Garrison Keillor loves U

The radio personality extends his praise from the prairie to his other home? the University

Erin Adler

Garrison Keillor began his Jan. 14 radio show by crooning the tune “As Long as I Live.” He dedicated the love song to a place he holds dear, featuring stories and skits about the same spot, “out of pure love and nostalgia.” He credited the site with giving shape to his life and profession.

Keillor has made a career out of this kind of nostalgia, carving wistfulness each week from the details of daily life on his radio show, “A Prairie Home Companion,” now in its 30th year. On this night, though, Keillor wasn’t directing his affection toward the fictional Lake Wobegon.

Instead, he was referring fondly to his alma mater, the University of Minnesota. Turns out, he just might be the University’s most passionate alumnus.

“I really felt that what I got from the University of Minnesota was as good as anything I’ve heard about anybody getting from any college or university,” he said in an interview with A&E.

This semester, Keillor’s enthusiasm for the University will be felt through his increased physical presence: in two performances of “A Prairie Home Companion” at Ted Mann Concert Hall and in the classroom of the comedy-writing course he is teaching.

But before he taught students, Keillor was one, attending the University in the 1960s and graduating with a bachelor’s degree in English.

While a student, he wrote for The Minnesota Daily and worked at Radio K.

He said that despite the passing of more than 40 years, the most important aspect of the University has not changed: the students.

“One doesn’t need to spend a lot of time around the “U’ to meet and be aware of this active, restless, ambitious spirit, which is the same (as when I was there),” he said. “It’s the spirit of people seeking their own education…. It’s an enormous liberation.”

From the time he enrolled in fall 1960, Keillor said, he knew what he wanted from the University.

“Whether I majored in English or journalism, I wanted to be a writer, and that’s what I went there for,” he said, noting that the large size of the school could be “very hard” on students who were not as sure of their academic interests.

Keillor spoke of how the size of the University and its many peer groups helped him define his burgeoning identity as a writer.

“I immediately fell in with a whole group of people who wanted the same things,” he said. “I don’t think I could have gotten that at a small liberal arts college because there would have been a whole social scene and social pressures to be a cool person.

“That didn’t exist at the “U,’ so you were yourself,” he said.

In 1969 Keillor began writing for The New Yorker; five years later he was writing a piece about the Grand Ole Opry when the idea for a radio show hit him. He titled the show “A Prairie Home Companion,” and its first performance was in 1974 in front of a dozen listeners.

Today 4 million people listen each week. Based at the Fitzgerald Theater in St. Paul, the show regularly travels around the country.

Keillor elected to perform the Jan. 14 and Jan. 21 shows on campus at the Ted Mann Concert Hall. Ted Mann’s stage is more than 20 feet

wider than the Fitzgerald’s, and it seats about 225 more people.

“(Ted Mann) is as good as it gets. They know what they’re doing here,” said Albert Webster, “A Prairie Home Companion” stage manager. “This is a hall that fits the show artistically, it has good acoustics and the audience gets to be fairly close to him.”

The Jan. 14 taping sold out quickly, and if the University alumni in the audience were looking for school spirit from Keillor, they weren’t disappointed. The show featured poetic recitations in Latin in honor of Keillor’s first college class (a Latin reading course), a skit about a gopher with low self-esteem, and musical nods to Bob Dylan. Keillor jested he and Dylan used to “earn their tuition with a deck of cards” while at school.

The Minnesota hockey pep band also played several songs; they impressed Keillor because of their status as “volunteers,” he said.

“I don’t just mean that they’re not paid, I mean that they do it because they love it. That’s sort of a throwback, especially in athletics,” he said.

His “Guy Noir” bit, another such throwback, is a farcical film noir-inspired detective show, like those popular in the golden age of radio. This episode was set at the University, with Noir on the trail of an enzyme that makes it possible to get a Ph.D. in only a few weeks.

Keillor skipped the treasured “News from Lake Wobegon” to recount a memory of his weeklong, ice-encrusted voyage to the University by dogsled to hand in a Hamlet paper.

The show was filled with feel-good banter, passive-aggressive political references and, as usual, nostalgia. When he’s not on the radio, though, Keillor is more apt to be, well, real. And though he loves the University, he’s quick to point out that, politically and financially, things are different now than they were.

“In effect, the University is no longer a public school; it’s a private institution with some public money,” he said, noting that this meant many students graduated loan-free.

This spring, perhaps in a personal effort to unburden the University from increased operating costs, Keillor will teach a creative writing course on comedy writing with no University remuneration. He taught the course in 2001 and said he enjoyed the experience.

“The students who came through that class were incredibly wonderful,” he said. “I don’t think they appreciated how funny they were; at their best, they were terrific.”

This semester, he said, he’s “all ginned up to go in there and you know, find my parking spot, and meet the class.”

Which begs the questions, will Keillor the radio star ” and now screenwriter ” spend much time in his office in Lind Hall? And will his students love Keillor as much as he seems to love the University ” and them?

It depends whom you ask. “A Prairie Home Companion” assistant stage manager Kelly Schaub said Keillor “has a connection here at the “U’ … but he realizes that younger people are not his primary audience.”

But “A Prairie Home Companion” intern and St. Paul native Kiira Gustafson, a senior at Wellesley College, said it’s because, rather than in spite of, Keillor’s older audience that some of her friends listen.

“I have this crowd of hipster friends from New York. They say they’ve been listening to the show since the ’70s, which can’t be true,” she said. “They think of it as sort of retro-cool.”