Mark Heistad, MPR’s voice of documentaries, dies

Mark Heistad, the former MPR News host and reporter, known for a deep voice, gifted prose, and a long beard, died Monday night in Duluth.

Heistad was the classic public radio storyteller whose work, fortunately, has reached a new audience in the last several months as MPR News has reaired some of his productions as part of the 50th anniversary celebration of the organization.

This excerpt, from Heistad’s 1986 documentary “The Land Between”, aired just last week.

The full documentary can be heard here.

“I got paid to paddle around the Boundary Waters for two weeks, recording the sound of the place,” he said in a 2008 interview. “That was not a bad deal.”

There were many more: He documented New Ulm’s experiences in World War II, explored how technology transformed the state’s rural society, and produced the biographical documentary of Hubert Humphrey, “The Politics of Joy.”

He said his production and subsequent stories on Humphrey were his favorite even though he said “he was not someone I grew up admiring.”

Heistad stopped shaving in 1975, the day after he graduated from high school. He vowed to keep his beard, he said, until he “started to feel old.”

He started to feel old the day he was diagnosed with esophageal cancer, and so he let his students at Morningside College in Sioux City do the honors.

It had to come off for his cancer treatment anyway.

“As with so many other things in life, this is an experience I can’t control,” he said that day. “For me to worry or feel helpless is not going to do me any good, and it certainly won’t do my students any good (for me) to be in that mindset.”

His first job in journalism was as a general assigment reporter covering 12 counties. “I had no idea what I was doing,” he said. “I didn’t have a journalism background, I never had a course in journalism, never had a class in broadcasting. And I had a ball, solely because of my ignorance.”

[update 4/21] – His obit follows:

Heistad, Mark, age 59, of Sioux City IA, died April 17 of esophageal cancer while overlooking Lake Superior at his sister Carolyn’s house high on the hill in Duluth. Mark was born August 30, 1957 to Ruth and Gordon Heistad in Minneapolis and went to Washburn High School. As a young man, he worked for Wilderness and Amnicon Canoe Bases, played on the church softball team, and sang in several choirs. He also loved to fish in Canada and cross country ski on the Gunflint Trail. Mark graduated from Luther College in 1979 with emphases in education, history and political science. He managed the college radio station for several years and went on to be a host and producer for public radio stations in Marshall, MN, Cedar Falls, IA and St. Paul, MN. From 1991 to 1992, Mark hosted Morning Edition for MPR in St. Paul. He produced 15 documentaries, including a story on Dorothy Molter, the “root beer lady” of the Boundary Waters, a piece on farmers still using plow horses, and a documentary on Hubert Humphrey. Mark was the recipient of 23 state, regional and national journalism awards.

Mark earned a Ph.D. in Journalism from the University of Minnesota in 1997. He was a professor of journalism at Penn State from 1996 to 2000 and spent the last 15 years of his life as “Doc,” the beloved professor of mass communications (with the really long beard) at Morningside College in Sioux City, IA. He was very proud of the many students and interns he mentored throughout his career. Mark was devoted to his family and is survived by brother David (Kristi) from Edina and sisters Carolyn of Duluth, Marie Vandenbark of Eau Claire, WI and Kathy Blessing (Dave) of Boulder, Colorado. He was especially close to his Aunt Esther and Uncle Clyde Allen of Moorhead and cousins Cindy Rogness of Duluth and Scott Allen of Fargo.

Memorial service Saturday April 29th at Bethlehem Lutheran, 4100 Lyndale Ave So, Mpls. Memorials preferred to Minnesota Public Radio.