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James R. Hagerty, Special to the Grand Forks Herald , Published March 18 2012

Before Mom went viral

My mom, Marilyn Hagerty, now seems destined to be remembered forever as the lady who wrote that review of the Olive Garden - “a masterpiece of polite restaurant criticism,” as Advertising Age called it.

It was an instant Internet sensation. The story line was irresistible: Snide bloggers pick on a supposedly defenseless grandma in North Dakota. She knocks their lights out with a few feisty ripostes about being too busy writing and playing bridge to bother with “all that crap.”

As proven by a deluge of email, her fan club now reaches from Bygland to Bangalore. The Grand Forks Herald dispatched her to New York, where she was interviewed on national television, dined in posh restaurants and visited a hot dog stand.

But longtime readers of the Grand Forks Herald know something that Google and Twitter don’t: There is more to Marilyn than polite restaurant reviews. She has always been at her best when writing about the characters she finds in and around the Red River Valley.

Among them was Magnus Skytland, a bachelor farmer near Adams, N.D. My mom visited his farm in 1974. He wasn’t very worried about the energy crisis of that era because he didn’t have electricity in his home and preferred horses to tractors.

“Each evening,” Mom wrote, “he lights his kerosene and gas lamps and reads the weekly paper or farm journals. In the winter when he gets tired of reading, he plays his violin.

“Up until recently, he had the company of a big Norwegian elkhound named Buster. The dog was 16 when it died, but Skytland says, ‘The time comes when you gotta die. You can’t help it.’”

Skytland introduced my mom to his four horses, including one named Sally, named after a former girlfriend. “I’ve had three horses named Sally,” he said.

In 1979, Mom interviewed an inventor and wrote:

“Thousands of people are driving around today with cords hanging from the grilles of their cars. It’s all because Andrew Freeman of Grand Forks had a Ford V8 that gave him trouble back in 1939. … Thus, the invention of the Freeman Headbolt Heater, forerunner of present-day heaters. They are the units that run like umbilical cords from cold cars to the womb, or electrical outlet, for warmth. They are the cords that make Southerners ask silly questions.”

When she drove out to small towns and farms, she always found something worth reporting, as she did in this 1982 story:

“‘Cows don’t like rock music. They’re not too crazy about the classics, either. Too many abrupt changes. They like something moderate,’ says Fay Dickie of Leonard, Minn.

“She knows.

“She is a former member of the Munich Opera House Chorus who keeps a herd of 100 dairy cows in northern Minnesota. She and her daughter Sabrina, 12, sometimes sing to the Holsteins.”

Last November, Mom tracked down Joyce Dumont, a retired nurse near Dunseith, N.D. , who felt like the old woman who lived in a shoe:

“Joyce has had 69 children living in her home over the years. And she has adopted 13 of them. She also had six children of her own. And this month, she adopted a grandson during the Adoption Day celebration at the Grand Forks County Courthouse.

“She already had adopted his two younger sisters.

“They needed a home. They needed love. And they needed to be together, she said. When she asked her 75-year-old second husband, Francis Dumont, about the adoptions, he said, ‘Sure.’”

In January of this year, she wrote about three retired men in Grand Forks who formed a band and started getting gigs in nursing homes:

“It’s cold and humdrum on January afternoons in Grand Forks.

“But in the basement of the Uhlenberg home on the north end of the city, three elderly gentlemen gather every week to play some folk music. They say it’s not really bluegrass.

“They call themselves Too Old to Die Young. They sing about Bernard who spent 28 years as a government mule and the Arkansas traveler.

“They go to rest homes, club meetings, anywhere they are invited. They ask no fee — except that they enjoy cake and coffee.”

Mom also writes about herself and her family, of course. Her memories of Christmas in Pierre, S.D., in the 1930s:

“Eventually, we open our presents. Daddy sits there holding some handkerchiefs and neckties in his big, rough hands. He has a shaving brush – made in Japan. With his Danish accent, he says, ‘We have too much. It is too much.’

“As I tear white tissue paper from a Shirley Temple doll and greedily scan the bottom of the tree for more presents, I think, ‘It is not too much for me.’”

From a column looking back to the day in June 1949 when she married my father, Jack Hagerty, who later was editor of this newspaper:

“He wore a blue-gray suit. I had a corsage of red roses pinned on my white sharkskin suit from Buttrey’s in Aberdeen, S.D.

“We promised to love and honor one another until death ‘doth’ us part. If I said I would obey, I was just kidding. We really meant it, though, when we promised to be faithful in sickness and health and for better or worse.”


James R. Hagerty, known to friends and family as Bob, is a 1974 graduate of Red River High School in Grand Forks. He earned a degree in economics and journalism at UND and has since then worked as a reporter and editor in New York, Hong Kong, Paris, London, Brussels and Atlanta. He currently lives in Pittsburgh and writes mainly about manufacturing for The Wall Street Journal.