Garrison Keillor performed his final Prairie Home Companion episode last week, capping things off with a goodbye visit to Lake Wobegon, his mythical hometown where “all the women are strong, all the men are good looking, and all the children are above average.”
I did not hear that live performance on the radio; I watched it the next day, on YouTube—a decision I regretted because for four decades he was a disembodied voice. That might sound odd, but actually seeing his body took away some of the magic for me. If you love radio, you know what I mean.
Keillor was a glorious confluence of Mark Twain, Jerry Seinfeld and Will Rogers. And while I did not know him personally, there were a few intersecting points in our lives.
The first begins with Fred Newman, his intrepid sound-effects man. Fred makes each performance sparkle with accompanying mouth noises that brilliantly mimic explosions, trains, tornadoes and virtually anything that Keillor throws at him as he spins a story. Fred never knows what’s coming.
I met Fred in 1981 in New York City, shortly after I was hired as host of the morning radio show on WABC. I had seen Fred doing his act on the streets of the Big Apple and asked him to come on the program. His whimpering baby impression was an instant hit and from there he went on to a successful career. His talent caught Keillor’s eye (or ear, really) and he soon became a permanent part of Prairie Home Companion.
I hadn’t seen Fred in almost 25 years, but when Keillor performed at the Indiana State Fair in the late ’90s, Fred was about 75 yards away from me as he moved across the stage for rehearsal. I screamed: “Hi, Fred Newman!”
“Oh my goodness!” he responded. “That’s Dick Wolfsie.” Talk about a good ear for sounds.
Fred introduced me to Keillor that night. The face-to-face was, quite frankly, a bit disconcerting. Keillor is mildly autistic ( As he recently divulged) which may have explained his failure to make eye contact with me, even as I sang his praises. I told him I taught comedy writing at the University of Indianapolis and I treated my classes each session to at least one Lake Wobegon story. Then I told him my favorite “Keillorism”: “People who think going to church makes you a Christian must think that living in a garage makes you a car.”
One memory of Keillor is bittersweet. It was August of ’04 and the Fair was hosting the storyteller and his full crew for a live concert of music and comedy. I was at the Fairgrounds that day with Barney, my canine companion on WISH-TV. I could not take him to the event, so I asked a friend to drop the beagle off at my home. When I returned from the performance, I found that Barney had died peacefully while sleeping on our bed. In a town like Lake Wobegon, the passing of a dog would have a ripple effect, touching the entire community—and no one better than Keillor could make that experience relatable, combining humor and pathos. With Keillor in mind, I wrote a tribute to Barney, inspired by the elegance and simplicity of the prose I had witnessed the previous night.
This past week I dug up YouTube videos to enjoy some of my favorite Prairie Home episodes over the years. My wife walked in the room and thought I had dozed off.
No. I had simply closed my eyes.