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And that’s all she wrote! - MessAge Media: Features

Long-time reporter Jeanne Schram

And that’s all she wrote!

Age Reporter Jeanne Schram retires after 24 years with the paper and nearly 50 years in the field of journalism

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Posted: Wednesday, February 13, 2019 5:00 am

“I didn’t know what I wanted to be when I grew up and I still don’t know what I want to be,” said Jeanne Schram, retiring reporter and former co-editor of the Aitkin Independent Age. “I never set out to be a reporter.”

Jeanne was born in Duluth to parents Bill and Janet Sjoselius in 1948. A 1966 Columbia Heights High School graduate, Jeanne went on to attend college at St. Cloud State. She married in 1967, cutting her education short, dropping out to become a dental assistant to put her first husband through college. Years later, they had two daughters, Mandy and Monica.

FIRST JOB IN JOURNALISM

It was by chance that Jeanne fell into a job at the Blackduck American, a small-town newspaper owned and edited by Bob and Judy Tuff.

“The owner overheard me say I wanted to write something and asked me to come to work,” Jeanne recalled. She began reporting in 1970 by making $1.65 an hour.

In Blackduck, Jeanne felt at home right away. She describes the people there as friendly and welcoming, and remains good friends with many from the area to this day.

“Most people in the news realm are quirky as heck, or at least that seems to be the case. Everyone I have worked with has been kind of quirky, fun, game and adventurous.”

There were also many “hangers about” in the news room, Jeanne recalled, including a man named Slim Nichols. Slim Nichols was a bush pilot, a bank robber, fur trader and restaurant owner.

“He was just a crazy character. We had a lot of those,” Jeanne said. “We talked him into writing a column for the paper about his adventures as a bush pilot in Alaska living off the land, and some of the crazy things that happened to him. He downed his plane in a lake near Blackduck one time.”

THE ‘OLD WAY’

In the ’70s and ’80s, it took a lot of manpower and hours to generate a newspaper, Jeanne explained. At the time she entered the journalism field, type was set on a typewriter and pasted up on sheets.

“Doing it the old way was really time consuming. It was really hard to get the columns straight on a typewriter, I can tell you that much,” Jeanne said. “Nowadays it is so much easier with the flexibility and design capabilities of the computers. You cannot compare. We used to have to use border tape laid on sheets of paper, and you couldn’t get them straight. Everything is straight now.”

Polaroid photographs were sent to the printer, and holes were cut in the pages for placement. When the pages were ready, sheets were laid out in a box and delivered to the printer in Bemidji.  

One time after an 18-hour production day Jeanne left work around 1 a.m. in the morning. Halfway on her 12-mile trip home, she fell asleep and found herself in the ditch.

“I walked to a farmer’s house and he got his tractor to pull me out,” she recalled.

FROM POLAROID TO THE DARKROOM

In 1973, the Tuffs sent Jeanne to an intensive six-week newspaper skills course in Anoka. Much like working for a weekly newspaper, the course required assignments. Students were required to find their own feature stories in the community and turn articles in by the deadline.

“I probably had an advantage over some of the other students because I was already working for a weekly. Some graduates from the university said they learned more in the cram course than they did in four years of journalism,” Jeanne said. “I came back to Blackduck to use what I had learned, and they let me.”

During the six-week course, Jeanne was trained to operate a 35 millimeter camera and develop film in a darkroom. Upon returning to her job, the Blackduck American converted a closet into a darkroom and began developing film to make prints.

LESSONS LEARNED

No amount of training can teach the lessons that first-hand trial and error provides to a new journalist, Jeanne explained.

“I’ve probably been to 200 fires through the years. Once in Blackduck there was a barn fire that killed all the cows. I took a photo of the barn with all the dead cows and ran the photo in the paper. Needless to say, I was taken to task by readers for publishing such a tasteless photo!”

She recalled another instance that taught her to be extremely cautious.

“I’ll never forget in the early years when I was covering city council, Bob let one of my stories go through that he knew had errors because he wanted me to learn a lesson. And it was a lesson. People came in and they were not happy,” Jeanne said.

