It was a moment Hal Anderson never expected and one he will never forget.
On the morning of Sunday, March 12, as he sat in attendance at the First Congregational Church a friend announced to the congregation that the final installment of "Hiking With Hal" had appeared in that day's Brainerd Dispatch.
Upon hearing this the entire congregation stood and gave Hal an ovation.
"It almost brought tears to my eyes," Hal said later. "I'd never seen that sort of thing before."
The standing ovation may have caught Hal by surprise but it couldn't have been more fitting.
Since its debut in the mid-1960s, "Hiking With Hal" has been one of this newspaper's most popular features. Part of its appeal is that it never strayed too far from home, neither in spirit nor subject matter. Hal was the next-door neighbor who noticed something you perhaps had overlooked.
He was the friendly commentator who delighted in sharing his adventures, one who suggested that similar adventures were there for anyone willing to step off the beaten path and explore our world of woods and water. He was the vigilant sentry, always on the lookout for the corrosive forces that destroy nature, and he never hesitated to express his opinion.
Indeed, nature's sentry was the role that came naturally to Hal and he invited all of us to stand guard with him
"My motive all along," he said in an interview last week, "is that if I inform people of the good things in nature, especially the good things we have right around us, then maybe they'll take a little better care of them. I guess I'll never really know if it made any difference."
The standing ovation at church suggests it did. But the time had come to end the column, Hal said. Any columnist who's been writing for 35 years might agree with Hal when he said, "It wasn't the work that bothered me. It was having to meet that deadline week after week after week. It always came up whether or not I had anything new to write about. That and I'm getting old. It takes me about three times longer to put a column together than it used to."
Neither writer's block nor finding suitable topics to write about were ever serious problems.
"Some topics were easier to write about than others," he acknowledged. "But there's enough things going on in the world that you can almost always find something people want to read about."
Les Sellnow, who was managing editor at The Dispatch when Hal started his column, said he enjoyed the moment each week when Hal delivered his column almost as much as he enjoyed the column itself.
"He always came in with a smile and a light step and he brightened up everybody's day," Sellnow recalled. "He had a fresh, simple and unadorned love for nature that a lot of our readers related to."
"Hiking With Hal" began through a favorable confluence of chance and circumstance. Hal was assistant manager at Crow Wing County Rural Electric Cooperative and one of his duties was editing the company newsletter, the REA Buzzer. He concluded it was "one of the most boring things I'd ever read." To spice it up he started writing "Hiking With Hal," in which he explored the topics he would write about for many years.
Hal had left the cooperative for another job when one day on the street he met a woman he knew. She told him how much she had enjoyed his newsletter columns. "I thought, 'Wow, she remembers them.' That was two years after I left the job!"
Later that year a blizzard confined Hal to his home near Pillager for three days. Bored, he went to his desk and wrote a few columns. He took them to Floyd Emerson, who edited The Dispatch until 1970, and Emerson said he would give them a try. "Hiking With Hal" was back, but this time it reached a much larger audience. It remained a staple in The Dispatch until last Sunday.
The only times the column didn't appear were for a six-week stretch in 1979 when Hal built a new house and on a few occasions when it became lost beneath the papers on Emerson's desk and was held over for a week.
Hal was born in 1925 in Howard Lake. After graduating from Howard Lake High School in 1943 he enlisted in the Navy. This was during World War II and Hal was sent to Key West, Fla. to help train fighter pilots to use aerial rockets.
It was in Ottumwa, Iowa, on New Year's Eve, 1943, that Hal met his future wife, Doris, on a blind date. Their courtship resulted in hundreds of letters being sent between Ottumwa and Key West Naval Air Station and later to Fairfield, Iowa., where Doris went to college. Hal and Doris were married in 1948.
When the war ended the couple moved to Minneapolis and Hal continued his education at the University of Minnesota, where he earned a degree in technical agriculture. Several years later he received his master's degree in public administration.
Hal's first job out of college was as an assistant agricultural agent in Pine County. Six months later he took a similar position in Brainerd.
His career path took him to the Lindsay Soft Water Co. (manager), the Minnesota Concentrated Employment Program (public information officer) and the state's Board of Water and Soil Resources (district soil conservation officer).
Through all of these changes as well as while raising three daughters with Doris -- Hal continued the weekly hikes he shared with his readers.
"A lot of good conservation work has been done," he said, "but a lot more needs to be done."
A modification of that statement might serve to sum up Hal's present status as a columnist. A lot of good work has been done. When the spirit moves him expect to find Hal hiking through these pages once again.
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