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After retiring from television journalism, why I can't quit as a journalist

Don Shelby
minnesota.cbslocal.com
"Didn't you used to be Don Shelby?"

You may have noticed that I have retired from the daily practice of television journalism. (Insert your own jokes here about the oxymoronic nature of the sentence above.) I was fearful, and remain so, about what my life would be like without the megaphone that WCCO-TV provided me for 32 years. I have always believed that there is no greater has-been than a person who used to be on television.

Once, Dave Moore, after his retirement, was walking down Nicollet Mall and a man stopped him on the street and said, "Didn't you used to be Dave Moore?" I'm waiting for someone to say that to me.

As it turns out, I have friends in high places who still remember that I once could spin a pretty good yarn. So, here I am writing for MinnPost. This opening tome will not contain a lot of news reporting. I intend, however, to do that in future pieces. This post is intended to bring you up to date on what's been happening to me in the past two months since my retirement.

 
I have always been a student. That is, I became a student after I was one, officially. Once I was in the business, I realized I knew dreadfully little. I would go to parties and the group I was chatting with turned its attention to Proust. I turned my attention to the punch bowl. Another clique was carrying on about intrigues inside of some obscure public agency or other. I nodded in recognition of the dilemma, and made a note to look up some facts about what they were talking about.

It was that way on an incalculable number of subjects – subjects common to the conversations of my colleagues, but foreign to me. When I was starting out, I didn't think a journalist needed to know anything, but simply go out and get two sides of a story, stick some purple prose on the thing, and do a smashing standup close. I was mistaken, and my inferiority complex became more complex.

The next 45 years
So what happened over the next 45 years was the often pathetic effort you see when watching a basketball game, one team is outmatched in every aspect of the game, and it is playing from behind, hoping that something remarkable will happen to turn the game around. Hoping that the team suddenly becomes good. It is a forlorn hope. There is only one answer. The team, the players, has to get better.

My coach was Dave Moore. He had me figured from the tip-off. What tipped him off was my knack of changing the subject every time he brought up one about which I was ignorant. For the first couple of years, I changed the subject during every conversation we ever had. Dave was not the kind of person who would humiliate anyone, and he didn't me. But, from time to time, I would find a book on my desk with a note in Dave's hand. "You should read this. I think you'll like it."

I read the books. Most people had read them in high school. I hadn't. I played basketball, partied, got beat up a lot and played some more basketball. My Dad was smart and so was my sister. That seemed like enough in one family. I was the only basketball player. In fact, I lettered in every sport my school offered. It was a hiding place.
   
So, I ended up in a profession where, to my surprise, you had to actually know things. You had to know how government worked, how police investigate crimes, how lawyers try cases, how there exists a tension between worker and employer, how politics isn't the same as governance and how every leader is not cracked up to what he or she should be. How people in power will lie and try to keep critical information secret so the public will never awaken to the fact that they are, from time to time, being railroaded into believing a lie.

It was all new to me. I was an innocent.

So, I concocted a game plan. I took to taking notes. When someone brought up the Bronte sisters, I wrote down their names – misspelled, as I remember. Bronty. I made a list of books I should have read. I made a list of 100. The next year, I read them all. By the time I had finished the list, I had a new one -- another 100. I read them. After five years, I could hold my own at parties and with Dave, without changing the subject very often.
 
The more I worked as a reporter, the more I realized I had no idea what other people did, or how they did it. So, I began hanging out, in my off-hours, with judges and lawyers and police officers.  They were more than happy to teach, because that's what they were doing. I was nearing 30 years of age and I was, at last, becoming a student.

Couldn't stop
I am an addictive personality. I have been addicted to tobacco, alcohol, getting engaged (five times) and now I was becoming addicted to learning things. I couldn't stop. I kept reading from the catch-up list, but I added texts of the more obscure kind. I was blessed with a wonderful and awful capacity to be unable to forget anything I read.

What got me into television in the first place was the fact that I loved attention, the center of the stage; I wanted the ball in my hands at the end of the game. I loved approval and I loved to perform. That's where the learning took a turn for the worse…the worst. I became a blow-hard, know-it-all.

The image would stay with me throughout my career. I understand. But, the truth was, I was so damned happy to know things, and so proud of the fact, that I couldn't keep it to myself.

I'm still doing it. Retirement ought to mean that the pressure is off. You've done your job, you've won some awards, you made some money and built a family, and now it is time to relax. I can't. Every day I am reminded of something I don't know, but should. What has gotten me the last few years is how little I know about science. I was terrible at science in school. I wasn't going to be a scientist, so there.

Now, much of what is important in the world has something to do with an area of understanding for which I've been a cipher. So, I'm doing what I've always done. I'm reading everything I can get my hands on. I'm taking courses on organic and inorganic chemistry, physics, quantum mechanics and geology. I'm doing this so that I can know what scientists are telling us. Ten years ago a scientific paper looked like gobbledygook to me. Today it looks less so.
 
