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.




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Sleeping has always been an issue for me. Not napping: I’m a wiz at napping. The problem is falling asleep in a bed…and staying that way for six to eight hours. I’m just not good at it. Never have been.

I have tried many things over the years. I took Ambien once. It worked well, but there was an odd side effect. Not only did I think I got a good night’s sleep, but when I woke up in the morning, I discovered I had mown the entire front lawn in the dark. I also tried allergy medicine because a friend told me that if I took a couple it would make me sleep deeply. It also made me a little goofy. I don’t think growling at yourself in the mirror is normal.

The one place I sleep great is on a bus. But why? There is nothing on a bus that lends itself to sleeping. The seats are hard, the space is cramped and it’s usually hot.

Nevertheless, I recently decided to simulate the very conditions on a bus that always send me to never-never land. I asked my wife to talk to me like a tour guide. You know, blabber on about how the Greeks built the Acropolis and how the Romans constructed the Appian Way. (That worked beautifully when we were overseas. I don’t even remember being in Rome.)  Mary Ellen felt kind of dumb talking to me from the foot of the bed, but she did it. Then I asked her to rock the bed back and forth so I’d feel like I was really on the bus. That’s when she got off the bus and slept on the couch.

Then I realized it wasn’t the tour guide droning on that made me sleepy. So instead of lying in bed, I took a hard-back metal folding chair and sat on it. Then I bounced up and down like I was on a bus and looked sideways out my bedroom window. But I was still wide awake after 30 minutes. Maybe it was the sun that makes me drowsy, so I shone a floor lamp directly in my eyes. Then I started bouncing up and down again. I think my neighbor Norm  could see im my bedroom window from his living room, which might explain why he kept staring at me the next day when I was watering the garden.

I wasn’t sure what else I could do to re-create riding a bus. Mary Ellen wouldn’t let me invite 30 strangers over to sit around the bed, so I was at a loss about what to do next. Then it hit me. The bus trips are during the day, but I’m trying to sleep at night. So I got back into my chair at high noon, sat straight up, looking out my bedroom window. The scenery wasn’t changing so I started moving the chair from one window to the next. The sun was pouring in on my face. Suddenly I felt myself getting sleepy, very sleepy. Zzzz…

It worked. I slept from noon until 8 p.m., sitting straight up in the chair, leaning against my bedroom window. My insomnia was cured.

Two hours later, it was time for bed. I got under the covers and just couldn’t fall asleep.

Go figure.






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