Mary Lahammer is a longtime political reporter for Twin Cities PBS. She followed in her father, Gene Lahammer’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 more than three decades intensely covering fast-moving beats in sports and politics, Gene Lahammer decided it was time to halt his storied career in 1994. It’s often said that working at the Minnesota State Capitol can be intoxicating to the point of being toxic. “Many a legislator had told me, ‘You’ll know in your gut when it’s time,'” says Gene. And it was time.
In his last AP dispatch, he wrote, “I’ve never witnessed a period during which legislators are more concerned and sensitive about what is being reported to the citizens (voters) of Minnesota. Many legislators have blamed the ‘press’ for creating the political climate that led to the passage of tough ethics law early this session. That’s probably at least partly true, although I have yet to meet a reporter who admitted to voting for that bill.”
In a gesture that sums up Gene’s influence as a political reporter, Gov. Arne Carlson threw him a retirement party at the Governor’s Residence, an act that has yet to be repeated (at least as far as we know). “Arne was a freshman legislator in the House during my first session,” he remembers. Carlson then went on to become state auditor and eventually governor. “We grew up together politically,” he says of Carlson. While the Republican governor was not exactly known for his warmth – he was a frequent and vocal critic of the press – the two crusty Scandinavians got along well.
Gene recounts the story behind a big story he broke, thanks to his chemistry with Carlson. The reporter knew the governor was a huge University of Minnesota Gopher basketball fan. After a close loss, Lahammer asked at a press conference, “Governor, what did you think of that call in the last minute?”
He then recalls, “Two staffers tried to restrain him. He returned to the podium and revealed he had just written a letter to the head of officiating in the Big Ten office.” A governor intervening in a college sports officiating call could be considered unusual, to say the least – so the story made national news.
Ivory tower of state journalism
But retirement didn’t last long before the state’s largest newspaper, the Star Tribune, beckoned. Associate Editor of the Editorial Page, Jim Boyd, called Lahammer and asked him to help interview and endorse candidates for the legislature and statewide office. “I was totally unprepared for the offer,” said Gene, so he took 24 hours to think about it before accepting the offer. “I could hardly believe I was in the Ivory Tower of state journalism,” he recalled.
Gene quickly proved to be a valuable member of the team since he knew politics and policy inside and out. Joined by legendary reporter Betty Wilson, the pair might have seemed like kindly grandparents if glanced from afar. But as one candidate for the legislature, an experienced lawyer and lobbyist, discovered, they could be intimidating. The candidate couldn’t answer their first question and quickly produced a visible tear. Lahammer ended up working with the Star Tribune for 16 years, along with helping the New York Times cover a campaign.
A family man
Lahammer was also an ardent family man, fiercely proud of his five children who all graduated from college with honors. His passion for his work inspired his youngest child, Mary Lahammer, to follow in his footsteps.
In 1998, she became the political reporter for Twin Cities PBS’ public affairs show Almanac, working in the vicinity of her father’s stomping grounds at the Minnesota State Capitol. “He is my hero, professionally and personally,” Mary says of her father’s admirable work ethic and intelligence. Mary would draw on her father’s extensive political experience over the years in her reports. Middle child Peggy Lahammer, an attorney, describes her dad as “a disciplined observer of human nature, who is willing to befriend complex personalities.”
Looking back at his full life, with its highs and its lows, Lahammer’s humble roots are always with him. Despite his hard work and success, he concludes, “I can’t believe how lucky I’ve been.”
For more about Gene Lahammer’s life and career, read previous installments of “Gene’s American Dream”: