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'The time is right': After 38-year career at KBJR, Barbara Reyelts looks to next chapter

Barbara Reyelts poses for a portrait last week in front of many of her awards. The longtime journalist's last day at KBJR-TV is Friday. The station is expected to show a two-part retrospective of her career on Wednesday and Thursday. Mike Krebs / mkrebs@duluthnews.com1 / 3
Barbara Reyelts and Blake Melin edit "Asylum Seekers in the Northland," which aired Wednesday on KBJR-TV. After 38 years, Reyelts' last day at the station is Friday. Among her biggest stories: Reyelts reported on a defect in General Motors’ cars that went national and ultimately led to a recall of thousands of vehicles. Mike Krebs / mkrebs@duluthnews.com2 / 3
Barbara Reyelts holds a stopwatch that once belonged to her late colleague Dick Wallach, on Wednesday in Duluth. Mike Krebs / mkrebs@duluthnews.com3 / 3

Barbara Reyelts' final investigative assignment was a five-minute special report about refugees from the United States sneaking into Canada via a 3-mile stretch of field and prairie between Noyes, Minn., and Emerson, Manitoba.

She was driven by the story of Mavis Otuteye, a woman from Ghana who died of exposure earlier this year while seemingly attempting this crossing.

"Collapsing within site of the border," Reyelts said during a recent visit to KBJR, where she was working on final edits.

The segment, which included interviews with a deputy patrol agent at the Pembina Border Patrol Station and a Canadian immigration lawyer, also found Reyelts in the same waist-high, potentially mosquito-infested, grass she was reporting on.

The piece — in Reyelts' signature hands-on style — aired Wednesday on KBJR and marks the end of the longtime broadcast journalist's award-winning career. Reyelts retires Friday, her birthday though she won't say which one, after 38 years with the local NBC affiliate. KBJR will air a two-part retrospective of her career with interviews for former sources and lawmakers during broadcasts on Wednesday and Thursday.

Gov. Mark Dayton is scheduled to declare Friday as Barbara Reyelts Day in the state of Minnesota. She already had a copy of the proclamation on her desk last week.

The time is right, said Reyelts — who announced her retirement alongside fellow journalist Michelle Lee in November during the station's broadcast of the Christmas City of the North Parade. Still, it's very emotional, she said.

"One of the things I tell people is 'never cry in the newsroom,' " she said. "But it makes me feel like crying."

'License to snoop'

Reyelts' backstory has an urban legend quality: She had internships at radio station WEBC-FM, the News Tribune and KBJR-TV and was offered a job at all three. On her last day at the television station, then-owner Bob Rich said "See you tomorrow."

Reyelts told him it was her last day.

"You come back tomorrow and we'll hire you," she recalled him saying.

Television news was her chosen medium for digging in and telling stories about the highs and lows of a life, she said.

"It gave me a license to snoop, and I loved every minute of it," she said. "In 38 years, there hasn't been one where I haven't wanted to come to work and snoop."

Former colleague Duke Skorich, who worked at KBJR in the 1970s and '80s, said television journalism was in transition during this period. New ground was broken, he said.

"We were fortunate to develop stories that were more consequential than anyone had seen on television," he said.

Reyelts still has an old stopwatch in her desk. It belonged to her late colleague Dick Wallack, who she described as holding the timepiece in one hand, a cigarette in the other.

"He'd time the stories, so he could make sure we could fit it within our timeframe," she said.

Skorich remembered a room filled with hungry beat journalists.

"We just had fun all the time challenging each other to come up with the best story of the day," Skorich said. "The fun of it was to get your story on the air. My memory of Barbara is she was always the consummate professional journalist, dedicated to making the best news that could be."

A 38-year career

Reyelts' office window is lined with Emmy award statues and the walls hold dozens of plaques. Tucked into a corner is a cardboard honor for her chili-making prowess. She won an in-station contest. Her secret: "My husband makes the chili," she said, a nod to Steve Reyelts — who was her high school sweetheart.

Among her biggest stories: Reyelts reported on a defect in General Motors' cars that went national and ultimately led to a recall of thousands of vehicles. Her coverage of the kidnapping-murder of Katie Poirier led to changes in work regulations and security cameras at convenience stores. Her longest-running investigation involved a local work-release program where clients were sneaking out at night and committing crimes.

One of the stories that moved her the most was a hostage scene in Superior. A man was holding his ex-wife, but the two children had been let go. Shots were fired and Reyelts learned — off the record — that the woman was dead.

"I was standing there watching as the police tried to get him to come out," she said. "The woman who'd been shot's mother came up and stood beside me and started talking about how much she hoped her daughter would come out alive and of course I knew and was not going to say anything.

"It was so hard, so emotional, hearing the hope in her voice that she would get to hold her daughter again."

Next steps

It sounds like Reyelts is kidding when she says Kevin Jacobsen, her replacement as news director of KBJR 6 and CBS 3, has already taken measurements of the office she is vacating. Truth is, he has picked out the new wall color: soft pebble gray, he said.

The stations have been in transition in past years with new ownership, new studios, new technology and larger staffs. Reyelts has been working with Jacobsen on the unique job of keeping two separate newsrooms and filling his head with decades of institutional knowledge.

He's learned a lot from her, he said.

"Writing, and basically making sure the facts are there, comes first," he said. "But you want to tell a story."

Lee described her former colleague as a "walking encyclopedia" and said her knowledge cannot be replaced.

"Her longevity and her knowledge has really helped local journalists round out their own knowledge in creating a solid story," she said. "I've seen her in action in newsroom meetings and how she's schooled the young journalists, providing the background they need, and it's really impressive."

Reyelts plans to continue telling stories — but along a different line. Her next assignment is fiction. She's about 80 pages deep into a novel about Esme, a girl who is born with all the memories of her past life as an award-winning scientist.

If fiction-writing feels right, she might turn it into a series.

In the immediate future, Reyelts said she plans to travel. She has three children, David, Eilidh and Erianna and five grandchildren and family scattered around North America.

Meanwhile, she said she met with Lee for coffee and has taken advice on how to step out of the public eye.

"I know the time is right, I know it's time for me to step aside," she said. "It's going to be great with Kevin at the helm. But who am I going to be when I'm not Barbara Reyelts anymore. What's my life going to be like?"