Saying goodbye to a "good, decent and humble man," who also happened to be kind of a big deal

Last Updated by Kevin Woster on
He loved baseball, hometowns, newspapers, friends and family

Early on in my visits to the Jenkins Living Center in Watertown, I learned not to underestimate my friend David.

Even with Alzheimer’s and all it did to his mind, he could surprise you. He would surprise you.

Take the time I stopped to see him and he never spoke, never laughed or smiled or even seemed to notice I was there. I couldn’t coax a reaction even by leaning in and joking about how he used to chew me out for being late with a story on deadline back in our Argus Leader days. (We'll talk about that more in a minute...)

But when I left that day, I was full of despair. I thought the Dave Kranz I knew was gone for good. All of him.

Then, a couple of days later, I got a call from Lee Schoenbeck, a Watertown lawyer and conservative Republican politician who — like many politicos of various partisan persuasions — was buds with Kranz. Schoenbeck had been at Jenkins for one of his regular visits and he called with a report:

“Kranz was sleeping when I walked in,” Schoenbeck said. “I said, ‘Kranz, what are you doing?’ And he opened his eyes, looked hard at me and said: ‘When’s Woster coming back?’”

Ah, Kranz — still the journalist, asking the tough questions. And the answer was simple: as soon as I could.

Not only had Kranz known I was there that day, it mattered to him. “And you can take that to the bank,” as Kranz liked to say.

Instead, I took it to Jenkins, again and again, to see my friend.

Kranz was in the memory care unit there for seven years, the last long seven years of his life. I made the trip across the state to see him as often as I thought I could, but not as often as I thought I should. Driving the state horizontally again last Thursday for Dave’s funeral Mass Friday morning, I regretted every should-have trip I didn’t take. I also celebrated the ones I did.

It was a sad thing, seeing Kranz in Jenkins, because there was always a little bit less of him to see. But now it's sad to think of not returning, to celebrate the little parts of him that remained:

The way he smiled or chuckled when you teased him about politics or baseball or the old days back at the Argus Leader; that look of recognition and welcome when he glanced up from his plate and saw you walking through the lunchroom toward his table; that gentle rocking to the familiar cadence of the Rosary being prayed close to his ear; and the occasional eruption of laughter that took us back, for just a second or two, to the time when Dave Kranz was South Dakota’s best-known, most widely read political reporter and columnist.

The time before that awful disease began dismantling his brain.

Holding on to the Gift of Love

In his funeral Mass Homily at Immaculate Conception Catholic Church Friday morning, Father Paul Rutten talked about the things Alzheimer’s took from Kranz, and the one thing it couldn’t touch.

“I know one thing he never forgot: love,” Rutten said. “That included the love of those who came to visit, and showed up to say ‘hi,’ even when he couldn’t or wouldn’t respond.”

Rutten is a Sioux Falls native, an O’Gorman graduate who grew up when “Dave Kranz” was a big name that mattered in the city.

“Who would have thought I’d be standing here presiding over his funeral?” Rutten asked.

It was a privilege, and the young priest treated it as such. He spoke of David’s Catholic faith, which was close to his heart but rarely on his lips. He lived his love of God without self-serving proclamations or mean-spirited judgments. He was a man of inclusion and mercy, acceptance and outreach, especially to the abused and marginalized among us -- in whose faces he saw, as we are all encouraged to see, the face of God.

“In his life, in his own way, he had a desire to give back to the one who had given him so much: Jesus,” Father Rutten said.

That giving back came through his journalism, through his sense of justice for all in his society and through his daily acts of kindness and consideration that were too numerous to mention. But here's one of my favorites:

When Argus Leader readers who hadn't received their morning paper called for help, sometimes they reached the newsroom, especially on Saturdays. Those were calls, especially on busy mornings, that reporters — including me — used to dread and often evade. Not Kranz. Not ever. He took them, offered help and information and sometimes drove to the caller’s home to hand deliver a paper.

One on a particularly windy Saturday morning, the caller was an elderly woman who lived alone. The carrier had apparently tried to put the Argus inside her storm door to get it out of the wind. But the door eventually blew open and broke the glass as the paper scattered.

Kranz responded like an EMT crew, with a newspaper and a request: “Do you have a broom I can borrow?”

Yes, he delivered the paper and swept up the glass for the subscriber. That much I remember clearly. Beyond that, I recall vaguely that he did something to help the woman get the broken pane replaced. My guess is he paid for it, too, just as he paid for hundreds of other things in similar situations over the years.

Kranz would have liked Father Rutten’s homily, blushing with head down and perhaps pretending to take notes. And he would have loved a political reference related to the Apostles.

Friday, you see, was the annual Feast of Sts. Peter and Paul, a day of celebration for the two apostles and saints, early leaders of the church who had different backgrounds, styles and roles in spreading the faith.

“One might say that in their day they were Republican and Democrat, with different ideas on how things should be done,” Rutten said.

