“All I do is say the words: cornfield and Mother and algebra and Chevy pickup and cold beer and Sunday morning and rhubarb and loneliness,

and other people put pictures to them.”

–Garrison Keillor

Garrison Keillor, wikipedia image

Garrison Keillor, Wikipedia image

I first started listening to The Prairie Home Companion in the 1980’s. I instantly connected to the music, the country accents and stories, and the gentle humor with a little sting in its tail. Many other people who grew up far from from the media and cultural centers of the world, but who left the country to live in larger cities, experienced instant recognition when they heard words like “cornfield” and “Mother” and “rhubarb” in the same sentence.

Lots of Mennonites love Garrison Keiller. Especially the college-educated ones. They have nostalgia for their youth, for the land, for small towns, for folkways that separated country folk from their urban kin while injecting just enough defiance of the powerful city people to make counter-cultural connection. A book called The Muppie Manual, (Mennonite Urban Professional), published in 1985, explained this phenomenon, making fun of sophistication and provincialism at the same time.

I was a professor at Goshen College, a Mennonite College, when Garrison Keillor accepted our first invitation to speak. I watched the tall man with the craggy face lift up his hand in the pulpit in the Church-Chapel, leading us in hymns. We sang our hearts out in four parts, acapella, which is our tradition.

I remember only one thing Keillor said that night. “Never lose this! Never stop singing this way.”

When I later became Goshen’s president, 1996-2004, I witnessed the power of that singing tradition to bind our community together in times of pain and joy and to open hearts and purse strings when it was time to build a Music Center.

Flash forward to 2013. Garrison Keiller visits Goshen College again. A beautiful Music Center stands proudly at the edge of campus. welcoming him to the Performing Arts Series in the world-class Sauder Concert Hall. I wasn’t there but those who were raved.

And two years later, in the last year of his radio show career, Keillor returned to broadcast live from the stage of Sauder Hall. I watched live streaming from my home in Virginia while tears also streamed. Below is a video clip. The Prairie Home Companion website has many more here.

Here’s what Keillor said in the Indianapolis Star after this broadcast aired:

The Star asked him, “You’ve staged A Prairie Home Companion all over the world. What has been your favorite place to host?”

 

Keillor: “Believe it or not, Goshen College in Indiana. They had a student choir on stage and an audience made mostly of Mennonites, so they sang like angels. You just hummed a note and gave them the downbeat, and they sang in perfect four-part harmony. We did hymn after hymn on that show, and it was very moving.”

Flash forward again to 2016. When I arrived in Central Minnesota, on September 6, I noticed that the women were strong, the men good-looking, and the children . . . all above average.

Carla, one of the fairy godmothers of the Collegeville Institute, confirmed my suspicion. “You are living,” she said, “In Lake Wobegon!”

I was taken by surprise. I had come here to study and pray with monks and nuns and to partake in the intellectual and spiritual lives of two campuses: St. John’s University and the College of Saint Benedict. I wasn’t thinking fields and farming and the Chatterbox Café. But then I discovered that Garrison Keillor had lived in a small town near here long ago and had created places and characters for his show based on those German Catholics and Norwegian Lutherans whose sing-song voices and gossipy subjects stayed with him, reminding him of his own childhood.

Sixteen years ago Keillor wrote a piece for National Geographic magazine that tells how he became the bard of Central Minnesota.

As soon as I read this article, I knew I had to find the Lake Wobegon Trail, a converted rail bed, and to have supper in the Chatterbox Café, otherwise known as Charlie’s.

The Lake Wobegon Trail in Freeport, MN

The Lake Wobegon Trail in Freeport, MN.

Prototype for the Chatterbox Café.

Prototype for the Chatterbox Café.

My new friend Anita Amstutz joined me on the first adventure into Lake Wobegon country. I hope to have many more.

Are you a Garrison Keillor fan? Have any favorite characters or segments from the show? Were you a country or city kid? Is nostalgia a good thing or a bad thing? Love to hear your thoughts on any of the above.

Shirley Showalter

47 Comments

  1. Richard Gilbert on September 21, 2016 at 8:12 pm

    Delightful, Shirley. I started listening in 1980 or early 1981. A fellow reporter, now a minister, told me about it. Then I introduced my future wife to Keillor’s show. Probably our favorite years were the 1980s in Bloomington, Indiana, when the kids kept us close to home anyway. It was pleasant to have it on in the background, as he intended, and to tune in and out.

