This piece was written on February 24, 2004 and was unpublished until now. Paul Gruchow possessed the soul of a solopreneur; he lived the solopreneur life in a way that few of us ever will.
Oh my goodness, I found out this evening Paul Gruchow died two days ago.
I immediately feared Paul’s death had been by suicide, and I learned a few hours later I was correct.
The news shook me, made my eyes moist for the rest of the evening. Paul easily was the most thought-provoking, serious writer I’ve ever known personally. He also was a gentle and effective teacher of young writers.
That’s how I first regarded him, as a teacher. It was February of 1988, and I’d been at work less than five days in my first job as a writer, at The N’West Iowa REVIEW, a weekly newspaper in Sheldon, Iowa.
The paper’s managing editor, Tedd Mathis, told us with excitement at my first staff meeting that “Paul Gruchow!” had agreed to mark up our most recent newspaper. Tedd also said Paul would meet individually with each of us to discuss our writing.
I didn’t know who Paul Gruchow was, but I still remember his counsel. He urged the five of us to read our writing out loud. By reading aloud, Paul said we would find the rough patches, the potholes that would need fixing. He assured us we also would discover smooth spots and take encouragement from our well-written passages.
As Paul left our humble newspaper building, bundled in a well-worn down parka and speaking of upcoming trips to Western states on writing-related adventures, I wondered: “Who was that little wizard and why can’t he stay with us?” I also marveled at his life, being able to write, travel, and give wisdom to starving journalists. I wanted that life, his gifts.
I learned later from co-workers that Paul was the superb editor when the Worthington Daily Globe was one of the nation’s most innovative newspapers in the 1970s and 1980s. Paul had possessed one-fourth ownership of the Globe, and he had sold his stake in the mid 1980s. With the sale, Paul suddenly became a writer of an unusual sort—one starting out with a bit of financial freedom.
Paul didn’t squander his good fortune. He wrote like an Old Testament prophet at times. He saw and felt injustice in many places. He comprehended environmental and economic issues in a way few people do. His view was stark and truthful. Yes, it often was depressing, too. He knew the history of the American prairie and understood what has happened to the biodiversity that once existed on the plains. He also knew why the loss of biodiversity was important to the future health of the human race.
Most of us choose to look away from what we see around us. Paul, the prophet, couldn’t or wouldn’t do that.
Apparently Paul died of a drug overdose. How sad. I knew he had been battling severe depression in recent years. The newspaper Web sites are reporting tonight he’d been hospitalized several times since 2001 and had attempted suicide four times. At the time of his death, he had been writing about the pain of depression.
I suppose I will remember those grim facts about Paul, but I come back to how encouraging he could be.
I still have in my nightstand an essay he wrote in the 1980s titled, “Welcome to Podunk.” The article was intended for young reporters who felt stuck at dreary newspapers in rural outposts. Paul, his writing filled with vigor, described the opportunities that exist at the Podunk newspaper, the freedom it gives to young journalists who embrace its possibilities for professional growth and experimentation. In fact, Paul said Podunk probably would be the most enriching, vibrant years in one’s journalism career. How true. The Podunk essay should be required reading for any reporter or editor at a newspaper with a circulation of less than 50,000.
I also will remember Paul as an example of what can be done in life as a writer. I looked at his career from afar and believed I could leave the life of newspaper work and make it as a freelance writer. Before making the jump in 1993, I sought his advice over lunch in Northfield. He encouraged me to take specific, logical steps before leaving my job as editor of a daily in southern Minnesota. I didn’t listen; I’m sure he knew I wouldn’t.
I wish I had Paul’s writing talent, the voice he brought to the page and the depth of knowledge he brought to a subject. I wasn’t the only one who wanted Paul’s writing.
Eight years ago, Paul had an assignment from the University of Minnesota alumni magazine. The editor sought a story about a farmer who was noteworthy for use of sustainable-agriculture methods. Paul couldn’t fit the work into his schedule and asked if I’d be interested in the assignment. Flattered, I said I certainly would. Paul said he’d contact the editor and have her call me.
I never heard from her.
Apparently the editor wanted a story about a farmer written by Paul Gruchow, not a story about a farmer.
As an editor, I would’ve wanted the same thing.
Anything with “By Paul Gruchow” attached was going to be a great read, a piece that would inform and forever change the reader’s perspective on an issue.
Paul left behind in his writing a wisdom that will continue to bring light to dark places.
Paul continues to teach, and I’m still one of his eager students.