VIRGINIA — Chris Knight, publisher of the former Mesabi Daily News and now Mesabi Tribune, is remembering Bill Hanna as "a committed journalist who wasn’t afraid to take on any issue in search of the truth." Knight's words are those echoed by many colleagues and friends in remarks to the Mesabi Tribune in the wake of Hanna's death.
Hanna, former executive editor of the Mesabi Daily News and award-winning journalist, died early Monday morning, Jan. 11, at his home in Virginia/Mountain Iron.
Hanna had been with the Mesabi Daily News from the mid-1980s until 2016, when he had a life-changing heart attack. He successfully underwent a heart transplant in 2017, receiving the heart of a young man who had died tragically. Later Hanna was diagnosed with terminal cancer, for which he had radiation and chemotherapy until December. He had been in hospice care since Dec. 24. Hanna had been with the paper more than 30 years, joining the staff in the mid-1980s and serving as managing editor. He later was named editor and for the last several years had been executive editor.
Knight, who started at the MDN as advertising director in 1995 and became publisher in 2006 and has been regional president and publisher of Adams Publishing Group Northern Minnesota since 2014, said: "I knew Bill as a friend and co worker for more than 25 years. During Bill’s long career, he covered many difficult and challenging issues, and oftentimes he received heavy criticism for his editorial stances, but Bill had an unwavering commitment and deep passion for covering events that were important to his readers. And those who knew Bill understood he also had that same passion for his family, friends and his community. I will miss him greatly."
U.S. District Judge Donovan W. Frank of the United States District Court, District of Minnesota, said of Hanna: "Where do I start? Bill Hanna was an editor’s editor and a reporter’s reporter! When I was a new state judge in Virginia in the mid-1980s, Bill had started at the Mesabi Daily News. We got to know each other well because of his coverage along with other reporters from the Mesabi Daily News, of cases and issues in the courts and the Iron Range community. In my years as a lawyer and a judge, Bill Hanna would be at the top of my list for being a professional, highly competent and fair-minded reporter and editor.
"I have left out the most important characteristic of Bill, however," Frank said. "He was very caring and compassionate about how he reported on justice issues in our communities.”
Louie Russo, former Virginia mayor and councilor and a consultant to the Mesabi Daily News since the 1970s, said: "To me, Bill was a close friend and confidant from the day I first met him (at) the offices of the Mesabi Daily News. As editor of the MDN, he had an ear for all news, especially anything pertaining to the Range.
"Everyone knew Bill … politicians local as well as state and federal ones. Business people and people in general. He made himself available to anyone who had a story or an opinion pro or con to his own. The MDN was like home to him. Stop by the paper almost anytime, and he was immersed in writing a story or special report for the next day's or weekend issue. If you happened to drive by the paper at 9 or 10 in the evening, he was still there writing dedicated to his readers.”
State legislators Sen. Tom Bakk, Senate District 3; Sen. David Tomassoni, District 6; and Rep. Dave Lislegard, DFL Aurora, commented on Hanna's impact on the Range.
“Bill was not born an Iron Ranger, but he sure acted like it,” Bakk said. “He was as loyal to the way of life here as anyone I have ever met.”
From Tomassoni: "Bill was a tireless journalist. He worked all hours of day and night. We didn’t always agree but we got along. He was maybe the epitome of: 'Don’t fight with people who buy ink by the barrel.' He was a strong advocate for the Iron Range and our way of life.”
From Lislegard: “Over his storied career, Bill Hanna not only kept the Iron Range informed, but he helped tell our region’s story to the entire world. I’ll never forget how a decade ago, he joined a visit to the Eagle Mine in Michigan, to see firsthand how emerging forms of mining can be done safely. His reporting let folks not only read about the opportunity, but to see it, feel it and experience it.
A fellow newspaperman and former MDN employee, Ron Haggstrom, editor of high school sports at the Minneapolis Star Tribune, told about his first association with Hanna: "When Bill arrived at the Mesabi Daily News in the mid-1980s, he and I — sports editor at the time — had a vision to make the newspaper the best product possible. That meant locally as well as nationally. At first, we had to use our allotted space wisely."
The newspaper grew in size as well as going from an afternoon to morning edition, and "waiting for West Coast pro and college sporting events as long as they finished prior to midnight, as well as chasing down local games that might not have been called in that night,” he said.
Hanna was there every step of the way making last-minute changes on the news side if needed, Haggstrom said.
"We didn’t want any other newspaper beating us on any local content,” he said. “It was a strain at times on every member of the staff, but it was also how we built such a strong reputation. We wanted to be better on a daily basis and keep improving."
Shannon Gunderson, well-known Virginia musician and entertainer, called Hanna a dear friend and "overall great guy." In the 1980s and 1990s, she would be the hired musician for the Christmas parties of the Mesabi Daily News when Larry Asbach was publisher.
"I remember one of these parties up on the fifth floor of the Coates Hotel, and I was trying to get everyone to join in the sing-along,” Gunderson said. “Bill decided he would help out and took one of the sing-along books … looked right at me and requested: 'Grandma Got Run Over by a Reindeer.' It brought the house down and everyone began singing with zest."
Others commenting on Hanna were Roger and Gail Johnston, who had both worked at the former MDN and now own the East Range Shopper.
Speaking from a newspaper information technology viewpoint, Roger Johnston said of Hanna: "He liked most of the old newspaper ways better than learning a new way to do things ... He made it a steadfast rule to make sure that Associated Press got our current lineup of stories sent to them so our local info got out on the national wire.”
And from Ely mayor Chuck Novak: "Monday (day of Hanna's death) was a sad day for me, my wife and many of us that knew Bill Hanna. He was a true journalist that wrote factual articles and kept his opinion on the editorial page.”