Stories of the Storytellers is a periodic series from the Newsroom featuring some of St. Thomas’ prominent storytellers who have introduced us to many of the interesting people, places and events of St. Thomas history.
A St. Paul native, St. Thomas Director of Media Relations Jim Winterer has been a Tommie since 1968, graduating in 1971 before working as a newspaper reporter, editor and publisher in northern Minnesota. He returned to St. Thomas in 1980 as the director of the then-News Service where, among many things, he helped oversee the consolidation of faculty and student news into the former weekly newsletter, The Bulletin. Now, Winterer works to connect and promote St. Thomas’ faculty to media outlets the world over, leveraging his lifelong passion as a storyteller to continue making sure people know about St. Thomas.
The Newsroom sat down with Winterer to talk with him about his role of more than three decades as one of St. Thomas’ most prominent storytellers.
On growing up telling stories: We didn’t talk about it like it was telling stories [growing up as a kid]. But then I realized even when I was at the newspaper in Two Harbors [in the 1970s]: I’m telling stories. Right around that time Garrison Keillor was getting going and he was telling stories about Lake Wobegon, and I felt like I was telling stories about Two Harbors and Silver Bay and these people that live up in the woods. Mine were real, and his were real but not real people. I thought, ‘What a responsibility.’ I would write three, four obit[uarie]s in a week and it’s like, ‘Wow, I’m telling their stories. Their last stories.’ And a lot of these were these Finnish loggers, real characters. That was interesting. …
In fifth or sixth grade, we grew up in this magical time and place in St. Paul where every third house had eight kids and we all went to the same school. We were free-range kids and just had so many adventures and fun stuff. A whole neighborhood of characters. … We told a lot of stories. When we heard those Garrison Keillor stories I thought, ‘Dang, I could get up there and tell our stories.’ We had a ton of them. … It was remarkably similar. We just thought it was so fun. It was intellectually fun; we would rather do that than sit and watch TV. We were creating our own shows in our heads. It was an important part of learning how to tell stories. We weren’t trying; it was just fun when you’d think of something and start telling a story. You needed the audience like we had. It was so fun.
On learning to tell a story to himself as part of a writing process: Sometimes you just tell the story to yourself and you need quiet time to do it. I like long hikes where you can get into a rhythm … there’s a pace where your brain works well and if I’m stuck on a story that will help me. … I used to swim a lot until they closed the McCarthy gym pool … and did a lot of thinking while I was swimming. One time I was working on a story about Father [Jan Michael] Joncas when he had Guillain-Barre syndrome and almost died, but they kept him alive while he went paralyzed and came back from it. It would get to the point where you couldn’t move anything but your eyes and had to communicate by blinking. Eventually even that would go. I was trying so hard to think of a headline and just couldn’t think of it. I remember swimming and going to touch the wall to turn and it was like, ‘Ah, that’s it!’ And it was, ‘When Thoughts Are All You Have Left.’ It just fit it so well. Sometimes you have to tell yourself those stories and give yourself permission to do it, especially if you’re trying to fit a lot of pieces together to tell it. You need those self-stories to figure it out.
On shifting his storytelling with his current role in news service: I still like to tell stories. I don’t write feature stories as much anymore; that’s what I used to really like writing. You can’t be as much of a storyteller with news releases, but years of practicing how to tell stories makes you better at news releases. What are you trying to tell them? And then tell them right away. The first two sentences. That doesn’t always work in a pure feature story, but it does in a news release. You can’t make busy editors look at your headline and sub-head and wonder what your story’s about.
On the importance of documenting St. Thomas’ history throughout his years here: We took it very seriously [when we were publishing The Bulletin] that we were writing the history as we went; I really thought about that a lot. Ann Kenne at the archives came up with a way to scan all the printed Bulletins, the [St. Thomas] magazines before they went online; it’s very easy to go into the archives and search for stuff, find it and print it. What an amazing thing. All that history through that age of growth [in the 1980s-90s] we had is right in those printed materials. We can also find online now in the Newsroom with searches. You’ve got it all covered.
On the lessons of hitchhiking: Another place where I learned about storytelling is that I used to hitchhike as a kid in St. Paul. … I started hitchhiking all over the Twin Cities, then eventually going up to Duluth and the North Shore, then all over the country. I don’t know how many hundreds of rides I got. Right away you’re with someone and you start to tell stories. A lot of times I think they picked you up just to tell each other stories. You would take a cue, the weather, where you’re going, if you’re in school. … I have memories of so many of those that are just so great. I always thought doing that was a really good primer for doing interviews as a journalist. I can’t think of a better way to learn than that. There were many times I could have driven but it so much more fun to hitchhike.
On favorite stories he has gotten to tell: I did have fun telling the story about Father Joncas. I really enjoyed the story about John Abraham and his confrontation with Lord [Christopher] Monckton. Really an interesting story there. Some of the stories from the North Shore: I met this old man who built these forest service stations … Just a really cool guy who I got to know. I did another story up there about this beaver who kept building his dam by a busy highway and they kept trying to move him, and he would move back. One day he got run over by a car. Really sad. … It’s hard to think of them after so many years; there are so many of them. I’ll go into my garage [where I store old stories] sometimes and think, ‘Somehow people have paid me to write stuff that I would pay for to read myself. Why would that be the case?’ I try not to think about that question too much. It is still fun just to be working here and doing this.