Greetings and condolences,
Ardie, Mike and Jill, Cindy and Randy, and family:
“Old friends, memory brushes the same years, Silently sharing the same fears…”—Simon and Garfunkel
I met Don Gackle 38 years ago this month because of a simple act of his kindness.
Two young Minnesota newspaper people, Nancy and I, were in Toronto for our first National Newspaper Association (NNA) convention. We were new parents and had left our first-born back in Minnesota with relatives. Entering a large banquet room, we saw no familiar face. Don and his North Dakota colleague John Andrist, spying this forlorn pair, walked over and offered us two open chairs at their table.
And we’ve been the best of friends (in ways far beyond newspaper connections) for almost four decades.
I’ve related that wonderful encounter on many past occasions. And I’ve been recalling it often since learning of Don’s heart failure and death Sunday at age 83 in a Bismarck hospital.
Donald C. Gackle, 1929-2012
Don was the consummate weekly newspaper editor and publisher. He was committed to his community of Garrison, N.D., for nearly a half century; he shared a similar commitment with his friends and family. He created an award-winning newspaper while building an impressive chain of weeklies. And he served his newspaper profession in ways ranging from his presidency of the North Dakota Newspaper Association to being one of the founding directors of its education foundation.
That dual commitment—to journalism and to Garrison—led to his induction in the state’s Newspaper Hall of Fame and to his community’s Citizen of the Year award.
Over four decades, we met often (at NNA; in Monticello, Minn., at Perkins as he drove to the Twin Cities; at other destinations in Minnesota and North Dakota, and recently, in Portland). Of late, our communication was by e-mail or cellphone.
Indeed, as the famous duo crooned, our memory “brushe(d) the same years.” We conversed candidly about publishing weeklies; raising families; parent-child, small-business succession; living purposeful lives; the inestimable value of friendship. How I now treasure our periodic sessions.
Don Gackle fully knew his final day was coming; with his heart condition, he lived with the reality that dying was imminent. He suffered a serious setback in California earlier this year, and then rallied after convalescence back in North Dakota, gaining enough strength to return home and return to writing his weekly column in the Independent.
In April, he poignantly wrote about his health, sharing with his readers in his “Here and There” column titled “Back for now but don’t know how long”:
“It’s been a growing experience, this latest bout with a ticker that’s been a concern for 40-45 years. And while the future is understandably unknown, the yo-yo, up-and-down health condition is sharply improved.”
He would live another three months, in his home, where an 83rd birthday would be celebrated.
“The past weeks, while not pleasant, have been rewarding. And I would hope I learned (and will retain) some knowledge from it. While a little difficult to accept, I have learned about my body’s limitations. And I’ve learned that I have to accept some loss of independence and hold on to family members and good friends for help (valuing them more highly and accepting their advice and help)…
“I have been overwhelmed by many of the cards, e-mail messages and telephone calls from friends. When I heard what some of them said and read what others had written, I was wondering if I really was the intended recipient. Some even brought tears to the eyes of a guy who was taught that ‘big boys never cry.’ Guess old men do.”
That was the Don Gackle I knew: perceptive and open; celebrating his family and friends; proud yet humble. In his second to last column two weeks ago, he characteristically observed: “My name and face have been splattered about in this newspaper for a long, long time (too long?). Hate to think I’ve been too self-centered; that’s not a good trait.”
To repeat, I was fortunate to be among the legion that Don called a “friend,” one that had “silently shared the same fears.”
Though we were simpatico on so much of life and weekly newspapering, we disagreed—strongly but civilly—about politics. Don was to right of center, me to the left. Our discourse (mostly by e-mail over the last decade) forced us to hone our positions…and often we moved a bit off what would have been hard-line stances.
All would agree: Those extra three months Don had after his hospitalization in Garrison was a gift well used. He was vital, in print, right to the end, sharing his opinions on events of the day: the North Dakota referendum on property taxes, the Native American nickname controversy, his state’s oil boom, and what he saw as the sad decline of a faltering country he loved so well.
He led a long and most purposeful life, superbly exemplifying what the Psalmist wrote: “Teach us to number our days aright, that we may gain a heart of wisdom.”
I’m far from alone in my praise of our departed Don:
Wrote Crosby, N.D., weekly publisher John Andrist: “Don was the best friend I ever had…There is nothing we would not do for one another. We were true brothers, probably closer than if we had been brothers by blood. God has no earthly gifts better than the love we shared.”
Observed Roger Bailey, manager of the state newspaper association: “I’ve described Don Gackle as ‘a rock’–one of the most important persons ever in our industry in North Dakota.”
My own memories are many–golfing at Disney’s Magic Kingdom (a course neither of us should have tackled); leading NNA members in his beloved “Whiffenpoof Song” on a bus in Houston; jumping into a cab, also in Houston, only to be told by the cabbie that you could see the restaurant out the window; singing songs with our kids and a visiting Irish child around the piano in his Garrison home.
Had Nancy and I been in Garrison for the Don Gackle memorial tomorrow, we would have told you of our fondness and respect for Don. Had I still been publishing the weekly Monticello Times, I’m quite sure a Don’s Column would have been composed.
And maybe that is precisely what this is: my tribute in words to the life Don Gackle.
–Donald Q. Smith, 7/6/12