The Free Press, Mankato, MN

July 20, 2013

Ojanpa: Hit a single and call it a day

The Mankato Free Press

---- — Oscar Campbell, Pete Falk and John Kruk have virtually nothing in common, except to me.

Through no design of their own, they’ve served to bracket a guy’s 38-year newspaper career.

Campbell was a former Eagle Lake City Council member, Falk ran a gas station in Mountain Lake, and Kruk was a major league ballplayer who took his leave from the game quickly, quietly and, for my money, admirably.

On Aug. 17, 1979, a young reporter with four years of newspaper experience began his first day on the job at The Free Press.

A few hours later the police radio squawked. There had been an explosion in Eagle Lake, and I was told to hop to it.

I and legendary Free Press photographer Bill Altnow, a 5-foot-8 ball of mirth and girth, arrived on the scene and saw a bowed out city maintenance building and a guy with a bandaged arm — Campbell — holding court beside it.

He and two other guys had been in the building when gas fumes ignited. The other two guys were taken to the hospital. Campbell, who’d been blown out the door, escaped with a dinged up left arm.

I spoke to folks, scribbled my notes, and Altnow clicked away. Front page story before I even learned where the men’s room was. It was a damn fine tone-setter for a guy’s new gig.

Sorry it happened, Oscar, but thanks just the same for getting yourself blown up.

A few years later, Free Press photographer John Cross and I were in Mountain Lake for something or other. We needed gas and pulled into an ancient white stucco station at the edge of town.

Clearly this wasn’t self-serve, but no one came out of the building. I ventured inside and there was Falk, sound asleep on a bench and using his trademark pith helmet for a pillow.

“Can I get some gas?”

He grumbled an answer, put on his helmet, and stepped into the sun.

But he didn’t get more than a few feet before he grumbled again.

“You pulled up to the wrong side of the pump. Pump it yourself.” And with that he shuffled back into the station.

For a newspaper feature writer, finding a guy like Falk is the equivalent of stumbling upon the Holy Grail. Cantankerous, ribald, wry and wholly unfiltered, the larger-than-life Falk was the mother lode.

The late Falk was, and remains, my personal gold standard for great characters to write about. There were others over the next three decades, but none like him.

Thank you, Pete Falk, for keeping me going all these years in trying to find another you.

Which brings us to Kruk.

On July 30, 1995, the chain-smoking, hefty ballplayer was literally on his last legs when he stepped to the plate for the Chicago White Sox in the first inning of a game with the Baltimore Orioles.

In a pre-arranged scenario with his manager, he hit a single, took himself out of the game, bid quick goodbyes to his teammates, and retired on the spot.

Which has always sounded just about right to me. So thank you, John Kruk, for showing a guy how to put a cap on 38 years.

I’ve had a good run, now I’m done.