By Randy Dockendorf
When she wrote her food column last March, Marilyn Hagerty only intended to review the new Olive Garden restaurant in Grand Forks, ND.
To her shock, she became an Internet sensation.
The 86-year-old columnist was stunned at the reaction to her straightforward article on the franchise restaurant's menu, decor and service.
That day's article had spread far beyond her regular readership in North Dakota and western Minnesota. Like wildfire, the Grand Forks Herald column had drawn more than one million hits.
"They said my story went viral, but I didn't know what that meant," she said. "I called my son to see if it was a good thing."
It not only was good, but it thrust her into the international spotlight. She has appeared on numerous television shows, including NBC's "Today" and Anderson Cooper's syndicated talk show.
She even met with with renowned food personality Anthony Bourdain, initially one of her harshest critics. As a result of their meeting, she signed a contract so Bourdain could use material from her Herald columns.
On Thursday, Hagerty returned to her alma mater, the University of South Dakota, for yet another prestigious honor — the 2012 Al Neuharth Award for Excellence in the Media. She became the 26th person honored by the Freedom Forum and USD since the Al Neuharth Award program began in 1989.
During Thursday afternoon's press conference, Hagerty expressed modesty at her selection.
"I don't feel that I quite fit the category or the stature of people (receiving the award) before me. (Other) people in print, they do the same work I do and are worthy of this reward," she said. "I see it as a recognition of the people who work at the medium-sized newspapers and who enjoy it."
Hagerty sat next to Neuharth at Thursday afternoon's press conference. The occasion marked a 65-year reunion, as Hagerty — the 1947 editor of the Volante campus newspaper — gave Neuharth his first writing job at the time. He used the Volante role to launch his career, including founder of the nation's largest newspaper, USA Today.
Unlike Neuharth, Hagerty's fame came after she was officially "retired" — and the attention was unexpectedly thrust upon her.
Her March 7, 2012, "Eatbeat" column in the Grand Forks Herald simply described her visit to the newly-opened Olive Garden in the city of 50,000 residents.
"In Grand Forks, it was big news. We had waited for Olive Garden for years," she said. "There were rumors, they had bought land and they were coming to town. We thought it was a pretty big deal."
Hagerty filed the restaurant review, then started hearing that the column had generated a great deal of controversy.
"I heard all this stuff about the column being so pathetic, that (detractors) thought I was simple-minded," she said. "But it was only an hour before my bridge club. I thought, 'I don't have time for all this crap, I have to go to bridge club.'"
Hagerty was stunned upon returning from her weekly bridge gathering.
"I received 18 phone calls," she said. "My computer had emails from all over the country that said things like, 'Don't feel bad. It was a good story about Olive Garden.' I was told my story went viral, and I didn't even know what that meant. It made me nervous."
Hagerty was mocked and harpooned by those who found the column a joke and an insult to fine cuisine. She was revered and defended by those who liked the restaurant, hated the other side's snobbery or just didn't enjoy seeing the onslaught against the elderly woman.
"People came to my defense," she said. "They didn't want to see a little old lady from North Dakota get browbeaten. Or they might think I was pathetic, I don't know."
She also received immediate celebrity status.
"The local TV station wanted me to go with them to Olive Garden, then and now," she said, still not grasping the breadth and width of the reaction around the world.
Bourdain quickly emerged as one of her earliest and sharpest detractors.
"He was one of my main critics when I went viral," Hagerty said. "But then, he thought about it again, and he thought I wasn't so stupid, this lady from North Dakota that was writing about the Midwest and smaller towns. He found there was a story that hadn't been told."
Hagerty met Bourdain for coffee in March, shortly after the cyber-meltdown.
"He's very handsome and we had a very nice conversation. He was flattering, and he thought I was half-way intelligent," she said with a laugh. "He was a very nice gentleman, and he sent me flowers. I didn't know who Anthony Bourdain was until I went viral, and now I call him 'Tony.'"
The two entered into a working agreement, and Hagerty invited the celebrity to Grand Forks. They haven't scheduled a visit yet, but she remains hopeful.
During Thursday's press conference, Hagerty told USD students that it takes some nerve and a lot of curiosity to become a successful columnist.
"I like columns because there's so much freedom. You have the ability to impart a lot of knowledge, and you hope that people have fun reading it," she said. "You have the meat and potatoes of the newspaper, and the columns are the salad."
The Olive Garden review gave her worldwide notoriety, but Hagerty said she has found joy in writing about everyday life. One of her favorite columns involved riding a grain truck from Grand Forks to Duluth, MN.
"My work really isn't work, it's my pleasure, my way of life. The job, it was never hard for me," she said. "I like talking to people, to see what makes them tick and to ask questions. I like to find interesting things about people."
Hagerty found humor in a student's question about her future plans.
"I'm 86, and I enjoy the work I do," she said. "I will probably keep on doing it until the Grand Forks Herald fires me or I get a better offer and I move on to the Chicago Tribune. I will continue writing as long as I have my marbles."
And Hagerty's ride has become much wilder thanks to the Olive Garden and cyberspace.
"It's been so much fun," she said. "It's like this wild dream that will never end. If you tried to make it up, you couldn't."
Hagerty's "Eatbeat" column on Olive Garden can be found here: http://www.grandforksherald.com/event/article/id/231419/
You can follow Randy Dockendorf on Twitter at twitter.com/RDockendorf