From seasoned journalist to adored professor, Larry Oakes created a legacy of writing, teaching, and humble compassion. In 2013 when he passed away, family and community members joined together to remember a man who enriched the world around him. In memory of his authorship and teaching, friends and family created the Larry Oakes Journalism Internship Scholarship for UMD journalism students. The newspaper writing experience that brought Oakes into the limelight will live on in this scholarship for many generations to come.
“I just hope that, as the years pass and different students are part of this legacy,” said Oakes’ good friend Cheryl Meese who helped initiate the scholarship, “the name behind the scholarship remains relevant. I hope that they continue to know what a remarkable man and journalist he was in so many ways.”
Meese and many others gathered earlier in February 2014 to celebrate the new scholarship, which gives $1,250 to UMD students pursuing a journalism internship at a Minnesota newspaper; matched by the Minnesota Newspaper association.
Emulating the scholarship namesake is a tough assignment. Oakes worked for the Star Tribune for most of his career, winning awards and earning envy from other journalists. Kyle Farris, the first recipient of the scholarship, is a journalism major and will intern with the Duluth News Tribune this summer. “It’s a great honor to win a scholarship named after a writer and a person like that,” he said.
The advice that Oakes’ would give to budding authors was always to tell them to omit unnecessary words. For family and friends, it’s impossible to limit the adoration, or the words, when asked about this teacher of Bulldogs and teller of Northern Minnesota stories. The approach that Oakes took in teaching was empowering throughout his entire career. Chris Godsey (‘98, M.A.) remembers Oakes as his professor from over 20 years ago and then as his colleague at UMD years later.
“I’m conscious of him every time I’m in a classroom. He was that formative to me. He went about teaching with good humor and grace and with an eye toward professional credibility. It was obvious that the craft of writing and the task of reporting were very important to him, and he found a way to bring us into that world.”
Godsey also remembers Oakes loaning him The Razor’s Edge, written by W. Somerset Maugham. The gesture behind the gift became the foundation for Godsey’s teaching philosophy:
It was in a humanities classroom, the spring of 1993, and I remember that because it was the first time I shaved my head. And he looked at me and said, “Godsey, you want to explain that?” and I said, “I’m getting to the end of when I can do weird stuff. It was an impulsive decision.” And he said all right. My recollection after that is that he handed me the book a week or two later. He said, “Godsey, I wanted to share this book with you.” It was a beautiful, cloth-bound hard copy. “I want to tell you that this was written during World War II, when these materials were scarce, when rationing was in place, and my dad gave it to me. It’s about a young man who’s seeking something, and you seem to be seeking something.”
It was a huge deal to me in the sense that he wasn’t saying, “Here’s how you should think, here’s what you should do.” He was saying, “I see you.”
I think that’s affirming for a young person who knows there are things they’re having a hard time figuring out. I don’t think that anyone else would have seen that. He’s the one person who made that overture. I don’t think I realized what a big deal that was until he died, and I started thinking about it.
One of the hosts of the scholarship celebration, Cindy Hedlund, crossed paths with Oakes so many times that they were intertwined for a number of years. Hedlund and Oakes first met as kids at Lester Park Elementary School before Oakes’ family moved to Cass Lake. They reunited as college students and again when Oakes married his wife Patty, a friend of Hedlund’s. Oakes and Hedlund’s rapport was instantaneous, “We just clicked. Larry was interested in everybody and everything. He never talked about himself, which was perfect for being a reporter. He always knew what questions to ask.”
That instinct was honed at an age when most are still perfecting the art of essay tests. In 1982, while he was still a student at the U of M, Oakes started working for the Duluth News Tribune. A few years later, he began reporting for the Star Tribune; first covering St. Paul and then Northern Minnesota which became his beat for more than two decades. When he returned back home in the north woods, Oakes began to write the stories that he is best known for; the stories that young journalists like scholarship-winner Farris continue to learn from even now.
Oakes passed away a little more than a year ago, on January 4, 2013. His funeral was held at the DECC, which illustrated his enormous impact. His family, with the help and support of their friends, established the Larry Oakes Journalism Internship Scholarship later that year as a way of continuing his legacy. To date, $38,500 has been raised.
Larry Oakes’ work, “The Lost Youth of Leech Lake“