By Travis Gulbrandson
When Marilyn Hagerty first met Al Neuharth in the 1940s, she never would have guessed that one day she would be a recipient of the annual journalism award that bears his name.
And, she definitely would not have guessed she would receive it "because I wrote a review of the Olive Garden."
"You just never know what's going to happen," she said.
Hagerty officially received the Al Neuharth Award for Excellence in Media in a ceremony Thursday night in Aalfs Auditorium on the campus of the University of South Dakota.
The award is presented jointly by USD and the Freedom Forum, and has been given to 25 journalists and media representatives since Walter Cronkite was its first recipient in 1989.
"My name is going right there," Hagerty said, pointing to the list of winners on the back of the award statue. "Under Katie Couric, Walter Cronkite, Garrison Keillor. And now it's going to be, 'Marilyn who?'"
Hagerty came to national prominence in March after she reviewed the Olive Garden for the Grand Forks Herald, a publication for which she writes five columns per week.
At USD she served for a time as editor of the campus newspaper, The Volante. Upon graduating in 1948, she wrote for newspapers and worked in radio, and signed on as a full-time reporter for the Herald in 1961 – eventually becoming its features editor.
Hagerty officially retired from the publication in 1991, at which point she became a columnist.
"It's just been a wonderful ride, and tonight, to me, is the frosting on the cake," she said. "It's the greatest honor I could imagine. I thank Al Neuharth, and I thank the University of South Dakota because it was here when I was young and I needed a place to go to school, and there were people here I could ask for help."
In turn, Neuharth thanked Hagerty for bringing him onto the Volante staff after his lone disastrous attempt at radio broadcasting.
"I had the great good fortune of having Marilyn Hagerty as my first boss, when she was running The Volante, and I was a young kid trying to get a start in journalism," he said. "She was … a tremendous guide, and one of the best bosses I ever had."
Neuharth said he was proud to add Hagerty's name to the list of the award's recipients.
"I've never been more delighted and thrilled than to welcome my former boss back to win this award," he said.
For her part, Hagerty jokingly said she wondered why he waited until she was 86 years old to bestow the honor upon her.
"I don't have much time left," she said.
In all seriousness, she added that the experience was "overwhelming."
"It's such a thrill to be back, and it's unbelievable to be honored this way," Hagerty said.
Following her receipt of the award, Hagerty joined Neuharth onstage, along with Jack Marsh, president of the Al Neuharth Media Center, her son James Robert "Bob" Hagerty of The Wall Street Journal and her granddaughter Carrie Sandstrom, a freshman journalist at the University of North Dakota.
During the post-award conversation, Marsh and Neuharth both marveled at Hagerty's continued high rate of productivity.
"You're as active as any journalist I know, writing five columns a week at age 86," Marsh said. "Where do you get your energy?"
"Well, it doesn't take much energy to sit there and punch around on the computer," Hagerty said. "But, it's what I like to do."
Neuharth said most people don't realize the hard work that goes into composing a single column, much less five.
"You don't understand how difficult that is," he said. "I sweat and spend hours writing one column a week, and if I had to write five … there's no way I could do it."
"You could go to the Olive Garden," Hagerty suggested.