The thousands of people in the audience of the DakotaDome Thursday discovered that Garrison Keillor is, indeed, above average.
His weaved a tale rich in humor, exaggeration and raw truth to create a colorful tapestry for his listeners.
Who else could keep his audience spellbound with a story involving a man trying to get airborne while parasailing with a bowling ball filled with his mother's ashes, a hot air balloon and a pontoon boat of Lutherans, who all eventually found themselves on a collision course?
Keillor's speech Thursday was part of the Al Neuharth Legacy Series, which has annually been celebrated during Dakota Days in Vermillion since 1989.
It's a time when a noted national media figure receives an award from Neuharth, a USD graduate and founder of USA TODAY.
"I called Garrison to tell him he had won the award for this year," Neuharth said. "And his first words were ?I don't do awards.'"
Eventually, Neuharth said, the two men agreed that Keillor would travel to Vermillion not to receive an award, but to speak.
For 30 years, Keillor's A Prairie Home Companion has transported audiences to the mythical town of Lake Wobegon, MN, "where all the women are strong, all the men are good-looking and all the children are above-average."
Keillor was born in Anoka, MN, in 1942. His career in radio began at college radio station KUOM/Minnesota, where he worked as an announcer. In 1969, Keillor joined the staff of Minnesota Public Radio and embarked on a career as a professional writer.
Keillor was writing an article for The New Yorker about radio's long-running Grand Ole Opry when he created A Prairie Home Companion, a weekly show devoted to music and Keillor's witty, increasingly popular writings. A Prairie Home Companion debuted on July 6, 1974.
By the 1980s, Keillor's low-key musings about the folks in Lake Wobegon had made the program a fixture of public radio stations. Keillor ended A Prairie Home Companion in 1987 but utilized a similar format two years later for his American Radio Company. Finally, in 1992, he returned the show to Minnesota and revived the name A Prairie Home Companion. Today, the show is broadcast on over 500 radio stations, to an audience of some three million listeners.
Keillor was inducted into the Radio Hall of Fame in 1994.
There was no solid thread to Keillor's speech in the DakotaDome last Thursday. He kept his audience entertained � in a gentler than Mark Twain fashion � by spooning up a number of topics during the evening, including American life, crime, terrorism, religion and politics.
Before the program, musical entertainment was offered by several groups, including the USD Marching Coyotes under the direction of Rolf Olson.
"It's good to be with this crisp, marching Coyotes band, playing with a spirit that we just did not have in Lake Wobegone, Minnesota," Keillor said. "We were cautious children, we were fearful, we were afraid of making a mistake, so we always waited until we heard the beat from the person behind us before we played.
"The result was a sort of music that did nothing to improve the spirit of our teams," he said. "Somehow we survived it. It could have been worse, as we say in Lake Wobegone. It could have been much worse."
Praise and politics
Keillor heaped praise on one of the nation's noted politicians � South Dakota's own former Sen. George McGovern, who was seated in the front row.
In contrast, he didn't have many flattering words for President George W. Bush.
"I'm pleased to be here with Second Lieutenant George McGovern of the 741st Squadron, 445th Bomb Group," Keillor said, describing McGovern's role during World War II. "He is the pride of Avon, SD, and Mitchell, and all of the other places he has lived. He is not done finding new homes in South Dakota.
McGovern flew the B-24 Liberator bomber during WWII, "which was no Cadillac among planes. This was a plane bomber that had but one purpose; it was a big, four-engine plane, pilot and co-pilot and a crew of eight, it had no power controls so you had to muscle it in and muscle it off the landing strip," Keillor said. "It had no windshield wipers. The seats were cramped and they did not recline."
He noted that the casualty rate among the men that flew them over Germany during World War II was about 50 percent.
"So once you got done with that, flying 25 missions in a Liberator bomber, life had no more harsh surprises for you," Keillor said. "Life looked awfully good after that. And then to come back to South Dakota, to a beautiful woman like Eleanor, who is in love with you, life could not be any better.
"That's the secret of a good life people," he said, "to go through harrowing difficulty that does not actually kill you, and to be in love with one woman for the rest of your life. George McGovern is a happy man."
South Dakota mystery
Keillor grew up in Anoka, MN, but much of South Dakota remains a mystery to him.
"I came through South Dakota almost every summer as a child," he said. "My family traveled in the summer. Our family never traveled for pleasure � always only to visit relatives."
Those relatives lived in Idaho and Washington state, Keillor said, and "my father was bent on driving 700 miles a day so as not to pay anything extra for motels.
"We did not stop for anything," he said. "We begged to stop and see the home of Laura Ingalls Wilder in DeSmet, and this was not to be. We could not stop to see the Corn Palace in Mitchell, even though it had the mystery of an oriental palace on the billboards that we saw passing by fast.
"I never got to see the Corn Palace until I was 62 years old people, and it is one of the wonders of the world, but it would have been even more wonderful at the age of 8."
Keillor noted that Thursday's event was hosted by The Freedom Forum, and that it would be proper to exercise freedom rather than talk about it.
"I think that this lady he (President George W. Bush) nominated for the Supreme Court, to refer to her as the most qualified candidate for the U.S. Supreme Court is just a stretch of the imagination beyond which I can tolerate," he said. "She will probably be confirmed because nobody wants to vote against a nice lady ? but to think that service on the Dallas City Council, and partnership in a big law firm, and being a staff lawyer for the president is a qualification for the highest court in the land is an insult to the intelligence."
Keillor admitted to the DakotaDome audience that he is "irritated" by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security.
"The word homeland is not a word that Americans have ever used to describe this country," he said. "We're America. We're the United States of America. Homeland is a word they use in movies, talking about Germany or France � foreign movies, espionage movies.
"This is an enormous bureaucracy that was created for political reasons in large part to paper over the mistakes of other large bureaucracies in 2001," Keillor said, "and its efficiency can be very well seen down south with Hurricane Katrina. How long are we going to have to go on taking off our shoes? How long are we going to be disfiguring handsome public buildings by putting big concrete barriers in front of them?"
Keillor also used his time on stage to take a swipe at Congress.
"There is this idiotic piece of legislation which has passed the House of Representatives and sitting before the U.S. Senate called the Broadcast Decency Act of 2005 which is just the biggest exercise in cowardice on the part of politicians that I have seen in a long time," he said.
He described the legislation as the "anti-Janet Jackson bill," written in response to her famed "wardrobe malfunction" during a Super Bowl halftime performance in 2004.
"Most of the American people endured that episode with some grace and humor," Keillor said. "It was not a great crisis in the lives of most people I know."
The legislation before the U.S. Senate would impose a $500,000 fine on any broadcaster for any material that is obscene, profane or indecent.
"We maybe know what obscene means," Keillor said. "Profane depends on what religion you adhere to. But indecent? What is decency? We have no idea whatsoever, and the mischief this bill could work if enacted into law is just beyond the imagination. It has nothing to do with the First Amendment at all."