Huffy

Lightning strikes: How my Winona Post journey began |

by Patrick P. Marek, publisher

I am living proof that newspaper help wanted ads work. It was 1978 and I was minding my own business, tucking into lunch at the cafeteria (we affectionately called it Gilhooley’s Café) at Saint Mary’s College, when lightning struck. “Patrick, it looks like one of the ads in The Troll was written for you,” said my beautiful girlfriend, future bride, and avid newspaper reader Maureen Randell. The Troll was a campus daily that consisted of several sheets of mimeographed paper that usually contained upcoming events and pleas for rides to Chicago.

I brushed my flowing locks out of my eyes (sigh), and read these words: “JOURNALIST WANTED: Award winning local paper is seeking part-time reporter to cover league sports and to write feature stories. Call Fran at (507) 452-1262.” I was an idealistic journalism major who longed to change the world with my prose, and was surviving on $10 that my parents were kind enough to send me every week. I called Fran.

Fran turned out to be Fran Edstrom, and she quickly revealed that the ad was indeed written with me in mind. I was editor of Saint Mary’s student newspaper “The Cardinal,” and because I had a staff filled with unreliable college students, I often had to write many of the stories myself in order to get the paper to the printer. Fran and John Edstrom printed the Cardinal on the press in the basement of their historic building on Second Street in downtown Winona. Fran saw my stories, liked my ambitious production and boisterous style, and then used one of the first cases of individual target marketing to snare me. My career at the Winona Post had begun.

It was a humble beginning, but I had a blast. One of my weekly responsibilities involved picking up the league bowling sheets at Westgate Bowl, Kobi Lanes, Maple Leaf Lanes, and the Winona Athletic Club. The league results were to be featured in the following week’s Post, and most of the establishments were kind to the long-haired college kid with the crappy car. The one exception was the Athletic Club. They occasionally acted like I was stealing the results to use for my own nefarious purposes.

Then came the journalistic part. I had to pour through the results and pick one notable kegler who was to be honored as “Bowler of the Week.” I had a bulky “Sid Hartman” style cassette recorder, and I would attach a suction cup microphone to the phone, and call up the lucky bowler for an interview. I tried to give each submission a sense of style and flair, but probably didn’t have a proper appreciation for what a big deal bowling in Winona was, and how many bowlers aspired for “Bowler of the Week” bragging rights.

Anyway, it was finals week, and let’s just say that I didn’t give that week’s winner the attention they deserved. Okay … let’s be honest. I mailed it in. I rationalized: “Who reads this stuff anyway?”

That Sunday, I was enjoying brunch when one of my “friends” grabbed a Saturday Morning Post, climbed up on a table, and began reading “Bowler of the Week” at the top of his lungs in a very sarcastic way to the entire cafeteria. “The weather might have been cold, but (the bowler’s name is deleted to protect the innocent) was red hot, smashing the pins into kindling while earning his seventh National Honor Count of his career.” Ouch … you get the idea. 

It was an embarrassing moment, but it taught me a lifelong lesson. After that incident I always assumed that every word I wrote was going to be read (and judged) by thousands of people. I vowed that there were no small stories, only small writers, and that I would give everything I wrote my best effort.

The late ‘70s was the golden age for league sports in Winona, and I had the honor of covering some of the best teams and most memorable games in Winona’s rich history. I also was able to spark some relationships that have lasted to this day.

I watched Tom Riska deliver his own form of cardiopulmonary spike massage, while he and Terry Westby, Steve “Ootiba” Peterson, Andy “Arm speed and coordination” Blomsness, Henry “Gondorf” Gerth, John Ferden, and Jules Gernes pulverized opponents with the legendary “Big O” Class “A” volleyball team. With a string of state championships and an incredible winning streak in league play, The “Big O” was the best men’s volleyball team in Winona’s history. They were also a bunch of great guys, approachable, and a joy to watch.

I was able to interview the classy Shorty’s pitcher Don Troke and catch Larry Ebert, Mark Patterson, Steve Styba, Rick Gatzlaff, Don Nelson, and Fran Rinn in their primes on Winona’s softball diamonds.

