Mary Lahammer is a longtime political reporter for Twin Cities PBS. She followed in her father’s footsteps at the Minnesota State Capitol, where he was known as a legendary reporter after 34 years with the Associated Press. At 85 years old, he agreed to share his life story with his youngest daughter.
After finishing his overseas Army service as an intelligence officer in 1956, Gene Lahammer returned to his home state eager to further his education. While in the Army, Gene’s bunkmate – whose father was president of Augustana University – recruited Gene to attend the private Lutheran school in Sioux Falls, South Dakota for his sophomore year. “Great, you’ll never leave there,” his buddy told him. Lahammer had planned to attend Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism, but, true to his friend’s words, he fell in love with Augie.
Gene says more than half of the students were women: “I’d never met so many smart, good-looking women in all my life.” But one star actress would catch his eye. “She had the most beautiful smile,” Lahammer says of Karen Krause, who was Augustana’s Actress of the Year in 1959. At the time, she was dating Gene’s roommate, John Beardsley, who would go on to fame in the public relations world as principal owner at the firm Padilla, Spear, Beardsley. Later, Lahammer was Beardsley’s boss in two posts, in the Fargo and Minneapolis Associated Press offices. Lahammer and Krause were married by the Augustana University President L.M. Stavig in 1961.
Decades later, reflecting on their wedding photo, Gene joked that the headline should have been “Appleton socialite weds South Dakota farm lad.” But before he gets too far, Karen reminds him that she, too, grew up on a farm in South Dakota and only later moved to Appleton, Minnesota. In 1911, her family faced the destruction of a deadly tornado, which later became fodder for a regional Emmy Award-winning documentary produced by their daughter at Twin Cities PBS. Karen’s mother was swept into the cyclone while still inside her farmhouse, just like Dorothy in the Wizard of Oz. “I remember the house whirling around,” Margaret Krause recalls in the documentary. Almost left for dead, she somehow survived and later went on to get her education, which propelled her post-tornado life as a strong working woman and shrewd investor who helped put her grandchildren through college.
While still in school, Gene was sports editor and later editor-in-chief of the weekly student newspaper, The Mirror. Eleanor Roosevelt visited the college, and Lahammer, along with other student leaders, shared coffee with the First Lady. “I thought she was an elegant lady,” he recalled, and their photo appeared on the front page of the paper. He majored in English and History, and wanted to be a college history professor, attending graduate school at the University of Illinois.
When money from the GI Bill ran out, he took a summer job at a casino at Lake Tahoe in Nevada. Lahammer learned there was a job opening at the Associated Press office back in Sioux Falls. “A rainbow walked in this morning in the form of a graduate student,” wrote Harl Andersen, head of the bureau. Lahammer’s long, legendary career in journalism was about to begin.
This is part of a series of reports on the life and times of reporter Gene Lahammer. Gene’s American Dream: Poverty & Perseverance and Gene’s American Dream: Top Secret Military Service. Stay tuned for the fourth installment, which will cover his remarkable career as a journalist.