MATTERS AT HAND: Grand Forks and Herald bask as Marilyn goes viralLife is full of surprises, so they say, and that’s surely true of the news business. A great big surprise landed at the Herald last week. Her name is Marilyn Hagerty. Well, not Marilyn herself. We know Marilyn pretty well. She’s been a regular at the Herald for more than 50 years.
By: Mike Jacobs, Grand Forks Herald
Life is full of surprises, so they say, and that’s surely true of the news business. A great big surprise landed at the Herald last week. Her name is Marilyn Hagerty.
Well, not Marilyn herself. We know Marilyn pretty well. She’s been a regular at the Herald for more than 50 years.
But Marilyn’s reputation! A piece she wrote last week “went viral,” sweeping across the internet.
So now Marilyn is famous, and we at the Herald and in Grand Forks are basking in reflected glory.
And we’re trying to extend her streak.
The cause of all this, of course, is The Eatbeat, which Marilyn has written for more than 30 years, which we publish on the front page of Wednesday’s food section. That means that last week’s column was one of at least 1,500 that Marilyn’s written and the Herald has published.
This one wasn’t different from the others. Marilyn picked out a restaurant, went there and described what she encountered. It wasn’t a critique of the food so much as a notice to readers of what they can expect when they go there.
The difference was the restaurant. Marilyn visited the Olive Garden, which opened in Grand Forks about six weeks ago.
Olive Garden’s arrival here had been eagerly anticipated. The first Olive Garden opened 30 years ago, after all, and Fargo’s had one for more than a decade.
So, wasn’t it about time for Grand Forks?
Plenty of people apparently thought so, and the place has been crowded since it opened. Marilyn went there at mid-afternoon to be sure of getting a table. She went home to write her article. Marilyn doesn’t have a desk at the Herald. She retired in the early 1970s.
Or did she?
She’s continued to write five columns a week for the Herald — an output that surpasses some of us who are still on staff. I struggle to get two columns done myself, and I miss one or the other pretty often.
Not Marilyn. If she’s going to be away from Grand Forks, she writes columns in advance.
When her husband, Jack, the Herald’s longtime editor, died shortly after the 1997 flood, she volunteered to carry on a column that he had written, a compilation of historical tidbits called “That Reminds Me.” She pointed out the column had run continuously in the Herald since the late 1890s — a century — and it would be a shame to let it lapse.
That’s the kind of professional commitment that Marilyn demonstrates.
That’s the kind of commitment to the community that she practices.
Did I mention that she’s 85 years old?
No one more richly deserves the attention she’s received.
Still, it’s baffling. Asked about it Thursday, Marilyn told an interviewer from New York City’s Village Voice, “I don’t get it.”
Marilyn’s sudden celebrity arose spontaneously. As much as we appreciate Marilyn, we at the Herald didn’t make any effort to make her famous.
Nor could we have imagined what happened.
Her article was discovered and spread on the Internet. Traffic to the Herald’s own website reached record levels. Social networking sites were flooded with comments about the piece.
It’s a special combination, I think.
One is the character of the restaurant. Olive Garden isn’t a fast-food place, but it is a mass-market restaurant. There are more than 1,200 Olive Garden restaurants. It’s part of a big corporation, Darden, which calls itself “the world’s largest full-service restaurant company” (something I learned from its Internet page). Red Lobster is among Darden’s other restaurant brands.
Another is the character of the reviewer.
Marilyn’s modesty stood in sharp contrast to pretension that characterizes lots of critical writing in the United States, not just restaurant reviews. Her “aw shucks” attitude helped, too. So did her age.
Probably, so did her home town, a small city in a state that much of America has ridiculed — until oil made us rich and good government made us famous.
So, it was a kind of perfect storm.
Marilyn went viral, and her fame reflects on the Herald and Grand Forks.
We’re hoping to extend this by sending Marilyn to New York. Haven’t all of us always wondered what it would be like to dine at one of Gotham’s toniest restaurants?
Marilyn’s going to tell us.
Jacobs is the publisher of the Herald. Reach him at (701) 780-1103; (800) 477-6572, ext. 103; or send email to firstname.lastname@example.org.