Today is Gary Eichten's last day at Minnesota Public Radio.
After 45 years in the newsroom, Gary is retiring. You've probably heard that Gov. Mark Dayton declared today Gary Eichten Day in Minnesota. You may also have heard the stories of how the Mankato native began his radio career spinning polka records in New Ulm, Minn., before becoming the elder statesman of Minnesota news broadcasting.
But there are some things you might not know about Gary. The first comes directly from him.
Number one: "I'm definitely a creature of habit," he said.
That's an understatement.
As any producer who has worked with Gary will tell you, the first thing to learn is "the routine." He does pretty much the same thing every day, some things down to the minute. You can set your watch by them.
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Gary calls it "the regimen." It includes always eating the same thing for lunch — popcorn now — although he used to be a regular at the Golden Arches. To Gary, it makes sense to take care of the stuff that might get in the way of doing the news. "It sounds silly, but if you do the same things every day, you don't have to worry how to do stuff," he said. "So that all becomes background material. Then you can focus on what you are trying to do on a particular day."
As everyone knows, Gary is good at the news. But he isn't good at everything.
Number 2: "What I know about classical music you can easily fit on the back of a postage stamp," Eichten admits.
That was a problem early in Gary's career. One of his first jobs was playing classical music as the host of the Morning Show on KSJR, broadcast out from St John's University in Collegeville.
"I wasn't very good at it," he said. "In fact, I was so bad at it they brought in this new guy, this Garrison Keillor kid. Brought him in to do the morning show instead, surprisingly."
But there was one classical piece which won Eichten's heart for a very specific reason. In the early days of MPR, the news operation moved to St. Paul. After the Midday broadcast, the news broadcaster flipped a switch and the music announcers from Collegeville would take over. Longtime MPR staffer Marilyn Heltzer remembers sometimes there wasn't anyone there.
"There would be a long pause, and Gary Eichten would have to rush into the music library, grab a record, put it on and when it was over, back-announce it. And it was always 'Appalachian Spring' by Aaron Copland," Heltzer recalled.
"And once Gary confessed that the reason he always played that record — now maybe he had it there in the studio with him, I don't know — but the reason he played it was because it was an American composer, and an American name, and we didn't have to worry about any of those foreign terms that showed up in classical music."
Of course, Gary has become much better with exotic names and terms in the meantime. That brings us to the next point.
Number 3: "What's the line about the young man in New York asking, 'How do I get to Carnegie Hall?' " asked MPR President Emeritus Bill Kling. "The answer is practice, practice, practice."
Kling remembers how in the early days Gary was the entire news department and had to do virtually everything. All that practice made him very good.
Number 4: The audience always comes first.
Eichten's professional and personal belief in that principle has shaped his own work, and also become a bedrock value of MPR news.
"It's reassuring to understand what it is that makes him so good, and it comes down to his values and his understanding of the issues he's dealing with," Kling said.
That's been particularly true during the almost 20 years Gary has hosted the Midday program.
Larry Jacobs of the University of Minnesota's Humphrey Institute of Public Affairs has been a regular guest on the show. He said with Eichten at the helm, Midday has become vital for the political health of Minnesota.
Jacobs, director of the institute's Center for the Study of Politics and Governance, likens the show to an old time pharmacy soda fountain: a place to grab a drink and chew over the issues of the day with your neighbors.
"Gary was the amiable but sometimes stern soda jerk who would be serving you and asking the questions which would make you sit back and think," Jacobs said.
Gary can intimidate people, especially if you don't know him.
"Just as crabby and owly as you imagined," he said during a recent interview.
After all, this is the man who once ordered then-Gov. Jesse Ventura to put his headphones back on after he'd announced he was leaving the studio when a caller upset him.
And that leads us to a final point.
Number 5: Gary Eichten has been the warm heart beating at the center of MPR News for decades, a guy who lives, eats, and breathes radio.
As he stepped out of the Midday studio for the last time on Friday, he was greeted with a round of strong applause from supportive colleagues. For us, he's been a leader and a teacher. We are all going to miss him.