“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.”
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.
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.