Larry Oakes' advice to budding journalists was “Omit unnecessary words,” but it would be impossible to limit the adoration of his family and friends when asked about this teacher of Bulldogs and teller of Northern Minnesota’s stories.
They gathered earlier this month to celebrate the new Larry Oakes Journalism Internship Scholarship, which gives a $1,250 scholarship to UMD students pursuing a journalism internship at a Minnesota newspaper, which is matched by the Minnesota Newspaper association.
Emulating the scholarship’s namesake is a tough assignment. Larry worked for the Star Tribune for most of his career, winning awards and earning envy from other journalists. Kyle Farris, the first recipient of the scholarship, read one of Larry's best-known pieces, “The Lost Youth of Leach Lake,” and says he's jealous that he didn’t write it, Kyle's measure of exceptional writing. “It’s a great honor to win a scholarship named after a writer like that and a person like that,” he says. Kyle, a journalism major, will intern with the Duluth News Tribune this summer.
If Larry were here today, it’s a safe bet that he would jump at the chance to help Kyle with the craft. His approach to teaching, says his former student and current UMD writing studies instructor Chris Godsey, was empowering. “He went about it with good humor and grace and with an eye toward professional credibility. It was obvious that the craft of writing and the task of reporting were very important to him, and he found a way to bring us into that world.”
Chris had Larry as an instructor at UMD more than 20 years ago, but thinks about him almost daily, “I’m conscious of him every time I’m in a classroom. He was that formative to me.” Chris remembers Larry loaning him The Razor's Edge, a simple act that probably happens all the time between instructors and their students. But the intention behind the loan became the foundation for how he teaches:
It was in a humanities classroom, the spring of 1993, and I remember that because it was the first time I shaved my head. And he looked at me and said, “Godsey, you want to explain that?” and I said, “I’m getting to the end of when I can do weird stuff. It was an impulsive decision.” And he just said all right. And my recollection is that he handed me the book a week or two after. And he said, “Godsey, I wanted to share this book with you.” It was a beautiful, cloth bound hardcopy. “I want to tell you that this was written during World War II, when these materials were scarce, when rationing was in place, and my dad gave it to me. It’s about a young man who’s seeking something, and you seem to be seeking something.”
It was a huge deal to me in the sense that he wasn’t saying, “Here’s how you should think, here’s what you should do.” He was saying, “I see you.” I think that’s affirming for a young person who knows there are things they’re having a hard time figuring out. I don’t think that anyone else would have seen that. He’s the one person who made that overture. I don’t think I realized what a big deal that was until he died and I started thinking about it.
There is an old adage, “We don’t meet people by accident, they are meant to cross our paths for a reason.” One of the hosts of the scholarship celebration, Cindy Hedlund, crossed paths with Larry Oakes so many times that they were intertwined for a lifetime. Cindy and Larry first met as kids at Lester Park Elementary School before Larry’s family moved to Cass Lake. They reunited as UMD students and again when Larry married his wife Patty, a friend of Cindy’s. Larry and Cindy’s rapport was instantaneous, “We just clicked. Larry was interested in everybody and everything. He never talked about himself, which was perfect for being a reporter. He always knew what questions to ask.”
That instinct was honed at an age when most are still perfecting the art of essay tests. In 1982, while he was still a student at the U of M, Larry started working for the Duluth News Tribune. A few years later, he began reporting for the Star Tribune, first covering St. Paul and then Northern Minnesota, his beat for more than two decades. It was back home in the north woods that Larry wrote the stories that he is best known for, and the stories that young journalists like scholarship-winner Kyle Farris continue to learn from.
Larry passed away a little more than a year ago, on January 4, 2013. His funeral was held at DECC, which illustrated his enormous impact. His family, with the help and support of their friends, established the Larry Oakes Journalism Internship Scholarship later that year as a way of continuing his legacy. To date, $38,500 has been raised.
Cheryl Meese, a good friend of Larry’s, helped initiate the scholarship. She hopes that the name behind the scholarship remains relevant, “I just hope that, as the years pass and different students are part of this legacy, I hope that they continue to know what a remarkable man and journalist that he was.”
Larry Oakes' work, "The Lost Youth of Leech Lake"
Story by Lori C. Melton