During the winter months, I covered class “A” men’s basketball. The games were held at Winona State, and if I close my eyes I can still see Emilio DeGrazia doing his best Pistol Pete imitation as he raced down the court with his hair flying behind him. Morrie Miller was a bruising force on the boards (and foul magnet), and Major League Baseball scout and talented basketball player/coach Jerry Raddatz always gave a great interview. Best of all, I met an impossibly young John Glowczewski, who was a high school kid hired to keep charge of the stats and scoreboard. He was always helpful when I needed to check my numbers, and he still has the same distinctive smile at Lakeview Drive Inn that he flashed in those early days.

It was a great life. I loved every second of my college career at Saint Mary’s. I had a job in my field, and for the first time in my life, I actually had a little bit of money. We were able to occasionally go to the Ground Round for dinner, and buy round steak to put on the grill. However, I longed for the defining “big story,” one that would combine investigative journalism with great storytelling. It seemed like a tall order until one morning when Maureen and I peddled our Huffy bikes down to a rental house on East Second Street for an omelette breakfast that Matt Hunkler, one of our friends from college and cook at the Jackson Street Cafe had promised.

Lightning struck again. There was a commotion around the tiny rental house. People were everywhere, and Matt and his roommate David Kuhn were the center of attention. After we pried him away from the neighbors, Hunckler explained that he had gotten home early the night before and got the urge to clean the basement. He found a tobacco can in the corner that had: “For Israel” scratched on the sides. When he opened the can he discovered $1,000 in $20 bills rolled inside.

After spending 12 hours imagining how he would spend the windfall, Matt’s roommate convinced him to call the police. Winona’s finest arrived at the house, listened to Matt’s story, and left with the money. Hunkler began regretting his decision moments after the police walked out the door. He eventually got a $100 reward for his honesty, the rest of the money was sent to Israel, and I had the feature story of my dreams.

Matt’s tale and the story of the man who left the gift for Israel, Polish immigrant Michael Buchner, became “The $1,000 History Lesson.” It occupied the front page of the July 21, 1979, Winona Post, and eventually won first place in the state for best feature story. It remains the story that I am most proud of, and grateful for. I guess I peaked in 1979. (Visit WinonaPost.com to read that story and other historical highlights.)

In December of 1979 I became a lightning rod for the third time. Somebody knocked on my door on Third Heffron (I lived in the “ghost room,” but that’s a story for another time), and said that there was someone named Fran on the phone for me. I was getting ready to graduate, and she asked if I had found a job yet. I admitted that I hadn’t progressed past creating a resume. “Why don’t you apply with us?” she asked. I didn’t have a good answer, so I trudged downtown for a job interview with John and Fran Edstrom. John was rather intimidating, and quickly informed me that the Post couldn’t afford a full-time reporter, and that if things worked out, I would have to be a hybrid (I’m not sure he used that word) combination of reporter and salesman. I think the title they worked up was “Associate Editor and Business Manager” of the Saturday Morning Post. I took a leap of faith, accepted the job offer and started to work full time for the Edstrom’s during the heart of the Jimmy Carter recession in January 1980. That’s when the fun really began.

It’s an incredible and unlikely journey from “Bowler of the Week” writer to publisher and owner of a community newspaper that is celebrating 50 years of service to the Winona area. It has been an amazing ride, and I am honored and humbled to be a part of it. I want to take this opportunity to thank Fran and John for taking a chance on me back in 1978, and to especially thank Fran for trusting me to continue her proud journalistic legacy at the Post. I want to also thank all of the talented people who have worked for the Post over the years, and especially to recognize our amazing current team. 

The Winona Post is a free newspaper, so I also have to express my appreciation to all of the advertisers who have trusted the Post to reach out to their customers over the last 50 years.

Finally, thank you to the generations of readers in the Winona area who have chosen the Winona Post as your local newspaper. We are awed by your loyalty, and pledge to always keep your trust and deliver a quality newspaper to your home every week … free of charge of course!


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