Yet they carried the same mission, the same commitment to Christ, setting differences aside to build the foundation of a church and a new faith that would spread around the world. So, too, Father Rutten said, did Dave Kranz seek to do his job without regard for political differences.

He did that imperfectly sometimes, as all of us human-being reporters have done. But most times he did it well. Very well. Sometimes biblically well.

A Disciple of the Word and the Words

In his personal and faith life, Kranz was a disciple of The Word. In his professional life, he was a disciple of The Words, and the weight they carried out into the world through journalism.

At the conclusion of the Mass, former Argus Leader Editor and Publisher Randell Beck offered a eulogy, focusing on “The Words” and the way Kranz used and respected them throughout his career. There were knowing nods of agreement throughout the church sanctuary as Beck spoke, which is not a line you’ll often see. (I tease, Randell, because I love, although perhaps not in a biblical way...)

As Beck spoke, I sat in the front pew to the right of the family, next to Maricarrol Kueter, an extraordinary editor at many levels at the Argus Leader, including the top. Nearby sat two other former Argus staffers: the fluid, unflappable lifestyle reporter Jill Callison, and the ever-able reporter-of-many-hats, Rob Swenson, whose news stories I illustrated with heavy metal Nikons when we worked together at the Brookings Register back in the mid-1970s.

I was proud to sit among them again, to hear our former boss speak truth to the power of community journalism and a man who dedicated his life to that cause. Beck painted a word picture of the consummate reporter in a rumpled suit, “scurrying down the street to see one of his countless sources of information.”

Or, back in what Beck accurately described as “a newsroom full of clever eccentrics,” there was Kranz again, “hunched over that keyboard at a desk piled high with the rubble of a reporter’s life.”

Nobody did sources of information quite like Kranz. And nobody could beat him in “eccentric” and “rubble.” He returned from news events, or from a sudden unplanned interview at a gas station, dentist’s office or city parks, with notes scribbled in notebooks, on business cards, on cafe receipts, on brown paper burger bags, on the back of his hand and the inside of his arm and, when necessary, on his legs.

His desk was in the middle of stacks of press releases, briefing papers, bound reports, books and partly filled notebooks, along with the scattering of other note-taking materials. It looked like complete chaos -- the aftermath, perhaps, of an F-2 tornado.

Or just Dave Kranz.

Yet more than once when the master of the mess walked in, he stopped, looked around and said: “Who’s been messing with my desk? Somebody moved stuff around. Now I can’t find what I was looking for!”

You laugh. So did I. So did we. But I also saw him walk to his desk in the middle of a sentence, slide through a gap in the piles, reach down halfway into an oddly contorted assemblage of what appeared to be random debris and pull out exactly what he was looking for.

So, again, don’t underestimate Kranz, whom Beck described, with clear emotion, as “a richly complex” man who was “magically, amazingly more than the sum of his many parts.”

I knew Kranz for most of his career. Beck came to the Argus for the last decade or so, including the 2004 campaign cycle and the “false, malicious attacks on his character” from which, Beck rightly said, Kranz never quite recovered.

Most of us would have returned fire against such and onslaught. Kranz did not. Could not.  “It was not in him to fight back,” Beck said.

By 2004, I had left the Argus and Sioux Falls for a wife and new life in Rapid City, and a return to the Journal.  But I called from time to time to check on Kranz. He repeated over and over: “So much of they’re saying isn’t true. It just isn’t true.”

So much of it wasn’t. And so much of it hurt, in ways that added immeasurable stress to David’s life, and complicated his already complicated health challenges, including diabetes. I am convinced that it damaged his health, shortened his cognitive life and ultimately his physical life, too.

Like others who cared for Kranz, I’m still not quite over that.

Finally, Going Home to Mom

The only good part about the Alzheimer’s was that Kranz could finally forget 2004 and the attacks that left him so deeply wounded. But, of course, he was forgetting the wonderful times of his life, too. And eventually, there was just too much forgetting for Kranz in a job that relies so much of recollection.

After his retirement, Kranz lived for a time with his mother, Sally, in Watertown. There he took calls from friends and colleagues, and occasionally went out with a group to eat. I called throughout that year, as David's ability to converse declined and his agitation increased. Within a year or so, his gathering confusion required a move to Jenkins, which began the seven years of pilgrimages by his family and friends.

Why all the fuss for one guy losing his world to dementia? Beck put it pretty well:

“In a culture that is characterized by self-importance, arrogance and pride, Dave Kranz was a good, decent and humble man.”

Indeed, his kindness and his gentle spirit stood out even above his journalism. But of course, he had his days. And nobody could be any grumpier on a given day. He could also be just as demanding, sometimes unfairly so, as any hurried and harried editor could be. Some days, when he was lamenting that he was “up to my ass in alligators, Woster,” it was best to give him space and time.

But most days, Kranz was uniquely beneficent in his approach to others. And he was always at the center of things, as he was for the final time on Friday.  As a pall bearer, I was honored along with Kueter, Callison, Swenson and Kranz family friends Jim Felten and Gary Mack to carry David's mortal remains to their resting place in a well-manicured cemetery dripping with heat and humidity and the tears of farewell.

