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Where does a Twin Cities celebrity go to retire?


Fri, Aug 15th, 2003
Posted in Features

Jan Smaby pictured with Boomer at her home in rural Peterson. Smaby, who was the host of public television’s Almanac for ten years, chose to retire to the rolling hills of Fillmore County where her parents grew up. Photo by Bonnie Prinsen

For Jan Smaby, the answer was obvious: Fillmore County.

"I knew from a young age if I ever got the chance to live in southeastern Minnesota permanently, I would do it," she said.

Smaby retired last year from an extensive career in state and local government, but became widely known during her ten-year stint as one of the original hosts of Almanac, a local public affairs/political analysis show produced weekly by Twin Cities public television.

Ironically, the southeastern corner of Minnesota is the one place Smaby is not likely to be recognized for her television appearances since the area did not have access to Twin Cities public television cable.

"Almanac played everywhere around Minnesota except here" Smaby commented, "so my relatives never saw it unless they came to the Cities."

But that suits her, since she "never got used to the fact that I could be recognized."

These days, if she’s recognized, it’s because of who her relatives are. "It’s the familial connections here," she said. "I like that."

A typical experience for her since she and her husband, Alan Lipowicz, have settled in rural Peterson, would be her recent visit to the new Rushford Arts Center where she discovered one of the artists present had grown up with her uncle, and another with her aunt.

Local roots

Smaby’s local roots go back several generations on both sides. Her mother Alpha (Sunde), and father, Arthur Smaby, now both deceased, grew up in Peterson. Art often told the story about how he decided very shortly after meeting Alpha that she would be the woman he’d marry, even though she was a "tomboy" and wanted nothing to do with him. According to the story, he proposed endlessly before she finally said yes, at a time when they were both working in the Twin Cities, Alpha for Cargill and Art for Midland Co-op. They settled in southeast Minneapolis where they raised their three daughters.

The Smabys expected their third child would be a boy, and chose the Norwegian name "Jan", pronounced yon. When their third child was a girl, they decided that if they just added "Ingrid" for a middle name, they could still use the first name they’d chosen.

Smaby’s sisters also have traditional Norwegian names: Marit and Karlin. "And don’t even ask me to spell their middle names," Smaby joked.

Smaby has always had family in Fillmore County, and remembers particularly visiting her grandparents in Rushford, her aunt, Gen Oian, and her Uncle Bill who worked at a Rushford bank.

At about the age of five, Smaby started spending summers at the farm of Olaf and Sophie Stedge, which was close to the Iverson and Benston farms—all of them relatives of the Smabys.

To the young city girl, life on the farm was magical. She remembers that the Stedges "grew all kinds of crops, had their own milk herd, chickens," and everything sat "on top of a bluff with a gorgeous view."

These days, when she thinks back to that time and favorite memories, like intentionally getting lost in a cornfield, she also marvels at how hard life was for the Stedges and farmers like them.

"One thing I know I never appreciated at the time was how hard the work was," she said.

Smaby entered college with plans to pursue a career in poetry. "But I learned in short order that a poet I was not going to be," she said. So she gravitated toward a new and more practical-sounding degree: urban planning. Since 1970, she has spent her career working in government or around it, including leading the Hennepin County Welfare department, Community Corrections, and being the first Minnesota drug "czar" under governor Rudy Perpich.

In recent years, Smaby says she started talking about southeastern Minnesota so much that she helped influence her sister and brother-in-law, Karlin and Mike Symons of Minneapolis, to buy a weekend home here.

But Smaby wondered if her own husband Alan, a "New Jersey boy", recently retired from the University of Minnesota veterinary school, would ever be happy living in such a rural area.

"He could look out his window and see the skyline of New York City," Smaby said of Lipowicz’s childhood. "He and his brother thought nothing of taking buses or the subway to a baseball game in the city."

But Lipowicz fell in love with this area, too, and was ready to begin looking for a home. Six years ago they bought a house and picturesque farm site nestled between a bluff and cornfield, and began spending as much time as they could there before moving in permanently this year.

"He could not be happier (here)," Smaby said. "He loves the area, he loves the people that he’s meeting and feels perfectly at home, even though it’s a far cry from where he grew up."

Like many couples who are officially "retired", Smaby and Lipowicz find that there are not enough hours in the day to do all the things they wish to do. They own horses which they board at Sylvia Passow’s Brush Poppin’ Ranch, they garden, and take advantage of the nearby bike trail. They are avid readers, interested in possibly taking some courses, and both will continue to do part-time work in their fields.