Why study the sciences? Fair question. I want to know, among other things, if the science supporting global-warming theory is correct or if some people -- fossil fuel producers, politicians who represent those businesses or states big on fossil fuel production, and blowhard pundits -- are correct in saying there is nothing to worry about.

I'm reading a lot about water and petroleum and talking to economists and petro-geologists about whether we should be concerned about running out of the two things that, one, make our country run, and two, make human beings and all life run. These seem to be more than just interesting subjects for cocktail party discussion. If the science is right, we are in big trouble. We are in big trouble at a time when I am supposed to be off the journalism clock.

I've got to tell you that I wouldn't be comfortable in a hammock or passing a lazy summer day fishing if I could help find the truth of these matters and tell them to people. I could get a soapbox and stand on the corner with a tambourine and a megaphone and let my hair grow and wear a sandwich board warning of the end of the world, as we know it.

Or I could write a weekly post for MinnPost. I think that's what I'm going to do.

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Comments (38)

Welcome to MinnPost, Don. I didn't think you would be out of the game for long.

This is a terrific choice! Best wishes as you start, and I really look forward to this body of work. I think you are in an excellent position to dispassionately relate what you discover. I sincerely hope you are also able to enjoy the gradual return of your long-lost privacy. Perhaps it will be the best thing of all.

Look forward to your writing here, and kudos to keeping the love of learning alive. Hopefully your classmates (assuming you're taking these courses with "traditional" students) recognize how valuable the education they're getting is, if someone retired from a successful career thinks it worthwhile to join them.

This is an easy one. Because you like what you do, and vegetating at home or on the golf course (or whatever) is not an option for someone with an active mind and yearning need for involvement in our society and nation.

I followed the same path. I owned several ad agencies for 45 years...retired for about one week...then started a new business at the age of 69 and began freelance writing (see Community Voices from as recently as yesterday). At 78, I still work virtually full time, so you have many good and engaging years ahead.

In that regard, you have a great peer group, many senior as well, at Minnpost. It all makes for a perfect situation. You will love it! Good luck.

Don't be afraid of passion, and remember this ain't TV. You don't take courses in physics and chemistry you can "know" what scientists are saying, you take such courses so you can understand what they are saying.

Wow, Don says his first column won't contain news, but instead will be all about him. Knock me over with a feather!

Unprecedented! A TV person admitting (former)ignorance!

As another former journalist now writing for MinnPost, thanks for that candid and interesting intro.

Welcome. I look forward to reading more about your adventures with the guys and gals on the cutting edge of climate science and clean energy. Jackson, have you considered the possibility that the MinnPost editors asked Shelby to devote the first column to the question of why he can't stay away from journalism and why he is now writing for MinnPost? It's a typical first column for a new columnist.

Thanks for the update, Mr. Shelby. I look forward to reading about the things you've discovered.

I hope you'll feel free to lay things out a bit more clearly here at MinnPost that you could on TV. After all, you won't have to worry so much about saying things that are going to bring the switchboard a lot of angry calls or cause a certain portion of your viewers to turn back to weasel news where they only hear what seems "right" to them.

As a retired teacher, welcome to retirement. Your need to learn and share is admirable but please do not dis hammocks and fishing.

In your TV days, when we (environmental and animal rights groups) brought you important information you did little to help us get the word out. Today the environmental and financial situtaion of Minnesota and America is in dreadful condition and we need all hands on deck. Even yours. I'm not confident you will be helpful but I'm willing to give you a chance. Good luck.

Looking forward to your reporting, Don, in this very accessible format!

lovely. the making of a life-long learner. with an extra dollop of humility. Welcome to MinnPost.

Welcome back! I have a similar addction to learning. While I can't pursue it in classes, whenever something come across my desk or a conversation that I know nothing about, I now do a search, read to get an understanding, and then start checking out the books.

Thankfully, my library, the Great River Regional, has been very supportive of this addiction. I look forward to more of your columns.

The first I heard of MinnPost was during one of your WCCO radio interviews with one of its writers. I can't remember which journalist you were interviewing, and I was driving, so writing the name down didn't seem like a great idea. But I've come to refer to this site for the news I think I need to know.

And without saying disparaging things about the current WCCO radio host in the afternoon, you are GREATLY missed!

Good to have you Back!

Mr. Shelby, you have no idea how happy I am to hear that a journalist is stepping into a learning role. Even a "retired" journalist. As a scientist, I find it incredibly frustrating to see or read the news with twisted "facts" and ignorant statements in science. My disgust is not limited to ignorance of science, but so many other topics, and the idea that both sides of the story must necessarily be given equal weight. I admit that the only thing that kept me watching TV news was you. I have since completely stopped watching the news and find my news purely online. It's easier to look up details when reading the news, anyway, and I believe that's something we should all be doing. We shouldn't ever just blindly trust the media, any media, anyway.

