Garrison Keillor

National Humanities Medal


A Prairie Home Companion: Millions of radio listeners look forward to it week after week after week. For the past twenty-five years, host Garrison Keillor has drawn them in with stories and songs and quips about home, family, little-league, and church socials. hat voice that draws them in, melting away cruel cynicism, is the "ruined baritone" of Anoka, Minnesota's own son, Garrison Keillor.

The character, if one exists, and the man are virtually indistinguishable. Both his writings, journalistic and otherwise, and his public speaking engagements leave audiences with the same sense of intellect, humility, and hometown sensibility as the radio show.

Probably the only mainstream entertainer who gets laughs by poking fun at "humanities majors," he himself was perhaps born one. "The Minneapolis Public Library of my boyhood was a stone castle a few blocks up Hennepin Avenue from the pool halls, penny arcades, bars and burlesque house," he recalls. "It was worth a long bike ride to get there, and I stayed as long as I could, and then pedaled home with a bag full of books. Everything else-softball, fishing, swimming, basketball, lawn-mowing-paled alongside the experience."

His career in radio began when he was a freshman English major at the University of Minnesota. "There was a fine humanities program there-Saul Bellow had taught in it-in which history and literature was combined in the study of ideas, an exciting escape from the strictures of the English department, and I enjoyed it," he says. "Even read War and Peace."

Shortly after graduation, Keillor took a job with Minnesota Public Radio. On July 6, 1974, he hosted the first broadcast of A Prairie Home Companion in front of a small audience at Macalaster College in St. Paul. The show has since played such renowned venues as Radio City Music Hall, the Hollywood Bowl, and the Fox in Atlanta. Keillor is ever humble when discussing the program's success. "The miniaturization of radios has made the show more appealing to people who like to hike and bike and ski," he muses. "And the edginess of comedy nowadays, the need of comedians to be dark and cynical and insistently profane, has created a large niche for comedy that isn't."

A Prairie Home Companion may be known for its celebration of traditional values like families, gospel music, and local gossip, but the program is technologically hip. Since 1996 it was been delivered live over the Internet and direct to worldwide satellite. It goes out over Armed Forces Radio.

Since starting the program twenty-five years ago, Keillor has written eleven books, been inducted into the Radio Hall of Fame, and has won a Grammy Award and two ACE Awards, among other notable accomplishments.

His most recent works include the book Me: By Jimmy "Big Boy" Valente as Told to Garrison Keillor, a humorous tribute to his state's new governor, and an advice column "for lovers and writers" in the popular online magazine Salon. Here he covers topics such as the dissertation blues, writer's block, step-parenting, and true love. "They wanted me to do a column and I thought that an advice column would be an ingenious way to get the readers to do half the work," he says. Marriage and fatherhood in his fifties make him particularly qualified to dispense such advice. He and his wife are the proud parents of a toddler daughter. Describing his home life in a recent Time magazine essay, he writes, "This is the life of a man who knows grandeur."

Keillor is currently working on four books simultaneously with the belief that "the great blessing is to have work that is satisfying, and that's enough.... You just keep going to work. You do your piece. You hoe your row. You try to make yourself useful to the audience."

By Susan Q. Graceson

About the National Humanities Medal

The National Humanities Medal, inaugurated in 1997, honors individuals or groups whose work has deepened the nation's understanding of the humanities and broadened our citizens' engagement with history, literature, languages, philosophy, and other humanities subjects. Up to 12 medals can be awarded each year.