Longtime Herald copy editor, renowned headline writer Dale Stensgaard dies at 70
Stensgaard designed pages, edited stories and wrote headlines at the Herald for more than 30 years.
GRAND FORKS — On the right side of Dale Stensgaard's desk at the Grand Forks Herald, there were about 10 style books.
They held the answers to all journalism questions about grammar or proper Associated Press guidelines. Stensgaard wrote on the spine of the books, "Stolen from Dale," to deter anyone from borrowing and not returning them.
"Those books sat there," former Herald Editor Kirsten Stromsodt said, "but I don't think they ever moved."
Stensgaard didn't need to open them. And with him in the newsroom, nobody else did, either. They could just ask Dale and he'd know the answer off the top of his head.
Stensgaard, a fixture of the Herald copy desk for more than 30 years and one of the best headline writers to ever work in the state, died last week at age 70.
"We will never, ever meet someone like him again," Stromsodt said. "He was a quirky, highly intelligent guy with a great deadpan humor. He was damn smart and fun to work with. He was a special person to us all."
Stensgaard started at the Forum of Fargo-Moorhead in the 1970s. He came to the Herald in 1981 and stayed until his retirement in 2012. Stensgaard was part of the Herald team that won the Pulitzer Prize for Public Service for its coverage of the 1997 Flood.
While he was a meticulous editor who memorized style rules, specialized in designing the nation-world page and loved putting together weather stories, Stensgaard was particularly noted for his ability to write clever headlines.
"Headline writing was probably, next to getting the facts right, the most important part of the newspaper business on the news side," longtime Herald editor and publisher Mike Jacobs said. "He had a really sharp sense of humor. He could see the foolishness in some incidents and write a short headline that reflected it. On a serious story, he could be insightful in just a few words. Honestly, I believe he had a marvelous talent for headline writing."
Former Herald design editor Janelle Vonasek still has a file with nearly 50 of his top headlines. Columnist Bob Lind once wrote a story about some of them .
- On a story about three teenagers being tracked by police by a trail of Cheetos they stole from a vending machine, Stensgaard wrote: "Cheetos banditos caught orange-handed."
- On a story about the economic heating and cooling benefits to having trees in your yard, he wrote: "Study finds money grows on trees."
- On a story about a Louisiana town that taxes toilets, he wrote: "Toilet tax keeps Louisiana town flush."
- On a story about an injured owl that was taken to a raptor rehabilitation center, recovered and released, he wrote: "Owl's well that ends well."
"I think everybody who worked with Dale remembers that sense of humor coupled with a very serious journalistic intent," Jacobs said. "He was a pro and he was able to bring that sense of humor to the job and the product that doesn't happen nearly enough."
Stensgaard won the North Dakota Newspaper Association's headline of the year contest so many times, organizers once called him out for it at the annual convention.
The Herald named its internal award for best headline of the year after Stensgaard.
"Nobody took more pride in a headline than Dale," Stromsodt said. "It made his day. He lit up like a Christmas tree when he knew he landed a good headline."
Stensgaard, with his expertise on style and grammar rules, was an invaluable resource for interns and young journalists at the Herald, too.
"He was an excellent teacher and very, very patient," Vonasek said. "He mentored a ton of people through the years, a lot of people who went on to do a lot of really great things beyond the Grand Forks Herald, people who went on to the New York Times and Washington Post. If you asked those people, they'd tell you Dale made a huge difference in their lives."
In the late 2000s, the Herald introduced the Daily Dale feature, where he'd compile daily weather tidbits. When the Herald got rid of it, the office was flooded with calls from upset subscribers.
Outside of the Herald, Stensgaard's favorite hobby was fishing. He spent his summer vacations on a nearby lake. He also enjoyed stopping by the Hub after his shift ended at midnight for one beer and a chat with then-owner Rae Ann Moe, who became a close friend.
Stensgaard's old co-workers, and other friends from the community, are gathering to celebrate Stensgaard on June 29 from 5-7 p.m. at the Hub.
"He was beloved," Vonasek said. "He was really beloved by everyone who ever worked with him. He was a great friend, an awesome co-worker and a really, really kind soul."