Retiring ‘Prairie Home Companion’ host provided wealth of good memories

Earlier this month, radio legend Garrison Keillor signed off for the last time as the host of “A Prairie Home Companion,” a program he created and has hosted since 1974.

“A Prairie Home Companion,” an eclectic mix of humor, music and storytelling, was often a part of my National Public Radio weekend lineup. Whether driving, working on household chores or grading papers, I often listened to “A Prairie Home Companion,” “Wait Wait…Don’t Tell Me!,” “This American Life” or “Car Talk.” The hosts of Car Talk, Tom and Ray Magliozzi, have retired. Sadly, Tom passed away in 2014.

When I was a youth, I prized a portable black General Electric AM/FM Instant Weather transistor radio. It was magic. As long as I had a nine-volt battery with a little bit of juice, I could turn the dial and listen to Purdue basketball games, Cubs baseball or the CBS Radio Mystery Theater. Radio transported me far away from central Indiana. On clear nights, the AM dial could pick up stations in exotic, faraway places like Minneapolis, Memphis or even Canada.

Radio is a simple, elegant media. It is the “Theater of the Mind.” The speaker gives you words, music and sound effects. The listener must provide the rest. Radio’s capacity to tell a story has no boundaries. Television, movies and video games set limits. The imagination is confined by the images on the screen.

For 42 years, Keillor kept alive an old format, the radio variety show. He brought bluegrass and alternate country music into our homes. Like Will Rogers and Mark Twain before him, Keillor continued an American tradition of gentle rural humor loaded with a sometimes subtle, sometimes brusque, critique of our culture.

Keillor had me laughing at one of his many alter-egos, Guy Noir, a hard-boiled detective on the 12th floor of the Acme Building in St. Paul, Minnesota. I relished in the fictional advertising brought to you by the Professional Organization of English Majors. The struggles and despair of a history major are pretty much the same as that of an English major.

I can remember only three jokes. Two of them I heard on “A Prairie Home Companion.” The third is inappropriate to tell in polite company.

I was not always in the joke. Some of Keillor’s stories refer to a particular place and time that I do not know the upper Midwest of his youth. In his trademark deep, breathy voice, Keillor ended his broadcast each week with homespun stories of his fictional hometown of Lake Wobegon.

Although Keillor was usually nostalgic and humorous, I think his greatest moment came in the form of a searing indictment of the pursuit of fame. In 2003, Keillor and guitarist Pat Donohue wrote the ballad “White Flash” after the Station nightclub fire. The Rhode Island fire killed 100 people listening to the fading 1980s band, Great White. Keillor pulled no punches when he wrote:

“Beautiful children in their 20s and teens

Killed by men with long hair

And their rock and roll dreams.

What we do to the children

Out of pure vanity

I pray God protect them from you and from me”

As I was writing this column, I wondered if Columbus was like Lake Wobegon? Does our town resemble the setting for so many of Keillor’s stories? I think the answer is yes and no.

Columbus is a unique and interesting Midwestern town. It is full of characters. There is a lot of humor here, too. In that way, Columbus is Lake Wobegon. I think that Lake Wobegon is really about remembering a romantic town of your early years. Many of you may have a wistful sentimentality for a Columbus from your childhood. To you, Columbus is pretty close to Lake Wobegon. To those who moved here as adults, their Lake Wobegon lies elsewhere.

The show will go on without Keillor. Musician Chris Thile will take over as host later this year.

But listening to the radios on the weekend will never be the same.

Aaron Miller is one of The Republic’s community columnists and all opinions expressed are those of the writer. He has a doctorate in history and is an associate professor of history at Ivy Tech Community College — Columbus. Send comments to editorial@therepublic.com.