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Hassler crosses the bar elegantly

In about 1977, when I was in my late teens, I covered an appearance by an emerging author and radio star named Garrison Keillor for my hometown newspaper, the Brainerd Daily Dispatch.

Keillor was at the local community college to publicize his fledgling "A Prairie Home Companion" radio show, as I recall.

Teaching at Brainerd Community College at that time was an emerging author in his early 40s named Jon Hassler. Hassler’s first book, "Staggerford," was published that same year, but it wasn’t widely publicized and hardly anyone outside Brainerd, where Hassler worked for 12 years, had ever heard of him.

I was taking a literature class from Hassler at the time, and I’d like to be able to say that I recognized his genius and predicted the long, successful literary career that would follow. But I can’t. Jon was an unassuming, soft-spoken man. He had a thin, reedy voice. He was passionate about literature, and he knew his stuff, but I don’t recall that he particularly inspired me.

And Keillor? Well, he just seemed a little weird to me. Actually, a lot weird. He was tall and appeared awkward and uncomfortable. I’m not sure if it was arrogance or shyness, but he seemed distant and was difficult to interview.

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Over the next 20 years, though, I became a big fan of both Keillor and Hassler. Keillor’s fame is far more widespread than Hassler’s, but both came to be outstanding ambassadors for our state.

Instead of rejecting their rural Minnesota roots once they’d attained some degree of fame, Keillor and Hassler embraced and celebrated them. Their novel — and in Keillor’s case, monologue — characters aren’t populated by rock stars, hot-shot criminal investigators, pro athletes or talk show hosts. Their books are inspired by the small town folks they grew up among — farmers, grocery store owners, mechanics, Catholic priests, Lutheran ministers, English teachers and auto mechanics.

I was saddened to learn earlier this week that the neurological disease Hassler had suffered from for years had claimed his life just short of his 75th birthday.

Although I hadn’t seen him in years, Hassler was one of those people I just felt comfortable knowing was around, writing his standard 400 words a day about the triumphs and foibles of ordinary Minnesotans.

A lot of places claimed Jon, including Minneapolis, where was born; Staples, where he spent his grade school years; Plainview, where he graduated from high school (his novel "Grand Opening" was inspired by his time there); and Bemidji, Brainerd and Collegeville, where he taught.

He was flattered by that, and although he never seemed all that comfortable on a stage, he made trips to places such as Rochester, Austin and Plainview to read from his books, talk about writing and, in Plainview’s case, christen the theater that bears his name.

Hassler was finishing one final book, titled "Jay O’Malley," when he died. I understand it’s largely autobiographical, and I can’t wait to read it.

In the meantime, I’ve been browsing my collection of Hassler novels. While doing so I happened upon the literature textbook we used in his class 31 years ago.

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The extensive notes I have written in the margin of Lord Alfred Tennyson’s "Crossing the Bar" indicate that Jon spent a lot of time talking about it.

"Sunset and evening star, And one clear call for me!," the poem reads. "And may there be no moaning of the bar, When I put out to sea... For though from out our bourn of Time and Place, the flood may bear me far, I hope to see my Pilot face to face when I have crost the bar."

It’s one of literature’s most elegant farewells.

Greg Sellnow’s columns appear Tuesdays and Saturdays. He can be reached at 285-7703 or by e-mail at sellnow@postbulletin.com. Check out his blog, "Losin’ it," on postbulletin.com.

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