    I think his “Tales from Lake Wobegon” were at peak interest then, more elaborately braided and funny, though I enjoyed the later, more impressionistic ones too. His early stories involving the fishing Labrador I loved. He gave at least one show in Bloomington when we were there and we saw him, as well as in Nashville. What a good run!

    • Shirley Showalter on September 22, 2016 at 9:44 am

      Yes, Richard, it was a good run. I listened sporadically to the broadcast through all the years but not enough to pick up a difference in how he told the stories. You are so finely attuned to structure!

      The most fun part about the live shows is watching the sound effects guy and the other people who voice characters. Changes the way we listen to the show ever after.

  2. Marian Beaman on September 21, 2016 at 9:40 pm

    Nuns should have fun, and I’m glad you strayed from the straight and narrow path into the winding whimsy of Keillor-land. Like you, Cliff and I have been fans since the 1980s. We got tickets for one of his shows at BAM (Brooklyn Academy of Music) when we visited NYC probably in the 1990s. We tried to break in to the after-show, but were shooed off the elevator. 🙁

    Garrison broadcasted his last show this month, I believe. I’ll have to catch it on a re-run.

    Thank you for the guided tour and introducing us to your new friend Anita.

    “Is nostalgia a good or a bad thing?” you ask. My answer: “It’s my brand.”

    Very entertaining post – thank you!

    • Shirley Showalter on September 22, 2016 at 9:53 am

      Marian, did you know that the apartment our son and his family lived in in Brooklyn was built right over BAM? We went to several events there, including Richard III with Kevin Spacey in the lead. Our son said, “Do you realized that Kevin Spacey is coming and going through that door every day?” If Anthony were with you, you might have found a way to connect with Keillor after his show. 🙂

      Yes, you have built a powerful brand around nostalgia. And yours is the very best kind.

  3. Merril Smith on September 22, 2016 at 6:45 am

    Great post, Shirley! My husband and I also began listening to a Prairie Home Companion in the 1980s. I even had a Powder Milk Biscuit tee shirt. 🙂 We listened every week for years, but in the past few years, we haven’t listened very often. (Like Marian, I might have to find the last show online.) We were very fond of the citizens of Lake Wobegon. I also liked the fake commercials and some of the great guests. We also liked the annual jokes show–so many bad jokes!

    I am definitely not a country kid. My parents grew up in Philadelphia, and I grew up in the suburbs. I don’t think nostalgia is good or bad. It only becomes a bad thing if people do not want to move on or accept new ideas.

    • Shirley Showalter on September 22, 2016 at 10:01 am

      Merril, you would really enjoy a visit to Charlie’s Café. Anita ordered their potato pancakes, and they seemed to specialize in German fare, at least on the day we were there. They had Wobegon memorabilia everywhere, including Powder Milk Biscuit signs, along with a copy of the National Geographic article (link above). It tells the story of the years he and his wife lived in the area for the cheap rent and how lonely they were.

      I like the way you distinguish between nostalgia that enhances or substitutes for life in the present.

  4. Norah Wolthuis on September 22, 2016 at 10:39 am

    Just like you, Shirley, I have enjoyed Garrison Keillor for many, many years and made me laugh so hard . . . remember the story where the Lutheran pastor asks a member to lead the general prayer from the congregation and the hilarity that ensued?

    Despite all the gentle merry making, I’ve always detected an underlying tone of bitterness and sadness. I believe he was brought up as a River Bretheran. As an aside, did you know that President Dwight Eisenhower’s parents were River Bretheran? Anyway, thought you might be interested in this article.

    http://mobile.nytimes.com/2016/06/19/arts/the-garrison-keillor-you-never-knew.html

    I think GC really salves a troubled soul.

    • Shirley Showalter on September 22, 2016 at 10:59 am

      Norah, thank you so much for these words, adding a layer of understanding below the surface of nostalgia. Yes, I knew the River Brethren background, very similar to Mennonite. I really appreciate having the NY Times article here. One of the blessings of the comment section is that I can gather ideas from other people and go into more detail than a short blog post allows.