Politics

Former Fillmore County Sheriff, Neil Haugerud, is one local citizen who knows the "city" Smaby, and would describe her as "a political activist with a high priority on the social conscience of party politics." Haugerud considers Smaby a friend that he got to know during his years in the Minnesota House of Representatives.

To understand the origins of her political views, one just has to listen to Smaby talk about her parents. Her father Arthur worked for Midland Co-op, and Smaby said that "being a part of a co-op, was ingrained in us—part of the ethos of our lives."

Her mother Alpha was elected to the Minnesota state legislature in 1964 and 1966, one of the first women elected outright, not replacing a deceased spouse. Her outspoken style and willingness to be the first to speak out on issues of the day led to Alpha Smaby once being called a "maverick" by reporter Betty Wilson of the Minneapolis Tribune, and Smaby didn’t like it.

Yet there’s not really any doubt that "maverick" fit this woman, who, among other claims to fame, was one of the first locally elected officials in the nation to speak out against the Vietnam War, a move that put her at odds with longtime friend, Hubert Humphrey.

But years later, her daughter Jan is convinced that the "maverick" title was a compliment.

"We need some mavericks around us," Smaby said recently, "because, they seldom will win initially, but they’re often making us reach in our thinking, reach in our understanding - they make us stretch. That doesn’t mean they’re always right or that they have the answers, but mavericks are important voices that should not be quelled."

Her ten years as a co-host of the Almanac show allowed Smaby to hear many voices, maverick and otherwise. She always had a full-time day job in addition to hosting Almanac, which no doubt contributed to the time she fell asleep (only for a few seconds) while conducting an interview on live television.

It was her knowledge of government and public affairs that led to her being offered the chance to audition as host for the new public television show, Almanac, in the early 1980’s. The producers wisely sought out knowledgeable citizens rather than trained journalists on the assumption that it would be easier to teach the hosts interviewing skills than to teach them about government.

Smaby’s fear of cameras initially caused her to turn down the invitation from public television. But when some friends dared her, over a glass of wine, to audition, she took the dare, and got the job. She was paired with judge Joe Summers until his sudden death when he was replaced by journalist Eric Eskala.

The Almanac show aired live every Friday night, and then was rebroadcast on Sunday mornings. The concept of a live show where knowledgeable citizens interviewed political players was unique, and Smaby is still proud to have been a part of it.

One oddly memorable moment was when Curt Carlson, likely Minnesota’s first billionaire, asked to meet her shortly before going on TV for his interview. Sitting across from him, she couldn’t help but notice a rip on the inside seam of his trousers, through which she had a view of his boxer shorts. In a move that could reasonably be attributed to "Minnesota nice", she didn’t tell Carlson about the rip, knowing he’d be seated at a desk during the interview so there was no chance he’d expose himself.

But she couldn’t help remarking to a technician after leaving the dressing room that "I’ve just talked to possibly the richest man in the state, and all I can remember is that he has a hole in his pants."

One of her favorite interviews was with former President Jimmy Carter. She found him to be very "real", intelligent, with "a fantastic sense of humor."

"One couldn’t help but think that if he’d showed more of that side to the public, he might have been reelected," she commented.

Another favorite interview was with the recently deceased Archbishop Roach. Smaby found him to be surprisingly candid, and even remembers suggesting that he run for office.

After ten years, she started having thoughts of leaving the show because it was becoming too much of a routine. Also, because of the need to remain somewhat politically neutral as the host, the Almanac job prevented her from getting visibly involved in political campaigns and issues.

She left Almanac rather abruptly when asked, out of the blue, to be Mike Freeman’s running mate for governor of Minnesota. (Almanac continues to air with Eskala and his wife, Cathy Wurzer, hosting.)

Running for office was not something she’d considered previously, but two factors caused her to say yes: she was "frustrated with the house, senate and governor all together," and a close friend whom she respected advised her to run. So she had a 3-week campaign—"the only way to do a campaign" she says. Freeman eventually lost the 1994 Democratic nomination to John Marty.

Smaby was then hired to lead the Hennepin County Department of Community Corrections, the job from which she retired last year.

She is candid about her own abilities, and the reason she purposefully changed jobs so often.

