Somewhere on the road between Colorado and Montana, Garrison Keillor's blustery, oak-barrel voice came on the radio. It was the September 8, 2008, installment of his show, The Writer's Almanac. He shared a short poem called "Black Umbrellas" by Rick Agran. It goes like this:
On a rainy day in Seattle stumble into any coffee shop
and look wounded by the rain.
Say Last time I was in I left my black umbrella here.
A waitress in a blue beret will pull a black umbrella
from behind the counter and surrender it to you
like a sword at your knighting.
Unlike New Englanders, she'll never ask you
to describe it, never ask you what day you came in,
she's intimate with rain and its appointments.
Look positively reunited with this black umbrella
and proceed to Belltown and Pike Place.
Sip cappuccino at the Cowgirl Luncheonette on First Ave.
Visit Buster selling tin salmon silhouettes
undulant in the wind, nosing ever into the oncoming,
meandering watery worlds, like you and the black umbrella,
the one you will lose on purpose at the day's end
so you can go the way you came
into the world, wet looking.
The poem ended, and Garrison signed off the daily five-minute show he's hosted since 1993 with his classic signature, "Be well, do good work, and keep in touch."
Hands on the wheel, eyes looking through the Wyoming plains, I snapped back to driving. In a few lines, I'd been swept on a soaking adventure through rainy Seattle. I met a barista in a blue beret. I had a newfound appreciation for black umbrellas.
Garrison wasn't new to me, but this is the moment I first remember fully appreciating the gift he brings to the world. For Garrison, born Gary Edward Keillor in 1942, storytelling isn't optional; it's indispensable. Literature isn't his first love; it's a life source. He's wholeheartedly devoted to perfecting his craft as a writer, observational humorist and storyteller, reminding the American people that listening to one another relay the mundane details of a day is what keeps us grounded.
"There's a lot of power in listening to one person...sitting and talking to you...you're pulled in, in ways that technology and art and all cannot," he said in a 2014 interview with PBS.
When he was 13-years-old in his hometown of Anoka, Minnesota, a doctor told Gary he couldn't play football due to a heart issue. He "took it as a cue to do something else that was brave" and approached his local paper. He knew they didn't have a sports writer, so he asked if he could do it.
"Instead of sitting on the bench, I sat at the top of the stands in the press box with men from the local radio station who were broadcasting the game," he recalled in that same PBS interview.
He gave himself the penname "Garrison" and went on to attend the University of Minnesota, where he earned a degree in English in 1966. After a stint in New York, he returned to Minnesota for a job at Minnesota Public Radio in 1969.
Five years later, Garrison launched a radio variety show called A Prairie Home Companion. Forty-three years later on Saturday afternoons, four million listeners tune in to over 700 NPR stations across the country to hear live musical performances, storytelling rife with man-made sound effects, spiritual lessons, sensual vignettes, surprising truths and not-so-true stories in a format that’s somehow survived the steel heart of the digital age.
Garrison wrote and hosted every episode nearly uninterrupted until his retirement from the show in 2016. One of his most beloved additions to the show was the “news” from a fictional Midwestern town called Lake Wobegon, "where all the women are strong, all the men are good looking, and all the children are above average."
Los Angeles Times writer Robert Lloyd wrote that it would be wrong to categorize Lake Wobegon simply as nostalgia:
"It's...an ordinarily eccentric small town big enough to contain all life's joys and sorrows and, despite its sheen of Protestant, passive-aggressive politeness, a multitude of sins."
Exposing the eccentric side of ordinary is what Garrison does best. To honor this talent, he received the 2007 John Steinbeck Award given to artists who capture "the spirit of Steinbeck's empathy, commitment to democratic values, and belief in the dignity of the common man."
"Nothing human is beneath a writer's attention," he shared in a 2001 article.
Beyond writing, Garrison also sings and does voice-overs, winning a Grammy in 1988. He was given a Medal for Spoken Language from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, and, in 1994, was inducted into the National Radio Hall of Fame.
I was raised in Mississippi, where public radio is considered "too liberal." We didn't grow up gathered round listening to it, much less driving around with it on. Rather, we listened to Rush Limbaugh preach. Simply put, I was the kid sporting Bush/Quayle '92 pins, handing them out to other second graders at Jackson Academy because my mom told me to. It’s not a shock to learn that, as an adult, I classify myself as apolitical.
Since that day driving across the West with images of slick Seattle streets in mind, I've always had in the back of my mind that meeting Garrison Keillor would be the absolute berries. I've never tried to contact him before this week, when I found out he'd be in Durango for his "Just Passing Through" tour.
But I didn't want to just send him some questions he could answer in an email. I wanted to share coffee with him, maybe bake him some of my butterscotch cookies.
You can imagine how slightly crushed I was when I heard that "getting an actual face to face with him doesn't stand a fart's chance in church." Perhaps it's because-—despite being a gifted speaker and towering presence at six-foot-three-inches tall boldly sporting suits with red sneakers-—Garrison is actually quite shy.
Besides, I've heard it's wise to never meet your heroes anyway, so instead I bought nosebleed-section tickets for the 7:30 p.m. show on Tuesday, October 10, at Fort Lewis College's Whalen Gymnasium.
To compensate for not interviewing Garrison Keillor, I reached out to another hero of mine who actually didn't disappoint me when we first met. As a fellow Minnesotan, I figured Missy Votel, editor of the Durango Telegraph, would be well-suited to answer some of the questions I planned to ask Garrison. Her response when I reached out to her via email?
"OMG! Since I once went to a rager next door to Garrison's house on Summit Avenue in Saint Paul, I feel uniquely qualified to answer these."
Question: I've read before that musicians, artists and writers do much better in dreary climates, like those of the Midwest and Pacific Northwest. Colorado, according to some, has too much sunshine to be creative. How does weather affect storytelling and humor?
Missy: "Gray is my favorite color. And what's wrong with a little dark humor? Where would the world be without the Coen Brothers?"
Question: How do Minnesotans (like the Coen Brothers and Bob Dylan) stay optimistic?
Missy: "Most Minnesotans wouldn't hurt a fly (mosquito, yes) but when times get tough, they need to draw deep from those "Minnesota Nice" passive aggressive reservoirs that are handed down through the generations. It's a wonder what a little negative reinforcement can do. And when the going gets really tough, the tough go water skiing or play some broom ball and then hit up the nearest booyah. Booyah!"
Question: How can a small town like Durango nurture its storytellers?
Missy: "Lock yourself in a cabin in the north woods with a can of Folger’s, a bottle of Canadian Mist and some tuna casserole, and let the creative juices flow. Just make sure you know the difference between there, their and they're and it's and its. Grammar penance with Sister Judith always helps."
She added a couple of things the public might not know about her, like that she hates ham salad (don't tell her parents) and is taking up pickleball in advance of her forced relocation to Arizona, which "eventually happens to all good Minnesotans." And, no matter what the future brings, she's fully confident that her Minnesota accent will never change, youbetcha.
Of course I can't close out an article on Garrison Keillor without his thoughts on the greatest lesson he’s learned, according to that super-useful 2014 PBS interview:
"Hurry up. Hurry up and do it. Get it done. You've got work to do. Don't put this off. And don't take the long view, here. You know? Life is today and tomorrow and if you're lucky, next week."
I think he'd probably still stand behind this wise sentiment. Perhaps I'll get to ask him someday at a coffee shop in Seattle while the rain pours outside and we have a passive-aggressive fight over who gets the black umbrella.