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OUR OPINION: Thanks, Mike

Never argue about North Dakota geography with Mike Jacobs.

That’s just one of the rules Herald visitors would come to understand about the guy. Not because the Herald’s publisher, who’s retiring next week, would be unpleasant; just the opposite. His eyes would twinkle, and his face would break into a Santa-like smile as he talked about his favorite subject — his native state.

So, it wasn’t that he’d be unfriendly.

It’s just that he would be right, and you’d be wrong. Count on it.

For if, later on, you checked an historic atlas, you’d find that the original county seat of Oliver County, N.D., was not, in fact, Center or Sanger, as you had claimed.

It was the tiny townsite — now a ghost town — of Raymond.

Exactly as Jacobs had said.

To repeat: Don’t argue. Just listen.

And maybe crack a smile yourself. Because listening to Mike Jacobs is a rich experience, and on lots of topics besides geography, as farmers and teachers as well as governors, senators and congressmen have come to know.

This writer has been listening to — and talking with; it’s seldom a one-sided conversation — Jacobs for coming on 17 years. What fun it has been.

As suggested, Jacobs is a wealth of information about subjects great and small. He reads voraciously, and we’re talking histories of the Jacksonian Era and biographies of Catherine the Great, among other tomes. His personal library fills a Quonset.

But plenty of people are well-read, and many of them never let you forget it. Talking with Jacobs was different. Sure, he could be a little vain now and then about the power of his mind. Most of the time, though, he leavened his interactions with hearty measures of North Dakota Nice.

And that made all the difference. One sensed that the senators and congressmen, no less than the farmers and teachers, looked forward to visiting the Herald because of the intellectual joy of bantering with Mike.

There was more. If you walked with Jacobs down the street or sat with him in a cafe — and in Fargo, Bismarck or Stanley, N.D., no less than in Grand Forks — you could expect to be interrupted.

You could expect Jacobs to greet the visitor by name.

Then you could expect him to ask about, say, the visitor’s grandfather. “Is he still in the nursing home?” Mike would enquire, before telling a rollicking tale of Grandpa’s service during the Earl Strinden era in the North Dakota House.

Yes, Jacobs has a good sense of humor, too.

And it’s just off-color enough to keep listeners on high alert.

Now, turn all those gifts loose in a newsroom, and you’ll have an organization to behold. Journalists tend to be professional dilettantes anyway; most of us know a little about a lot of things. Jacobs knows a lot about a lot of things, but his learning is especially deep on the topics of politics, newspapering and the upper Midwest.

Plus, he has the editor’s gift of being able to use that knowledge to solve problems.

The result has been the product you hold in your hands: The Grand Forks Herald, a Pulitzer Prize-winning newspaper — and for most on the staff, a great place to work.

I started at the Herald in 1997. But I first heard Jacobs’ name in 1984, when I was in journalism school out East.

Beverly Kees, the Herald’s executive editor, was on campus at the time, and she knew I’d expressed an interest in the Midwest.

Well, said Kees, if you come to Grand Forks, you should be sure to meet the Herald’s managing editor: Mike Jacobs.

“He’s the best newsman in North Dakota,” she said.

You see, already it was apparent. And that was 30 years ago.

From Grand Forks to Minot to Williston and beyond: Thanks, Mike.