"I like to create things and I like to fix things, but I’m not a good ‘maintainer’," she said. Of the many things she’s created, or fixed, she is most proud of the Almanac show and her work as the first chair of the Minnesota Sentencing Guidelines Commission.

"In one year, a group of nine of us appointed by (governor) Perpich redesigned the sentencing guidelines in Minnesota," she said. Under her direction, the group fixed a lot of troublesome areas in sentencing and was the first jurisdiction in the country to do such work. In 1980, they presented their recommendations which included eliminating the parole board and creating a sentencing grid of guidelines for felony offenses. Although the guidelines have changed and become more complex since then, the first commission’s guidelines have been modeled at the federal level.

"We transformed sentencing, made it more fair," she said. "I’m very proud of that."

Governor Perpich appointed Smaby to be Minnesota’s first drug czar, which coincided with the year the late senator Paul Wellstone was running for the senate for the first time. Smaby had already met him on Almanac before he was a candidate, but it was as a candidate for the U.S. Senate that Wellstone requested an informational meeting with her as the drug czar.

Since this was a new position, there was not an office immediately available. "A group of us pellmelled furniture together," she remembered. "We were located in this place, I don’t know what it had been, but it had really high counter tops."

"Now I’m a very tall woman, so the high countertops weren’t an issue for me—but Paul Wellstone was not a very tall man. I still have this vision of his bobbing head with each stride—that’s all I could see of Paul going past these tall countertops, coming in to see me. I don’t know why, but I’ll just never forget that."

Smaby subsequently became friends with Paul and his wife Shelia.

"I agreed with most of what Paul believed in and stood for—I didn’t agree with everything. But he was, for me, the kind of individual I want serving in public office, either Democrat or Republican. Paul was one of the most real people I had encountered in years to be seeking office."

Wellstone may have been the quintessential maverick. "Paul was always going to engender not only great fans, but also great opponents for his unabashed politically progressive views," Smaby commented. "Paul was a maverick. He matured as a politician, which he needed to, but that did not alter who he was."

Along with his work and pioneering ideas in healthcare and agricultural economies, Wellstone was also our first truly "environmental" senator, according to Smaby.

"He really understood how precious our environment is" rather than just including the environment as a political agenda item, she said.

He was against both wars with Iraq, even though voicing his opinion was not the politically "smart" thing to do. Smaby said she values the "lessons he taught us about how we use our nation’s power."

As to whether the progressive political agenda Wellstone fought for can continue since the tragedy last fall, Smaby is not optimistic.

"I’m pleased with what his family is trying to do to continue his work through the Wellstone Foundation, but I don’t feel terribly heartened right now. We are nationally and in Minnesota in a more conservative, cautious era."

"Sadly--maybe I’m too cynical--but I don’t find enough people running for office who are as real as Paul Wellstone," she said. "He had a voice that was an important one to be heard….I think many of the things about which he felt so strongly (agriculture, national healthcare, the environment) are things which increasingly, more and more people will appreciate were important."

Her vast experience in government and politics have had an interesting effect on Smaby. "I’m a great defender of government, but I’m also one of its harshest critics."

"When people openly criticize government for the sake of criticism—I take umbrage at that. It’s hard work," she explained.

But she’s also seen a lot of waste, and that bothers her. She believes in the ideal of public service and doesn’t favor "professional" politicians, for example, in the Twin Cities where she saw commissioners who were fulltime employees on healthy salaries.

"I would never want to see the professionalization of elected officials come to rural areas (like Fillmore County)," she said. "I rather appreciate living in an area where the governmental structure is more akin to what I think a government should be—a citizen body."

Smaby is content to view Fillmore County politics from the sidelines, but doesn’t rule out the idea of getting involved as a volunteer. A longtime proponent of the "family farm", she values the rural, agricultural climate and believes every citizen ought to be concerned about maintaining it.

"If the only way farmers can make money is to sell off their land, that should be everyone’s concern," she said.

Coming from a large urban environment, Smaby finds it easy to recognize the uniqueness of Fillmore County, and she hopes others "realize how precious are the resources that we have here….I hope we grow in our diversity and our economy, but I hope we retain what has made the area so special—the rural lifestyle."

Having a permanent home in rural Fillmore County seems to be the core in Smaby’s life these days, and the poet in her is compelled to put the feeling into words: "The only way I’ve been able to describe my connection to this place is to use a very trite phrase, but it absolutely fits: as long as I can possibly remember, being here has felt like home, like where I needed to be."

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