COTTONWOOD — He was best known for his humorous look at Minnesota’s language and culture. But people who knew Howard Mohr said his down-to-earth personality was as much a part of him as his sense of humor.
“He was very funny, but he was a normal guy,” said former freelance editor Dana Yost. “You could tell he cared about rural life and the people.”
Mohr, a Cottonwood resident and author of the book “How to speak Minnesota” He died on Sunday at the age of 83.
Mohr’s writings covered many of the cultural quirks of life in Minnesota, from lengthy goodbyes to the finer points of greeting other drivers from behind the wheel. “How to speak Minnesota” grew out of Mohr’s work writing for Garrison Keillor’s radio show “A Prairie Homemate.” The book was first published in 1987 and was later adapted into a stage musical at the Plymouth Playhouse.
Mohr wasn’t a lifelong Minnesotan, but he still had a connection to rural Midwestern life, said Marcy Olson, a friend of the Mohr family. Therefore, she said, “I think people really embraced him and realized he was down to earth.”
Mohr was born in Des Moines, Iowa, and lived in California before moving back to Ferguson, Iowa, as a teenager. He then went on to study at Abilene Christian University in Texas, earned a master’s degree at the University of Arkansas, and studied for a Ph.D. at the University of Iowa.
In 1970, Mohr began teaching in the English department at Minnesota Southwestern State University. It was a time when several SMSU professors, including the poets Stephen Dunn, Philip Dacey, Leo Dangel, and Bill Holm, were gaining attention for their writing on rural life.
Olson said he first met Mohr in 1989 when he was a student in one of his classes at SMSU. Olson said Mohr’s dry wit showed even when she was teaching.
“He had the most unique sense of humor. You had to make sure you were following him.” Olson said of Mohr.
Over the years, Olson remained friends with Mohr, his wife Jody, and their daughter, Susan.
Yost said he met Mohr in a variety of ways: first as a journalist writing about Mohr and later as a Cottonwood resident.
“He was a very keen observer of the things that make us Minnesotans,” Yost said.
Mohr’s insights were a big part of why readers connected with his writing, SMSU professor David Pichaske said.
“I think it’s the precision of language and behaviour: you read these things and think, ‘Yeah, that’s the way it is.'” Pichaske said. Pichaske said that he still shares Mohr’s writing with students in class.
At the same time, Mohr’s humor did not disparage rural Minnesotans, Yost and Olson said.
“He wrote about them as one of them”, Olson said.
Yost said that Mohr was able to write for many different mediums, from books to radio and television scripts, and the musical version of “How to speak Minnesota”.
“He could do it all,” Yost said.
But Mohr didn’t let fame go to his head. “He was very close to his friends and family,” and kept his connection to rural Minnesota, Yost said.
“He has always supported all the writers that we have had here”, Olson said.
“I really believed there was talent in the rural Midwest,” Yost said.
Services for Mohr will be held at a later date.
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