By Michael H. O’Donnell
Garrison Keillor walked slowly across the stage of the sold-out Jensen Grand Concert Hall wearing a light rumpled suit and red tie with running shoes that matched.
With a soothing baritone voice that wove its way into everyone’s imagination, Keillor took listeners to an old ice fishing shack on Lake Wobegon and dipped a line into the deep waters of humanity.
Two hours vanished in the crowd. And in several magic moments of shared singing, no one in that auditorium was a stranger. It’s a gift politicians can never understand.
It’s the power of a good storyteller, one who can shake hands with everything that’s familiar inside us and allow us to put our arms around new perspectives.
Keillor is a native of Anoka, Minnesota. It’s a small upper Midwest town of about 17,000 souls which — other than being the birthplace of Garrison Keillor — is the “Halloween Capital of the World.”
The curious and quick-witted Keillor grew up in this small town where people knew each other, tolerated their differences and celebrated their similarities. We used to call this condition “being Americans.”
Keillor graduated from Anoka High School and went on to get a degree in English at the University of Minnesota.
As he shared with the packed house Monday night in Pocatello, Keillor found a love for public speaking during high school speech class. His presence in that speech class was the direct result of his inability to create bird houses or flour scoops in shop class. An ineptness with tools is also why Keillor’s fishing shack was sinking into the thawing ice of a Minnesota lake as he gave his Idaho performance, but that’s another story.
A gift for weaving words into stories, coupled with a deep voice, gave Keillor a shot on Minnesota Public Radio and ultimately gave birth to a show called “A Prairie Home Companion.”
After 42 years of broadcasts, Keillor hosted his last episode of the show from St. Paul, Minnesota, just two days before he performed in Pocatello. He shared that milestone with the audience here.
My own history of Keillor’s storytelling goes back to snippets caught on National Public Radio and more importantly, a series of taped performances that my dad shared on a trip from Chippewa Falls, Wisconsin, to Rochester, Minnesota, on a beautiful summer day.
We were on a winding road near the Mississippi River when dad stuck a CD in the player of his GMC pickup and the sound of Keillor’s voice began to blend with the green canopy of hardwood trees shading the pavement.
“You ever listen to this guy?” dad asked.
He seemed a little surprised when I told him that I appreciated the power of storytelling and the blending of yarns and reality that Keillor managed with a deft hand. My roots, like my father’s, reach deep into Midwest soil — one of the few places on the planet where ice fishing is exalted and people view the penetrating cold of winter as a necessary cleanser of the human spirit.
We never had a family ice shack. We were nomads of the ice who would pull a toboggan from place to place with only 5-gallon buckets filled with tip-ups and jigging rods to use as seats once holes were drilled in the ice.
There were no aging wood walls scented with Uncle Jack’s cigar smoke and bourbon to knock down the wind.
Yet there was magic out on the ice — a magic that Keillor shared with folks Monday night. Ice fishing gives a man plenty of time to think.
During Keillor’s performance I found myself smiling at the memories of putting hamburger patties wrapped in aluminum foil on the coals of a small portable grill out on that ice. The secret weapon was inside the patties — a thick slice of onion that would steam itself tender while it flavored the meat. It’s a family trick.
When you listen to Garrison Keillor share his tales, you can’t help but think of family. He draws pictures of loving aunts and uncles and the foolish antics we all experience as we go through life. He talked about the tipsy uncle who took him fishing in a leaky boat before the sun peaked above the eastern horizon — and how that uncle accurately recited poetry.
The real magic in Keillor’s performance is its ability to touch a common thread. He looked out on the crowd and admitted we have a “myriad of differences.” Myriad means innumerable, immeasurable and infinite.
Then in one deep note held in his voice, Keillor led everyone into the same song from childhood. We began to sing from collective memory and the notes washed over the stage at Jensen Hall and rolled back into the crowd. The audience was soaked in a moment of shared humanity.
We all went fishing for a little entertainment, and we all got wet.
Michael H. O’Donnell is the assistant managing editor of the Idaho State Journal.