Mike Jacobs: The McCaffreys lived vividly and lit up our lives

The McCaffreys were an extraordinary presence on the UND campus and in Grand Forks for more than three decades.

Mike Jacobs
Mike Jacobs

One of the consequences of living a very long time is that your death doesn’t make news. That happened to Don McCaffrey, who died in Santa Cruz, California, on Dec. 16.

An obituary appeared in the Herald Saturday, Jan. 8, three weeks after the event. It was provided by the family, and it was toward the bottom of the second of the Herald’s obituary pages, “below the fold,” as we say in the trade.

The obituary is a poignant one, and it describes “Doc” McCaffrey well. He was without question one of the most astonishing persons I have ever known. Joann McCaffrey was another.

The McCaffreys were an extraordinary presence on the UND campus and in Grand Forks for more than three decades. I have been straining my vocabulary to find the right word to describe them.

They were prominent, of course, but prominent suggests that they were staid. The McCaffrys were not staid. But nor were they notorious. Notorious has a scent of the pejorative about it, and there was none of that around the McCaffreys.


But extraordinary isn’t quite adequate either, though they were a bit on the eccentric side.

So, the word I settled on is vivid. The McCaffreys were a vivid couple. They dressed vividly, he in tweed and she in short skirts. They entertained vividly. Gatherings at their house just north of campus were not parties in the strictest sense. They were in a sense productions. Both of the McCaffreys could declaim on a variety of subjects, and sometimes they staged arguments. These were especially vivid, because the McCaffreys were articulate and witty, and they knew their way around an audience. Their parties weren’t just fun, they were learning experiences.

“Doc” McCaffrey taught theater and film and he directed plays at Burtness Theater, which was relatively new when Suezette and I arrived on campus in 1965. We’d both been in high school plays and so we checked out the department. McCaffrey was quite direct with me. You won’t make an actor, he said, but we could use a good props person. I spent the next couple of years trolling rummage sales and secondhand stores for costumes, props and furnishing. The set is as important as the players, McCaffrey maintained, so I felt useful even though I never spoke a word from the stage.

In the fall of our first semester, McCaffrey organized a kind of field trip. He took a group of freshmen to Winnipeg where we saw Berthold Brecht’s “The Threepenny Opera” at the Royal Manitoba Theatre Centre. The next day we went museum hopping and he treated us to supper at a German restaurant called The Happy Vineyard.

Reminiscing over breakfast, Suezette recalled that it was the first time we’d ever been served food by men – except at Carl’s Lunch on Main Street in Stanley, N.D., my home town, where Carl both cooked and served the food. Unlike The Happy Vineyard, Carl’s was not an elegant eatery.

The weekend remains vivid 57 years later. It literally lit up our lives.

Doc and Joann McCaffrey were serious, too. He was a true scholar, “author of eight major books on comedy film,” the obituary says, and “a leading national authority on the silent film era.” She taught junior high school English and served in the North Dakota Legislature, where she campaigned eloquently and successfully for ratification of the Equal Rights Amendment. She was also a member of the Grand Forks School Board.

“Doc” took himself seriously, too. He showed up at the Dakota Student office on the day my first issue as editor appeared. I was flattered and anticipated a jovial conversation, but I got a different kind of performance.


He laid the paper on my desk, smoothed it out and pointed at an article. “Do you see anything wrong with this?” he asked. I said I didn’t. “You forgot my title,” he said. I explained that the staff had decided to drop references to academic rank, as irrelevant and conducive to class prejudice. His response was withering. He said in effect, “Young man, you should understand that a university is the most class conscious place on earth.”

We compromised. Well actually I backed down. We restored titles on “first reference,” but didn’t use them deeper in the story.


Embarrassing errors appeared in last week’s column. Sen. John Hoeven is in fact on the ballot in 2022, which weakens the lead of the column. Public Service Commissioner Julie Liffrig uses her married name, Julie Fedorchak, in her political life. Ben Meier was secretary of state for 34 years.

Mike Jacobs is a former editor and publisher of the Grand Forks Herald.

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