"Remember, what you write today, someone may be wrapping fish cleanings in tomorrow."
Those were the words spoken to me by my college journalism professor. He was a rather hard case who had worked for the New York Times earlier in his career before he moved to the prairie and took up residence as a professor at South Dakota State University. At the time, I thought those were rather harsh words, but I have come to appreciate them over time.
This column this week is celebrating its 37th year of being published in a number of newspapers. I started the column with the title of "The Back Forty." That name existed until I received a nasty letter from some other supposed writer who said he had already claimed that name and I should change my title or otherwise receive a letter from his attorney. So much for mutual respect.
But, I did change the name to "The Last Windrow," derived from my farm experience, and I haven't received any hate mail as a result so I should be in the clear.
This column began at the request of our local newspaper owner at the time, Mandy Amy. Mandy knew that I enjoyed writing and asked me to submit a column or two and she would judge whether she wanted to actually pay me to write a weekly column. Through several transitions of ownership I am still writing for that paper and several in our sister state of South Dakota.
In total, I've written 1,924 columns over those 37 years. That's plus a few extra, separate stories here and there. I don't remember that many years passing, but I do know I have less hair and more wrinkles than when the column started.
I had a friend who asked me the other day how I thought of something to write about on a weekly basis. I guess I'd never thought about that. Drawing on my experiences from growing up on a small farm in Iowa and then living in the northern latitudes for the past 50 years has given me a base of ideas that never seem to run out. Every day is a new day.
I gave a presentation to a group of students a few years ago and one of them asked me how I chose my subjects. Another asked if there were things I didn't write about on purpose.
My response was that I have chosen to stay away from political writing. I've found that when one enters into that arena you will alienate half your readers while the other half rejoices. I chose not to try to make enemies. There are enough critical columnists out there in newspaper-land to go around.
Oh, I may stray into that territory once in a great while, but usually I find it more satisfying to just write what I think someone might get a laugh out of or actually gain some knowledge from something I have learned along the way.
It has been very satisfying to have received letters of appreciation over the years from folks I have never met, but who have read my column and sent me a positive note. I even had one catfish magazine use one of my columns without my permission, lauding the merits of catfish bait. I wrote them asking that at least they could have given me credit for the story, but I never heard back from them.
So goes the life of a columnist. I don't have the money to hire an attorney and that catfish magazine no doubt had a low budget.
And so, I will continue writing as long as my publishers see fit to jam me into their papers. I know someone reads the column because if I stray into the weeds with a column that takes a whimsical look at something like an annual lutefisk feed, I may hear about it on the street the day the paper comes out. After that experience, I leave commenting on lutefisk to someone else.
"Remember, what you write today, someone may be using it to cover the bottom of their parakeet cage tomorrow."
That professor had a way of keeping future columnists humble. I do remember his words. He was right.
Happy birthday to "The Last Windrow!"
See you next time. Okay? Be safe!