Don's first post:

"Let's talk about me"

Don, love it. You're the greatest!

Welcome to the old geezers club, Shelby. It's fun while you can still think and write and you'll live longer outside the hammock.

This brought proud tears to my eyes. It also made me less fearful of how little I feel I know, despite devouring information daily. If, in 30 years, I can be as charming and wise as you, Don Shelby, then something good will have been achieved with my days.

It's wonderful to have you back on the horse, sir.

You will be a great addition for those of us who get most of our serious information from MinnPost. You have always been a great teacher. If I am not mistaken, several (well perhaps many) years ago, you taught me how to tie my necktie! I still do it your way, and it is the best. Keep teaching.

Didn't you used to be Don Shelby? :)

That's a pretty good column showing pretty good humility. Whoever wrote the lead-in that shows on the front page (and I am pretty sure it wasn't Don) did Shelby no favors. It is incredibly self-absorbed, and the column really isn't.

Journalist? Ha! I wrote you off in that sense when you and all your pals in the Media went after the Wellstone memorial. It was eerie how closely your complaints echoed those of the rightwing and how much they differed from my own impressions or the memorial that I attended. Even though it was the same event.

You showwed you true colors that day. I thank you for that, but I would never think of you as a journalist again.

Welcome to MinnPost, Don! I've really appreciated your coverage of energy issues in Minnesota over the years and am excited that energy continues to be a key interest of yours. If you're ever in need of stories about Minnesotans working to meet our energy challenges with innovative projects, please let me know. Looking forward to your weekly posts!

There is a real problem in reporting science. Scientists have their own language, don't like to speak in absolutes, and don't like to speak in 10 second sound bites. All things that mainstream journalists seem to require (maybe because we, as consumers of journalism, ask for that).

Someone to take the time to thoughtfully discuss these critical scientific issues in non-technical language will certainly contribute to the public's understanding.

This is great news, I have missed your voice and the depth you brought to the news of the last several years.

Reading, listening, investigating, and understanding something about context, and implications is near absent from television news, and getting more hit and miss in newspapers. While I have disagreed with "your take" at times, I have been confident that you put some effort into knowing something about the subject of a report and so your piece is, for me, an affirmation that this trust is well placed.

My sister tells a story of sitting with Don Shelby at a dinner for students participating in the Student Government program through the schools. She says Shelby never once asked any of the kids about the program or how they were participating or what they intended to do education wise. He just talked about himself. After reading this column, I find her story very credible -- even for a sister.

WCCO has been the not to goto newscast since the Wellstone Memorial coverage as was mentioned by someone else. If you want to reinvent yourself I'll let others tell me that that might be happening.

Don

Don--I emailed you the last day you were at CCO' asking what you would do after you swept the garage. Thanks for answering the question today.

Arnie Hillmann

Wow Don, I've learned more about you today than in the previous 15 years I've watched you and listened to you. Thanks for the heartfelt first post. I'll be looking forward to reading your next posts.

The late actor Gregory Peck also had a similar anecdote about his friend and fellow actor, James Mason. The latter was encountered in the streets of London by an elderly woman who queried, "Mightn't you be the wonderful James Mason in his later years?"

But, on a serious note, dear Don: Welcome to MinnPost. I appreciate your sincerity, your thirst for knowledge, your humility, and above all your sense of humor. You are just what the doctor ordered to liven this site.

I'm glad, I look forward to reading what Don writes. I'm thinking Don must be a speed reader.

Today at the bank. Teller says to me: "Doing anything fun this weekend?". "Not really", says I. "Going to Ely with Don Shelby.". Teller says to her co worker, "Did you hear that? Patrick is spending the weekend with Shelby." To which the second teller replied, "Cool, you know John Shelby. He's the weather guy on 'CCO, right?"

Didn't you used to be John Shelby?

Terrific first post, Don. Glad to see it. But much as I love Minnpost, it seems here you will be preaching to the choir, the odd Westover comment notwithstanding.

Here's another book for you to read: Mindset by Carol Dweck, who is a psychologist at Stanford University. It's about the huge implications of having a "growth" mindset that sees intelligence as something that can be increased with effort and having a "fixed" mindset that sees intelligence as something that comes from inherited aptitude and that is pretty much static no matter what a person does in life. Dweck has been conducting groundbreaking research on this for decades and Mindset is her effort to articulate that research for a broader audience. I flag this book because your essay is a fantastic example of having a growth mindset. It's an idea that has big implications for education and other fields. Along those lines, I was in an elementary school in Saint Paul the other day that had a banner above the entrance that is the school's motto and could also be yours: "Smart is not what you are -- it's what you work to become."

Minnpost LEAPING the shark..with a pirouette no less. bye bye.

Welcome Don, you've entered a place of great where the retired have more skills and insight than most of those still working. You'll fit in fine and wish you every success.