      I remember that those who hosted Keillor in that first visit to Goshen had the same impression the reporter in the NY Times article had. When Keillor picked the “world’s shyest person” as a description, he wasn’t kidding.

      The first marriage was the one where Keillor lived in what he later created as Lake Wobegon. They were poor and cold and not integrated into the community.

      I have sometimes compared Keillor to Mark Twain. He had the same ability to create humor from local materials but also had an edge — an edge that grew stronger in his last years.

      Thanks for the kind words about my favorite college. They outdid themselves in May.

    • Lawrence Yoder on September 22, 2016 at 2:12 pm

      Woops! I’m virtually certain, Norah (and Shirley), that the church community of Garrison’s youth was Lutheran Brethren, not River Brethren.

      • Shirley Hershey Showalter on September 22, 2016 at 5:15 pm

        The source on the River Brethren reference was the New York Times article referenced above, Lawrence. Do you have another one? Sometimes the reporters get it wrong.

        • Lawrence Yoder on September 22, 2016 at 9:04 pm

          Shirley, I was wrong, but so was the New York Times. It was the Plymouth Brethren, to which his family belonged as a youth. Plymouth Brethren is a movement with English background. But since he grew up in Minnesota I knew he could not be of River Brethren background, since that movement began near Marietta, Pennsylvania with its current membership concentrated mostly in Lancaster, Lebanon, York, Adams and Franklin counties, with perhaps some more scattered in Ohio.

          • Lawrence Yoder on September 22, 2016 at 9:13 pm

            Here is the line from the New York Times article: “Born in 1942 in Anoka, Minn., Mr. Keillor grew up the third of six children. His family was Plymouth Brethren, a fundamentalist Christian sect that forbade dancing and going to the movies.” So everybody gets to miss the mark except NY Times. (:-)



          • Shirley Showalter on September 23, 2016 at 6:21 am

            Aha. Well thanks for rechecking. Just read about the Plymouth Brethren on Wikipedia. Interesting.



          • Lawrence Yoder on September 23, 2016 at 11:16 am

            It was my brother Dave who first introduced us to Prairie Home Companion back in 1976, when we were back in US for a short visit from our decade in Java. We didn’t become devotees of PHC until we got settled here in the Valley in the early eighties. But I have all sorts of images in my mind about Lake Wobegon from the myriad stories I have heard Garrison tell. But when you reported that Garrison’s Lake Wobegon was actually Collegeville, I realized that I had been there! And that was driving a caravan of three vehicles–a Beetle, an ancient I-like-water-in-my-ear type MG TC and my Studebaker Lark with two trailers–through Collegeville in the rain. Shirlee and I were helping Dave and his new wife, Velma, whom he found in way-north La Ronge, Saskatchewan, move to Harrisburg. So on that day in Collegeville, we were a fittingly Wobegon-looking procession. On many other excursions to and through Minnesota, I often wondered if Lake Wobegon could be found. Thanks for finding it for me.



          • Shirley Showalter on September 23, 2016 at 3:52 pm

            I can see that caravan, Lawrence. Thanks for the vivid picture. Collegeville is quite close, and it is on the Lake Wobegon bike path. However, if you want the exact location of Keillor’s location, here it is in his words: “So I started telling people that the town is in central Minnesota, near Stearns County, up around Holdingford, not far from St. Rosa and Albany and Freeport, northwest of St. Cloud, which is sort of the truth, I guess.

            Thirty years ago I lived in Stearns County with my wife and little boy in a rented brick farmhouse south of Freeport, an area full of nose-to-the-grindstone German Catholics devoted to their Holy Mother the Church and proud of their redneck reputation.”



  5. Carol Bodensteiner on September 22, 2016 at 11:17 am

    I’ve listened to Garrison Keillor for years and trust they will keep him re-runs indefinitely. He would be impossible to replace.

    In one episode he commented, “Pleasure is generic; suffering is unique.” That spoke to me as a human being and as a writer.

    • Shirley Showalter on September 22, 2016 at 5:26 pm

      Thank you, Carol, for adding your experience and that lovely quote. A little like the first sentence of Anna Karenina. “All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”

  6. Laurie Buchanan on September 22, 2016 at 12:20 pm

    Shirley — Huge Garrison Keillor fans, Len and I started listening to Prairie Home Companion when we got married in 1980. At one point we went to see a live show when he came to Chicago — what a hoot!

