Jon Hassler, author of 'Staggerford,' dies

Jon Hassler
Minnesota author Jon Hassler has died at the age of 74.
Photo by Greg Becker

During summers growing up in Staples and Plainview, Minnesota, Jon Hassler loved to play with his friends and read in the hammock in the backyard.

But during an interview with Minnesota Public Radio in 1999 he said it was meeting the customers as he worked in his parent's grocery store that prepared him to be a writer.

"These people came into the store year after year, day after day," he said. "I got to know them so well, I got to see the next chapter in their lives. I saw their lives play out. I knew everybody in town. I knew the big events in their lives, the wedding anniversaries, the new cars, the suicides. So that was part of my training at a novelist."

He studied English at St. John's University as an undergraduate, but said it was really just to allow him the chance to read even more. When he graduated he became a teacher almost by default.

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"I'd see them out in their picnics and things," Hassler said. "Fall workshop and they'd gather for their picnics out in the park, and I'd think 'Wouldn't it be awful to be one of those people?' And I became one, you know?"

Hassler said he came to believe teachers, particularly in elementary through high school, are the unsung heroes of the age.

Hassler said after a young graduate told him studying literature had taken all the fun out of reading, he made it a personal mission to make studying literature fun again.

So he taught, but he didn't write.

He said things changed in September 1970 when he was a professor at Brainerd Community College.

One day a voice in his head reminded him he was 37 years old, and if he wanted to do something with his life, it was time to start.

"I grabbed this notebook, and I went to school and I taught my 8 o'clock class," he said. "At 9 o'clock I went into the library and I began to write a story called 'A story worth hearing.'"

It was about a group of old men sitting on a bench outside the post office in a small town.

"They begin reminiscing about their love lives and their youth," Hassler recalled. "And it turns out that one of them was in love with a woman who is now married to a man at the end of the bench."

He finished it in two weeks and immediately began writing another. In 28 weeks he had 14 stories. In 1999 he admitted that while he had an overwhelming desire to write, he was also driven in part by a bet with a friend. If one of them didn't complete a story in two weeks, he owed the other 50 cents.

"That was the last money I made out of writing in a long time," he said wryly. "I taught myself to write. I never had a writing course, so it meant making a lot of mistakes and reading a lot of other people and taking stories apart and putting them back together."

In time, the novels started coming, beginning in 1978 with "Staggerford." More followed, including "Love Hunter" "Grand Opening" and "The Dean's List."

Hassler's subjects were those he knew best: small town life and the collegiate experience.

While not overtly religious, his books often contain Catholic characters, and he explores the joys and challenges that can bring.

Writer and educator Nick Hayes said he first met Hassler as a fan at reading 25 years ago. He later became a colleague and friend when they both taught at St Johns. Hayes said Hassler was masterful in portraying small town Minnesota.

"Most of us have been stuck either with the sentimentality of Lake Wobegon or the extreme bitterness of Sinclair Lewis's Gopher Prairie," says Hayes. "Jon gave, I thought, a much better image that was not saccharine and overlooking the faults of these small towns, but was always gifted at finding the humanity and it's dignity in these nooks and crannies of rural Minnesota."

Hayes said Hassler was a generous teacher interested in young writers.

"Jon has given hope inspiration and a model to another generation of Jon Hasslers, that will come and continue that literary tradition."

After teaching in Bemidji and Brainerd, Hassler won a Fulbright scholarship, and St. John's University extended an invitation to him to spend the year in Collegeville.

Another old Hassler friend is Lee Hanley, now Communications Director for St. Johns Abbey, who worked with Hassler at St. Johns at the time. He said the year of Hassler's residency went well, but then he said there was a problem.

"One afternoon late in the spring, Dean Spaeth came walking into my office in his stocking feet as he often did and said 'Hanley, we've got a problem.' And I said 'What the heck's happened?' he said. "I just had my farewell meeting with Jon Hassler to talk over his experiences at St John's, and he say's he's not going to leave.'"

There wasn't a budget, but somehow they worked it out, and Hassler taught at St Johns for another 18 years.

Hanley said Hassler was deeply disciplined as a writer.

"He would work four hours a day," he says. "I think he had a goal of 400 good words a day and he stuck to it religiously."

Hanley said Hassler maintained his daily regimen, even after he began a long battle with Parkinson's disease. The disorder increasingly restricted his movements, and eventually even much of his speach.

However, he kept working on a novel called "Jay O'Malley."

Hanley said a couple of weeks ago, Hassler's wife Gretchen called him to help get a final draft burned onto a CD. When he arrived Hanley said they found parts of the 25 chapter novel were spread around the computer hard drive.

"And we would say 'Jon, what about about this sentence?' 'Chapter 11.' 'What about this sentence?' 'End of chapter 17.' I was so impressed that he had that novel in his head so clearly that you could tell him a sentence and he would say what chapter it was in," Hanley said.

Hanley says that even as Hassler was going into hospital on Monday he wanted to continue working on the book.

Funeral services are pending for Jon Hassler, but in addition to a funeral in the Twin Cities, there will be a memorial at St. Johns in coming weeks.