BECOMING EDITOR

Eventually, Jeanne would work under four different owners in Blackduck. After having her first child, Mandy, Jeanne was a stay-at-home mother from 1976-1980. During that time she did freelance work for the paper.

“It was a shock after working full-time for so long,” she said.  

In the ’80s, the name of the paper changed to The American, and Jeanne became editor.     

“It was hopping; there were a lot of things going on. Being an editor for a town of 450 people, I was the editor, the classified advertisement person, the phone answerer and toilet cleaner. In other words –everything,” Jeanne said.

CHANGES IN TECHNOLOGY

It wasn’t until 1993 that Jeanne began working with her first computer –a small Mac Plus. Working on a computer made the job easier, Jeanne said. However, it didn’t have page design capabilities. The first computer-generated newspapers began in 1996.

“I was lucky to write a story on it. Before that we had a Compugraphic. Paper went into a black box and we had to develop it in the darkroom,” she said.

Over the last 10 years at Blackduck, staffing at the newspaper was down to three people – an office manager and ad sales manager, in addition to the editor. When she left the paper after moving to Aitkin, she was making $6.50 an hour.

JOINING THE AGE

After inquiring with manager, Andy Skaj, Jeanne landed a job at the Aitkin Independent Age in the graphics department. While she learned a lot in the position, Jeanne admitted graphics was not her long suit as she lacked the artistic flair.

“I’d say I’m fairly good at photography, and I can write a story,” she said. “When Dick Norlander bought the paper in 1995, he asked, ‘What are you doing in the graphics department?’ I said, ‘I don’t know.’ So he said, ‘Well, you’re in the news department!’”

Norlander commented, “By then Jeanne had already been with the Age for a while and was settled into the Aitkin community after having learned her editing, writing and people skills as editor of the Blackduck American.

“Over the years Jeanne covered and reported on virtually all of Aitkin County’s many council and board meetings and annual meetings and special events and pulled more than her share of weekend event coverages. I don’t remember any story she reported on where anyone came in the office or wrote to us that she had misrepresented the facts or did not report things fairly and accurately. She was a ‘pro’s pro’ in all she wrote, covered, researched, and her sources trusted her.”

During the recession, Jeanne and Kathleen Pakarinen partnered as co-editors of the Aitkin Independent Age for five years. She eventually resumed as a part-time reporter.

“The community has been really nice, cooperative and willing to share stories. There are a lot of nice people,” Jeanne said. “It is always interesting and there’s a lot of variety. No day is the same.”

Over the years Jeanne covered many stories, from the governor’s fishing opener in McGregor to a story of a pilot who was acquainted with Charles Lindbergh.

“I went to my first newspaper convention in 1974 and got to meet Hubert Humphrey,” she recalled.

Among her favorite topics to cover were the veterans’ stories. “They just run the gamut. These guys did what they had to do, and need to be appreciated. That’s the highlight of all the years,” Jeanne said.

Norlander added, “Jeanne’s favorite special section was always our annual Veteran’s Day tab. She especially loved talking to and writing about our area’s veterans and she always took ownership of the section.”

She was especially thrilled when The American’s 1987 Veterans Section won a first place in the Minnesota Newspaper Association Better Newspaper Contest in 1988.

“A good journalist needs strong ethics, integrity and great communication skills. Jeanne was not only a good journalist but a great one and I think she is leaving the Aitkin County area a better place because she was here and made a difference in peoples’ lives,” Norlander said.

CRUISING INTO RETIREMENT

Jeanne retired from the Aitkin Independent Age after 24 years with the paper and nearly 50 years in the field of journalism.

Following retirement, Jeanne plans to compile all of her veterans’ stories dating back to 1970 to self-publish a book.

For the past 15 years, Jeanne and her second husband, auto-mechanic Mark Johnson, have been working to restore a 1923 Model T touring car. Once complete, they plan to cruise for fun.

As for journalism, Jeanne said it’s time for someone younger with a fresh perspective and better internet capabilities to take the reins.

“I have enjoyed it so much. I have learned so much. It is hard to leave. Really hard,” Jeanne said.

Even so, at 70 years young Jeanne still hasn’t figured out what she wants to do when she grows up.

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