    I’m delighted for your opportunity to get sprinkled with the magical dust of Lake Wobegon. Thank you for sharing it with us.

    • Shirley Showalter on September 22, 2016 at 5:39 pm

      It is indeed magic when fiction comes alive in its setting, Laurie. So many blessings of this year. Some anticipated and some surprising. Glad you got to watch a live show.

  7. marylin warner on September 22, 2016 at 12:52 pm

    When my mother-in-law was in Hospice, Shirley, I read to her every day from the books of her favorite writer, Garrison Keillor. She smiled–and often laughed and asked me to reread a section–and as I read aloud to her I gave myself the gift of discovering Keillor’s writing.

    • Shirley Showalter on September 22, 2016 at 5:42 pm

      Marylin, what a bittersweet memory this must be for you. I too have read at least one Keillor book in print. It was funny in a different kind of way than the show. Perhaps it invites more reflection?

  8. June Alspaugh on September 22, 2016 at 3:49 pm

    Dearest Shirley, I have never heard of Garrison Keillor. I will have to have a listen or two, and wonder if he is anything like our Stewart McLean, who does CBC’s Vinyl Cafe. Stewart is a great story teller, you should listen to Polly Anderson’s Christmas, https://youtu.be/dw10iuCPIGw?list=PLYPzzSnm2LtlJJEZOK9uEED15KSr8MqMZ
    I grew up a City Girl, I was blessed to live in the Capital City, Victoria, British Columbia.
    Nostalgia, the quote from Soren Kierkegaard hold some truth, ‘Life can only be understood backwards,but it must be lived forward.’ I like reflecting on the past, but not living there, for this day, is a new day, with plenty of discovery in it.

    • Shirley Showalter on September 22, 2016 at 8:41 pm

      June, I’m glad to introduce you to Garrison Keillor. Thank you so much for introducing me to YOUR humorist. I really enjoyed listening to the video clip.

      A girl growing up in the beautiful city of Vancouver would have to have some nostalgia. The Kierkegaard quote really fits, though I would not have thought of using it in this context.

      I love your conclusion: “for this day, is a new day, with plenty of discovery in it.” Let’s keep living forward!

  9. Betty Schrag on September 22, 2016 at 4:38 pm

    How fun that you are getting to experience this, Shirley! The shortest trip I remember is when I was traveling by myself over 500 miles from IN to PA. I listened to tapes of Garrison Keillor for over 8 hours straight and at times was laughing so hard I almost had to pull off the road. Nostalgia leads to wonderful stories!

    • Shirley Showalter on September 22, 2016 at 8:43 pm

      Betty, I had to chuckle thinking of your pulling over to the side of the road in order to laugh.

      How many of Keillor’s three visits to Goshen College did you experience?

  10. Elfrieda Neufeld Schroeder on September 22, 2016 at 5:10 pm

    I’ve listened to both Garrison Keillor and Stewart McLean and I find them to be very much alike–love their folksy humor and their laid back way of talking. We used to listen to Stewart McLean on the car radio on our way home from church every Sunday when we still had the kids at home.

    • Shirley Showalter on September 22, 2016 at 8:49 pm

      You are an equal opportunity listener, Elfrieda. How great to have two ways to laugh and reflect. I imagine that your children will have many nostalgic memories of listening to stories in the car, anticipating Sunday lunch.

  11. Norah Johnson Wolthuis on September 22, 2016 at 6:10 pm

    Nostalgia is an odd hybrid of love, pain, possibly misremembered memories and penny candy. Perhaps pain shouldn’t be considered nostalgic, but I would rather include some of my life’s pain as nostalgia, rather than not have it at all. On the other hand, the good old days are often “good” only in our wishes and not in reality. I remember when my parents explained what the A Bomb was, I remember being yelled at by the man at the curve as my friends and I walked through icy puddles on our way to school. “Stop that, you’ll get polio.” Oddly, I remember advertisements explaining the shortage of aluminum foil for consumers because it was used in national defense during the
    Korean War. If the nostalgia topic sticks to old music (remember when we use to sing hymns) doesn’t that feed sack fabric take you back and that chocolate cake reminds me of my grandma’s etc. it’s lovely. But, Make America Great Again has soured nostalgia and swept people back into not a period of sweet memories, but a dysfunctional, nasty revisiting of some of our most shameful attitudes. Turkish Taffy and Pat Boone I’ll enjoy, but the Donald and his crowd terrify me.

