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1933-2008: Jon Hassler wrote to the end

By David Hawley | Thursday, March 20, 2008 Jon Hassler, considered one of Minnesota’s leading contemporary novelists, died early this morning from complications of a degenerative neuromuscular disease that had ravaged him for more than a decade.

Gretchen Kresl and Jon Hassler
Photo by Dave Wood
Last fall, Gretchen Kresl and Jon Hassler took a break from working on “Jay O’Malley” for an interview with MinnPost. See video at right in related content.

Jon Hassler, considered one of Minnesota’s leading contemporary novelists, died early this morning from complications of a degenerative neuromuscular disease that had ravaged him for more than a decade. He would have been 75 on March 30.

“He wrote right to the end,” said Lee Hanley, a close friend and colleague at St. John’s University in Collegeville, where Hassler was writer-in-residence from 1980 to 1997.

Earlier this year, Hanley said he helped Hassler and his wife, Gretchen Kresl, organize chapters of what is expected to be Hassler’s 22nd book. The chapters, Hanley said, had been scattered on several old floppy computer disks. (MinnPost writer Dave Wood wrote about that novel last fall.) 

“We were uncertain which chapter was which, but when we read a line — just one line — Jon would know precisely where it was in the novel,” Hanley said. “It was all in his head.”

The novel, tentatively titled “Jay O’Malley,” is virtually complete, Hanley reported.

“It’s very autobiographical,” said Hanley, who also attended St. John’s with Hassler in the 1950s. “I think Jay O’Malley is Jon Hassler. One of my regrets is that I’ll have to buy it because Jon won’t be here to give me my complimentary copy.”

Hassler, whose first novel, “Staggerford,” was published in 1977, spent the last 13 years battling progressive supranuclear palsy, a Parkinson’s-like disease that affected his vision, speech and mobility. The rare disease is the same one that claimed the life of actor Dudley Moore.

“His spirit was so young, even when he was ill and wheelchair-bound,” said Minneapolis novelist Faith Sullivan. “Jon was such a consummate gentleman and scholar. When I say ‘gentleman’ it’s in the best sense of an old-fashioned courtly gentleman. He also was a man of great humor and humanity and that came through in his writing and in his personal relationships and friendships.”

Hassler was born in Minneapolis, but grew up in Staples and Plainview, where he graduated from high school. The latter town in Wabasha County is thought to be the model for the small towns in his novels that are so important in the lives of his central characters. Many are Catholic — or lapsed Catholics — and most are involved in a gentle struggle to discover purpose in their lives.

Critics sometimes compared Hassler to John Cheever and Evelyn Waugh. Novelist Richard Russo, in writing about Hassler’s “North of Hope” (1996), said Hassler’s “brilliance has always been his ability to achieve the depth of real literature through such sure-handed, no-gimmicks honest language that the results appear effortless.”

At the heart of Hassler’s novelistic world was small-town Minnesota, and some of his admirers believe he rescued it from caricature.

“Minnesota has been lost between the sentimental images of Lake Wobegon and the cynical look of Sinclair Lewis’s Gopher Prairie,” said Nick Hayes, professor of history and university chair of critical thinking at St. John’s.

“Jon rescued small-town Minnesota,” Hayes said. “He saw it without sentimentality, but with a subtle eye that brought out the dignity, humanity and humor of its characters. I was always amazed by his ability to give such life to characters that you would think, at first glance,  would be of no interest whatsoever. He saw the complexity of individuals.”

In a statement, St. John’s University President Dietrich Reinhard called Hassler “one of this country’s great storytellers — a Minnesota voice whose plots and people, while they came to us from small and out-of-the-way places, spoke to all of us, whatever our life experiences.”

Hassler also wrote plays, including an adaptation of his second novel, “Simon’s Night.” The Jon Hassler Theater in Plainview is named for him.

One of his novels, “A Green Journey,” was adapted into a 1990 film titled “The Love She Sought,” which starred Angela Lansbury as the parochial schoolmarm Agatha McGee, who appeared in many of Hassler’s novels. Recurring characters, in fact, were a trademark of his work — such as Miles Pruitt, who died in “Staggerford,” but was mentioned in several novels that followed. Others included Larry Quinn, who appeared in “The Love Hunter” and “Rockery Blues,” and Frank Healy, who appeared in “North of Hope” and “The New Woman.”

“The Love Hunter” was optioned for a dramatic film adaptation years ago by Robert Redford, though the production remains in development.

After graduating from St. John’s in 1955, Hassler taught English at three different Minnesota high schools, eventually earning a graduate degree from the University of North Dakota. He later taught at Bemidji State University and Brainerd Community College before going to St. John’s.

Hassler was married three times and fathered three children. He lived most recently in Minneapolis and had been in the hospital at the time of his death. Funeral arrangements are pending.