With prayers at the grave, hands placed on the oak casket and hugs all around, our official goodbye was over. But I continued mine back at Jenkins, stopping at his empty bed in a room once festooned with pictures and buttons and other relics of a life well lived. I also sat down down to talk about my friend with people who knew him daily in his final years: Jenkins President-CEO Loren Diekman, activities aide Heather Larsen and certified nurse assistant Cathy Blotsky.

Diekman never got to know Kranz before the dementia. So he went online to look for the Dave who had faded away.

“I wanted to hear his voice, so I actually googled him today,” Diekman said. “It was C-SPAN interview in 2004. You could tell the intelligence there, and the deep thinking.”

A seven-year stay in a memory care unit is a fairly long one. So Kranz left a mark. So did the many people who came to see him. Then included U.S. senators, past and present, former and current state legislators, county and city officials and plenty of people who worked with Kranz or knew him through the news business.

Old friends from the news business were common.

“One day several years ago, I heard this unmistakable voice out in the hallway as some people walked by,” Diekman said. “I stepped out and looked, and it was Steve Hemmingsen.”

A northeastern South Dakota native, Diekman had the voice of Hemmingsen, a long-time KELO-TV anchor and newsman, imbedded in recollection. So did Kranz, even as recollection faded. Hemminsen tried, as we all did, to renew it.

Former U.S. Sen. Larry Pressler was among those who traveled to Watertown to see Kranz. It was an interesting friendship that began when Pressler was still in the Senate and Kranz was reporting on him, sometimes in pretty aggressive ways that Pressler often thought unfair.

Pressler admits that after he lost his Senate seat to Democrat Tim Johnson in 1996, he felt bitter toward news coverage, the Argus Leader in particular, and even toward Kranz. In fact, Republicans promoting the John Thune campaign against Tom Daschle in 2004 used stories Kranz wrote about Pressler and Daschle as ammunition.

As far as I know, the bloggers behind those stories never reached out to Kranz to make things right.

Pressler, meanwhile, had already reached out to Kranz in a more friendly way, first in discussing his concerns over past coverage, but after that in building a friendship.

“Through those conversations I became friendly with him because I realized he was under a lot of pressure also,” Pressler said.

Knowing When to put a Period on It

Pressler spent time with Kranz in Watertown, and once they traveled to nearby Kranzburg, visiting the family farm home just outside of town and the church were Kranz first embraced his Catholic faith. They talked about many things, including the terrible family thing their families had in common: Alzheimer's.

Pressler’s father had died from the disease, as did Dave’s father. So Larry Pressler and Dave Kranz exchanged meaningful letters and phone calls after Kranz was diagnosed.

“And David saw what was coming and he dreaded it, as he lost his beautiful mind,” Pressler said. “He was a dear soul.”

It’s hard to stay away from dear souls. And the parade of visitors at Jenkins included current and former Argus Leader staffers who sometime brought food along with friendship.

“We’d bring in pizza, which Kranz liked,” Rob Swenson said. “And we’d just sit around and eat and talk. We did most of the talking, of course.”

Like Loren Diekman, Jenkins staffer Heather Larsen loved hearing so many stories about the Dave Kranz she never knew, the one before dementia.

“He had his verbal moments, but they weren’t very often,” Larsen said. “He’d nod his head, and once in a while you’d get a giggle out of him. But there was something about his personality that came out, even when he wasn’t talking to you.”

Cathy Blotsky said that even with his impairments, Kranz could show the good-listener skills that made him such an effective journalist: "If you talked to him, he could be totally into you -- like he was picking your mind."

“He obviously made an impression on people,” Diekman added. “You could see that in the number of visitors he had. So many people traveled to see him even though the conversations were one-sided.”

Most of my conversations with David over the last seven years were exacctly that -- one sided. I usually went alone to see him. And I’ll admit that I struggled to come up with something new to say or do. Sometimes I would read headlines or recap TV news or talk about baseball scores. Sometimes I’d say decades of the Rosary. And sometimes I’d make him smile and even laugh when I joked about things he said while running the Argus newsroom.

Especially things he said to me, emphatically.

“Remember, Kranz? Remember you’d say: ‘Woster, where’s that story? I need that story! What are you writing, War and Peace? This is a daily paper. I need that story for my paper.  Come on, Woster, put a period on it. Put a period on it!"

Ah, put a period on it. Of all the lovable lines Kranz uttered under duress, his creative reference to that perfect point of punctuation and its place in the deadline sequence of a daily newspaper was probably my favorite.

“Wrap it up,” it said. “Time’s wasting. We’ve got a paper to put out.”

Indeed, we did, every day. And through that maddening, inspiring, constitutionally essential process, you could not have a better colleague or a better friend than David William Kranz.

You can take that to the bank.

Period.

The views expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily represent or reflect the views of SDPB, Friends of South Dakota Public Broadcasting, or the State of South Dakota.