    • Shirley Showalter on September 22, 2016 at 9:06 pm

      I agree that longing for the past can be distorted, Norah. I too am terrified by the kind of political “nostalgia” that is actually a form of hatred. Facism has made the past into its own image in many countries, and the results are never good. Thank you for bringing this aspect of nostalgia to light.

      Garrison Keillor himself is as opposed to Trump as you and I are. He has written many powerful political pieces this season: https://www.google.com/search?q=gkeillor+on+trump&ie=utf-8&oe=utf-8

  12. Joan Z. Rough on September 22, 2016 at 8:11 pm

    Wonderful post, Shirley! I love Garrison Keeler. We had the pleasure of seeing him here in Charlottesville a number of years ago, but I’m sure it wasn’t anything like his visits to Goshen College. I would have loved being there!

    • Shirley Showalter on September 22, 2016 at 9:10 pm

      I think you would have loved those shows at Goshen, Joan. Maybe when you do your nationwide book tour you can go through Indiana. 🙂 Isn’t it neat that so many readers here have heard a live show?

  13. Sharon Hines on September 22, 2016 at 9:04 pm

    Wow! What a great “My Soul Cries Out”. Do they have any CDs or downloads I can buy? What an amazing sound!

    I so want to take your course this fall! Perhaps you may offer this course in Lancaster, PA? I love to hear your blog!

  14. Sharon Lippincott on September 22, 2016 at 9:07 pm

    Thank you for another delightful post Shirley. You make GK a totally real person, not just a talking head. That music video gave me goosebumps. On our Bonn to Bucharest river cruise last month we had several opportunities to hear “natural” ─ that is unamplified ─ music in amazing settings. Obviously that concert was digitized, but it sounds every bit as glorious as the “real” music I enjoyed so much. The energy of that music lifted me right out of my seat.

    • Shirley Showalter on September 23, 2016 at 6:12 am

      Hi Sharon, that river cruise with unamplified music from Bonn to Bucharest sounds truly wonderful. Glad you enjoyed the clip of the choir also. I think you are blogging more again too. I’ll check out your latest when I get back to Minnesota. Traveling in PA now.

  15. Karin Krisetya on September 22, 2016 at 9:11 pm

    My sister and I listened to Garrison Keillor’s “News from Lake Wobegon” (Winter-Spring-Summer-Fall) cassette tapes from Botswana, Africa in the 1980s. How we adored those stories, playing them over and over again. We especially loved the ones on the Winter cassette because they vividly evoked a world of snow and ice that we could only dimly remember. In particular I remember a story about an icy cold water pump in the play yard at school. The young boy was terrified to go near it because he thought the pump might say “Come here boy…stick your tongue out.”

    • Shirley Showalter on September 23, 2016 at 6:16 am

      Now that you mention those, Karin, I think I also bought a set. I remember the seasonal settings. You are an interesting example of another kind of nostalgia. Since you listened to Garrison Keillor as a child, you now have nostalgia for his nostalgia. Ha.

      Welcome a real winter in Minnesota again. Watch out for the water pumps!

  16. Russ Eanes on September 23, 2016 at 8:00 am

    I love Garrison Keillor and have been listening to him for 35 years or more. Saturday evenings will never be the same without him. I have also read, or listened to, several of his novels and also his autobiography, “Homegrown Democrat.” His playful satire of his hometown actually shows a deep affection for his background, rather than a bitterness. He also satires urban folk. He is a bridge. I finally got to go to a live show this past May and was blown away. He started sing-alongs before the show started and kept it going afterward. I know he has been called a modern Mark Twain, but he’s so much more than that. Perhaps a Wendell Berry with a deep humor. He is unique and comparisons don’t do him justice. I hope that Mennonites, especially those planning the new hymnal, hear his words about not losing the four part harmony. Thanks for this, Shirley! One more thing: he has made me proud to be an English Major and I proudly wear my POEM shirt!

