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.