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Jim Klobuchar: columnist, adventurer, the last of a kind

I first met Klobuchar through his spellbinding words, when he was covering the Minnesota Vikings for the Minneapolis Star.

Jim Klobuchar, 2015
Star Tribune
Jim Klobuchar, 2015

The last of Minnesota’s newspaper celebrities is gone. Jim Klobuchar, columnist, adventurer, the very proud father of a U.S. senator, died Wednesday at age 93, his once creative mind (sometimes too creative) dimmed by Alzheimer’s disease.

I first met Klobuchar through his spellbinding words. He was covering the Minnesota Vikings for the Minneapolis Star. I was covering the St. Louis Cardinals football team for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.

This was the mid-1970s, before the internet had taken over all forms of communication. In those days of typewriters and massive Linotype machines and, ah, cigarette smoke wafting so gently through every newsroom, the libraries at large newspapers carried newspapers from major cities throughout the country.

To keep up with what was going on throughout the National Football League, I’d make frequent trips to the Post-Dispatch library to read accounts of what reporters in other cities were writing. Klobuchar was by far my favorite reporter.

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His stories about the Vikings were so different from the stories about other NFL teams. Unlike players with most NFL teams, who were cautious and filled with clichés, the Vikings players Klobe wrote about were witty and wise. How fascinating it must be, I’d think, to cover a team like the Vikings.

And then in 1979, I moved to Minneapolis to become a sportswriter for the Minneapolis Star. Imagine my surprise when I discovered that the Vikings’ players were just as full of clichés as players in St. Louis had been. Turns out that Klobe had simply “helped” the players be more poetic in print than they were in reality.

Nobody seemed to mind these “tweaks” in what players were saying because they were seen as harmless. Players were not quoted expressing anger at Viking coaches, management or at each other.  Klobe’s Vikings were chivalrous, knights of a purple round table.

This style only got Klobe in trouble a few times, one of the most notable being in a column he wrote for the Star on the eve of the final Vikings game to be played at the old Met Stadium in 1981. It was assumed by most that many fans would be seeking souvenirs from that old stadium but Klobe wrote as if souvenir hunting had the blessing of team officials.

Klobuchar quoted a Vikings official as saying, “All we want to do is to hold down the self-inflicted injuries to minor concussions and treatable fractures. If they are going to carry off their seats, we prefer handsaws to standard Black & Decker ripsaws. …”

The humorous quote didn’t come from the Vikings’ official. It came from Klobe’s imagination. The team was upset. Following the last game at the Met, fans did start tearing out seats and sod and anything else they could get their hands on.

Klobe was suspended for two weeks without pay.

But Klobuchar never stopped being himself. He glamorized the routine. He made everyday people, who were the bread and butter of his daily columns, just a little more heroic than they probably were. He cheered for the downtrodden, who in Klobe’s world were typically without warts. He scorned the powerful, especially if they weren’t his friends.

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Like Sid Hartman, he wasn’t always an easy colleague to deal with. (Sid, who died at 100 last October, and Klobe mostly stayed in opposite corners of the newsroom.) But like Sid, Klobuchar did have his endearing qualities.

At one point, after I’d had a difficult run-in with a newsroom manager, Klobe offered some advice on how to approach our business.

“Always remember you’re writing for readers, not for editors,” he told me.

Overzealous editors were one of Klobe’s constant foes. His readers — and fellow adventurers — were his allies.

Jim Klobuchar, 1967
Minnesota Historical Society
Jim Klobuchar, 1967

But the times have changed. The massive changes in the newspaper industry mean there likely will be no more Klobuchars in Minnesota, or anywhere else. For starters, newspapers no longer are the media that bind us. With each new podcast, each new form of communication, the voices of people such as Klobe are diminished.

Beyond that, there’s far less room for individual styles and personalities in the heavily managed newsrooms of our time. In his peak years, Klobe was generally left alone by editors who mostly accepted his, umm, unique reporting style because they understood he was one of the reasons people were loyal to the paper. These old editors understood that most in Minnesota knew names like Klobuchar and Hartman. Few knew the names of executive editors.

But at times, even Klobuchar managed to step over the wide boundaries that were supposed to restrain him, at least a little. There was the Met Stadium debacle. There was a speech he wrote for Rudy Perpich, which led to a suspension. And there was a highly publicized drunk-driving episode that led to a front-page apology and 28 years of sobriety before his death.

Sobriety and aging didn’t take the edge off his combativeness. There was no more enthusiastic campaigner for Amy Klobuchar than the old man. But the senator obviously made it clear to her staff that her father should be carefully managed.  She knew that if anyone in a campaign crowd said anything negative about her, they’d find themselves jaw-to-jaw with an old journalist who was the last of a kind.