    • Shirley Showalter on September 23, 2016 at 8:36 am

      Wow, Russ. You are a much deeper appreciator than the average fan. And you’ve read a lot more of him in print than I have.

      You are absolutely right about the deep affection he has for his background, especially for the hymns.

      And of course I love all the English Major jokes.

      I think that the NYTimes profile on his gloom was really a reference to the private/public divisions in his self. Not uncommon in an artist! Others who have tried to talk with him outside of his performance venues have observed how hard it seems for him to just converse. He reveals a lot about his sense of being an outsider in his National Geographic article above.

      I hope you heard/watched the Goshen concert in its entirety. You could probably resonate with it even more than most, having made Keillor’s work an object of deep reflection. I’m so glad you shared these thoughts here.

  17. Audrey Denecke on September 23, 2016 at 12:59 pm

    Thank you, Shirley for this delightful post. Garrison touches so many of us as evidenced by all the posts here. I grew up after age 3 in the country so I too enjoy the “way back” stories to the simpler life. I also so appreciated your link to the Goshen choir. Thanks to some dear friends, and friends of friends, I once traveled to southern West Virgina and a cultural center which shared the mountain music, culture, and people. We spent a weekend listening to mountain music (and some of my friends played too on stage)including songs about “pans of biscuits and bowls of gravy; unions “in the mines, in the mines, in the blue diamond mines, we worked our lives away,” West Virgina mountains, “the green rolling hills of WVA,” and Sunday morning we listened to songs of the spiritual traditions. Lake Wobegone, and other such places, are very possibly touch points to our deeper selves.

    • Audrey Denecke on September 23, 2016 at 1:01 pm

      Sorry about the editing problem “certainly” showed up where it didn’t belong.

      • Shirley Showalter on September 23, 2016 at 3:38 pm

        I took it out.

    • Shirley Showalter on September 23, 2016 at 3:43 pm

      Audrey, your experience in West Virginia illustrates the point GK makes above that all he has to do is say certain words and people fill in their own pictures and stories. Your description reminded me of a different culture but similar evocative words: “songs about “pans of biscuits and bowls of gravy; unions “in the mines, in the mines, in the blue diamond mines, we worked our lives away,” West Virgina mountains, “the green rolling hills of WVA. . . .”

      At his best, Keillor touches points in our deepest selves, and we can learn from him as we attempt to put our own special words on the page.

  18. Mary Gottschalk on September 23, 2016 at 2:22 pm

    Shirley … this was a real stroll down memory lane … first listened to Keillor in 1975 and was a regular for many years … often planned Saturday evenings around listening to Prairie Home. I’ve never been to Lake Woebegon, but I think it would be a great thrill.

    Glad you’re loving your Minnesota sabbatical.

    • Shirley Showalter on September 23, 2016 at 3:45 pm

      Hi Mary, welcome to another longtime PHC listener. I’m surprised how many of my writer friends are fans.

      I am indeed loving my sabbatical and hope you are loving Iowa in the fall also.

  19. Elaine Mansfield on September 29, 2016 at 2:30 pm

    I love learning about your adventures (even though I’m in the midst of a run of visitors). What a surprise for you and an adventure. My husband and I were city kids longing for the country. We found our land in the rural Finger Lakes of New York State. We helped build a philosophy/meditation center and enjoyed the grace of many wise visitors and teachers, including the Dalai Lama in 1979 and again in the 1990s. We tore into a falling apart farmhouse and made it whole, grew an organic garden, cut our firewood, and raised kids–all while listening to PHC. Keiler’s voice put me in a mellow frame of mind and he always reminded me (and others) of Mark Twain who was born near here. I look forward to your next adventure.

    • Shirley Showalter on September 29, 2016 at 2:42 pm

      What a great story, Elaine. Wouldn’t it be fun if Keillor would have known this and somehow added a Buddhist arriving in Lake Wobegon? Maybe stumbling upon Our Lady of Perpetual Responsibility and helping the congregants practice non-resistance?? Guess it’s too late to suggest that to him, but it would have been fun! I always like the little glimpses I get into your life with Vic and your children. Thanks for sharing.

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