early guidance of Duane Rasmussen, the former owner of the paper who hired me. I learned early on one would not get financially rich by being a worker bee, but there were other kinds of riches to collect. In recent years, I give thanks to the occasional encouragement and scolding from Earl Lellman, the former editor and owner who sold the paper to Rasmussen. In fact, I would hear from both men from time to time and I always listened.

The good times have been tempered with the sad events. I have written far too many obituaries of citizens of the area, young and old. Some were just starting in life; others were of the rocks that helped make this a good community.

And inside the halls of the Forest Lake Times, time has also caught up with some of our best. The likes of Ed Dahlin, Ken Jarvis and Dale Fairbanks can never be replaced, but their memories are cherished to this day. And there will never be another Elsie Vogel, the home-bred historian who did so much for this community and the newspaper by sharing her love of Forest Lake with historical columns for more than a decade.

The Times family and numerous local residents also felt the loss of Howard and Judy Lestrud’s daughter, Tammi, to a rare liver disease in 1995. An eight-year fight with the disease ended when she was 22, but not until she touched and inspired many with her cheerful outlook on life as she fought the disease with the toughness of a professional boxer.

It is such memories that will be carried as I step away from the everyday responsibilities at the newspaper.

After 40 years, one may think that he or she has seen it all. But it is never the case. Not really. When you think you have seen it all, something new happens.

Just the other day we got word that a horse had fallen in a residential swimming pool east of town. A horse in a swimming pool? Sure enough, it was true.

I was on scene to document the story and shoot photos as rescue crews went about their duty. The story was told in a Page 1 article in the Thursday, Sept. 6 issue.

At the scene that day I could not help but ask one of the long-standing firefighters if they had ever rescued a horse from a swimming pool. “Never, not in 53 years,” was his answer.

The words were spoken by, you guessed it, a Houle, Joe Houle to be exact.

The prophetic words of that pool-playing pal 40 years ago still rang true.

  • Greg Lindeberg

    Wonderful article Cliff. Congrats on 40 years, I know that Forest Lake is the better for having you here.

  • Michael LaFave

    Great Job and good luck as you move forward

  • http://twitter.com/RileyWorth Riley Worth

    My first adult job upon graduating from St. Cloud State in 1998 was at the Forest Lake Times. It seems so long ago (we only had one computer the news staff shared that had this new-fangled thing called Netscape Navigator). Yet Cliff already had 25 years in then. That seemed like a lifetime to me. Actually, I was 23 when he hired me so it was a lifetime-plus.

    He was fit and trim, and I marveled at the idea he was old enough to have 25 years already tucked neatly under his size 28 belt. He was so good at his job. I remember asking myself “Did it take him all 25 years to be this rock solid?” I’m not sure I ever learned the answer to that. It’s my guess he was kind of a Natural at it, and, yes, if ever a movie is made of Mr. Buchan the part should go to a Robert Redford-type.

    The highwire balancing act of community-journalism-done-right is a trickster-filled maze, but he did it with much aplomb. Cliff Buchan made me believe in myself. He knew just how to inspire me to do my best. Not only did he write brave columns that inspired me to have a voice, but he got to know his reporters in a way that he knew just how to get them to work hard for incentives other than money. He understood the business. He knew the perks came in the enjoyments of the job more than the paycheck, and never a job have I enjoyed more — and I’ve had some great gigs — than working the sports desk for Cliff Buchan. And yes, in my short time there I met my share of Houles.

    And, in a small world story (they’re my favorite ones to tell) I hear the Times has hired one of my former students (and recent college grad) for her first adult job. Based on what she heard from me, she may think the new part-timer … think his name’s Cliff SomethingOrOther … walks on water. If it’s part of his new limited responsibilities, I don’t doubt he will.

  • Jessica Foster

    I wish you nothing but the best on your new adventure. You were my editor, but I’ll always think of you as one of my professors as you taught me a great deal. I’ll forever be grateful. You know, you’re the only man who I ever let tell me what to do! 😉

  • Joe Drennan

    You were my first boss after graduating from college and I couldn’t have asked for a better mentor. I still remember those first weeks at the paper when I was unsure of myself and your steady guidance and reassurance that I could do the job.
    It’s because of you that I will always be proud of the work I did while at the Times and be proud of the ECM awards I won. You are a fixture in the community and you’d be hard-pressed to mention your name to somebody there and they not know who you are. The best part of that is that everyone who does know you will only have good things to say.
    Enjoy the extra time you have to yourself. I have no doubt some of that time is going to be spent at places like Scumacker Field, City Hall and Lakeside Park. Hopefully Target Field is in that list too. Maybe we can even venture out there together next season.

  • http://none David Holmberg

    Cliff — Excellent piece.

    Like you, I’m an old reporter from Minnesota, but I traveled a different road in my 40 years in newspapers. I worked for 16 papers, with stops in New York, Washington, Miami, Philadelphia, and Huron, South Dakota, among others. I’m still free-lancing in NY, or trying to, and might go to the Middle East on a story soon, but spending one’s professional life on a community newspaper is, I’m sure, as rewarding and fulfilling — and as useful to society — as chasing the big stories in one place after another. Have fun in semi-retirement, but I’m glad you’ll still be writing.

    David Holmberg

  • Jill Nelson

    One of your opinion columns way back in 1978 is etched in my memory forever. It indicated you did not think it wise for me ( at 14 years old/9th grader) to be allowed to play Varisty girls basketball. My parents ended up going to the school board, and winning the right for me to indeed play. Fast forward 30 years….2 Masters degrees and 3 kids later I can’t believe how fast time has flown! Congrats on your career and enjoy your semi-retirement.

  • Susan Struble Leibovich

    Cliff – aka Mr. Buchan – I have many great memories of FLHS and you are in many of them. Football games and drama plays with your camera is what I see. You were a big contributor to the Breeze as well. And I dated a Houle – first name redacted for privacy purposes. Enjoy your time and I will look for your updates here.

    Class of 75

  • John Petersen

    Great article. Fantastic stuff. I sincerely appreciate your work over the years!!

  • Karen Rolseth Dickey

    Dear Cliff,

    Even though I live in Colorado I check the Times every Wednesday. Your stories make me feel as though I am still a part of the community.

    I will never forget the stories you wrote about my mom and dad when they passed in 2003. Sometimes when I’m feeling sad I will re-read those stories and it helps me remember that they lived a great life in a great community and for that I am forever grateful!

    You will be missed.