Tom West: Even in death, a friend's memories bring a smile

A week ago, one of my best friends in the newspaper business, Margaret Engesser, 81, passed away. Most of you didn't know her even though she had several Duluth connections. She practiced her craft 200 miles to the south of here in New Richland, ...

A week ago, one of my best friends in the newspaper business, Margaret Engesser, 81, passed away.

Most of you didn't know her even though she had several Duluth connections. She practiced her craft 200 miles to the south of here in New Richland, Minn.

She was born Margaret Robinson. Growing up, she was known as "Mugs" or "Slugger." Her father was an educator, and they traveled around. She went to school for a time in Virginia, Minn., and also at Duluth Central before graduating from Barnum High School.

She went off to college at the University of Minnesota. She wanted to be a doctor, but as happened too often in 1940, the dean said that was a man's profession; she would be better off becoming a nurse. She persisted, but the resistance was strong, so finally she transferred to St. Luke's School of Nursing here in Duluth, where she graduated.

Area sports fans would also know of her family. She was the grandmother of the basketball Engessers who starred for Grand Rapids several years ago.


A sister, Eleanor Ellingsen of Duluth, is among her survivors.

After graduating from nursing school, Margaret took a job at the hospital in St. Peter. It was there that she met Emmett Engesser, who was working at the local newspaper. They married in 1946.

In 1955, they bought the New Richland Star, and Margaret left nursing for the newspaper game. New Richland is a farming community of about 1,200 souls, about 20 miles north of Albert Lea.

Thirty years later, Emmett passed away, but for 18 more years, Margaret kept publishing the Star until cancer forced her retirement at the end of 2002.

The Star is fairly typical of the 380 newspapers that dot Minnesota's landscape. It chronicles the births, confirmations, graduations, marriages, deaths and other significant events in the lives of New Richlanders.

I haven't been in the Star office for several years, but every time I stopped by it was like a trip back in time. A large room in the back of the building was full of printing equipment, most of it old, and only some of it working.

Paper was scattered across the floor, and at times it seemed as if it was an eighth of an inch deep or so. Both Emmett and Margaret smoked, and I have this vision of them with a cigarette hanging out of the corner of their mouths while they were writing a story. The cigarette always seemed to have at least a half inch of ash on the end. It was a wonder to me that the Star never went up in flames.

When he died, Emmett's loss was terribly hard on Margaret, but she kept on at the newspaper. When asked if she ever thought about retirement, she always responded, "What else would I do?"


It wouldn't be fair to say the newspaper was her life. She had four children and 11 grandchildren who were also important. But the unique thing about Margaret was that she not only knew every one of the 1,200 citizens of New Richland, she cared about them, too. She was a walking genealogical resource.

Give her one name and she could tell you that person's parents and grandparents, sons and daughters and even whether their marriage was happy.

Always testing new boundaries, in 1972 Margaret ran for mayor of New Richland and won. She held the position until 1981. She became the first woman to serve on the Region Nine Development Commission, that area's equivalent of the Arrowhead Regional Development Commission (ARDC).

She also led the city's efforts to build a nursing home and recreational facilities.

We used to joke that Margaret was like "Madonna" or "Elvis" in New Richland. All other Margarets had last names, but when you talked about just "Margaret," everyone knew you meant Margaret Engesser.

Somewhat disorganized, Margaret would call me once or twice a year because she had run out of photo paper and needed to borrow a box. A few months later, she would return it, but a month or two later she would be back again, asking for more. I was happy to help, but the best thing about it was that I got a 15-minute update on the news from New Richland, complete with editorial comment.

She was notorious for forgetting to bill advertisers for months at a time, and then suddenly sending them a bill that put a crimp in their cash flow. In the same way, many subscribers received the paper for free.

Margaret seemed to view life with both amusement and awe. She found humor in all but the worst situations, and loved to tell stories on herself or others. Those of you who are familiar with the best selling author Janet Evanovich know that her protagonist Stephanie Plum is always having trouble with her car. In the same way, Margaret's cars were an ongoing calamity. One day she called her daughter and said, "I have good news and bad news. The good news is that I don't need to scrape the windshield. The bad news is that my car is gone. Somebody stole it."


A consummate professional of the old school, she was a stickler for spelling, punctuation and facts, but when the occasional mistake would be brought on by human frailty, she had a unique ability to laugh it off.

We printed our papers at the same printing plant. One day, a few years after Emmett had died, my wife stopped by the plant to run an errand, and she found Margaret unconscious on top of her mailbags. She had passed out while loading the bags in the back of her car for the drive to the post office. My wife woke her and asked her if she was all right. She said she was just taking a nap but told her not to tell anybody else because they would make a fuss.

And that pretty much summed up Margaret. She made a fuss over everybody else, but she didn't want anybody to worry about her. That's probably why in recent years she was the grand marshall of the summer parades in not only New Richland but two neighboring communities, Waldorf and Pemberton, as well. That's why she was chosen as a WCCO Radio Good Neighbor.

And that's why, every time I think of her, a small smile invariably comes to my face -- even now, though she's gone.

Tom West is the editor and publisher of the Budgeteer News. He may be reached by telephone at 723-1207 or by e-mail at .

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