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The man behind Minnesota-speak

September 14, 2013
By Jim Tate - SMSU , Marshall Independent

Howard Mohr is having a reading on Sept. 19 at SMSU? And it's free?

That's a heckuva deal.

Mohr, the former English professor and author of the book How to Talk Minnesotan: Revised for the 21st Century, will read from his latest work at 7 p.m. in the Conference Center Ballroom next Thursday. It's a rare public reading for the man who wrote, then re-worked, the definitive book of Minnesota-speak.

Mohr traveled a meandering path by the time he arrived on campus in 1970, when the institution was just three years old.

"The '60s came to SSU in the '70s," he said.

He recalled the early years of SMSU, back when it was Southwest Minnesota State College. "There was quite a bit of freedom to do what you wanted to do in the classroom," he said. "Deb Wylder hired me. Phil Dacey was hired, along with Stephen Dunn (later a Pulitzer Prize-winning poet). A lot of times we didn't have offices. We were upstairs in the library."

That trio of writing heavyweights gives you an idea of the breadth and depth of talent in the English Department. "The students were a part of my generation," he said. "It was a good place."

And so, 14 years later, with tenure and a comfortable life, "I turned my contract in. I said I was going to write for a living," he said. "I had been doing some writing for non-broadcast shows that Garrison Keillor did. He had one on the theatre stage here," recalled Mohr. "Because of that, and because I did a few other things for him as well as writing, that led to the book."

"The Book," as Mohr refers to it, is the original "How to Talk Minnesotan." Released in 1987, it was an insightful lampoon of Minnesotan speech and mannerisms, meant to guide those from out of state on how to not stick out too much in Minnesota.

The original book goes back to his days as a writer and sometime-performer with Keillor's "A Prairie Home Companion" radio show. "I was writing these Minnesota Language Systems ads," said Mohr. He did 26 of them, total, and Keillor would introduce them this way: "This portion of the show is brought to you by Minnesota Language Systems, the simple cassette tape and study guide for people from out of state."

"You bet," "that's different" and "whatever" are the workhorse phrases of Minnesota language, or, as Mohr would say, "The building blocks of all dialogue."

The updated version came out this past summer and includes discussions about technology that wasn't around 26 years ago. That is somewhat ironic, since the author himself hasn't fully embraced that technology. "I'm not in the 21st century myself," he said. "When they said they wanted to update, my editor wanted me to rewrite the whole thing. That seemed to me to be wrong. I ended up taking stuff out that wouldn't be missed, and adding stuff that appeared to be, and probably was, in the 21st century."

Mohr was born in Des Moines, Iowa, the oldest of five children in the Ralph and Rosie Mohr family. When he was 11, they moved to San Jose, Calif. "I had my junior high years in San Jose, before it was called Silicon Valley," he said. "They had progressive schools at the time. I took Latin in junior high, and ballroom dancing."

His father was diagnosed with a form of cancer and, with the help of another uncle, moved to a farm near Ferguson, Iowa, south of Marshalltown. "It wasn't progressive at all," he said. Cancer slowed his father quite a bit, "so that's how I learned how to farm, back when they had two-row pickers."

He attended a junior college in Marshalltown for a semester before transferring to the University of Iowa, where he was first a chemistry major, then moved into physics. "We were poor," he said. "I was the first grandchild on both sides of the family to go to college. There was no help I could get from anyone, so I dropped out."

A friend - the brother of his future wife, Jody - was attending college at Abilene Christian College in Texas, "so I went down there," he said. "Someone said I should take a class in literature. Sure enough, I took a class, and I didn't turn back."

With no plan in mind and a literature degree in hand, Mohr came to Iowa and taught at a high school across the Missouri River from Omaha. His future wife Jody was still going to school in Texas "and I needed to be closer" so he went back and looked for a teaching job there. "I interviewed with the board of education, a bunch of cowboys, and they asked if I could handle discipline. They didn't seem to think I would," he laughed. He got a job in Rochester, Texas, a cotton town of 200 or so people. "I drove the school bus, taught seventh grade math, English, and Texas history, eighth grade math and English and a section of senior chemistry."

He and Jody married, and it was up to Fayetteville, Ark., where Jody taught nearby and Howard earned his master's in English at Arkansas-Fayetteville. He applied for a job at Luther College in Decorah and to his surprise, they hired him. "I couldn't believe it. It was a good school - one of my best memories."

After two years there, the folks at Luther thought it would be a good deal if he got his doctorate. "So I set myself up to do that. Jody worked on her master's in education, and I worked on my Ph.D. I got it all done but the dissertation. When it came time for it, I decided I wasn't going to write."

His interesting sojourns would then take him to Marshall and a new college on the prairie. He became part of a young, talented English Department.

Mohr is obviously a keen observer of life. "I do pay attention to life, though I'm somewhat baffled at times by what I see," he said. He grew up listening to the radio, "where there was talking, and news and real advertisements. Bob and Ray were the last of the radio soap operas, and the best of that genre. Anybody who does fake commercials has to tip their hat to them."

The Mohrs have a daughter, Susan.

Mohr is in talks now about updating the musical stage version of his book, which had a long, successful run at the Plymouth Playhouse.

All in all, as he looks back on his career, a guy could have done worse.



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