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Legendary Twin Cities journalist Barbara Flanagan dies at 94

September 24, 2018

Barbara Flanagan, a former influential and indefatigable reporter, editor and columnist for the Star Tribune, died peacefully in her Wayzata home on Monday. She was 94.

“She inspired, prodded, scolded and relentlessly made us believe we could take a perfectly good Midwestern city and will it to become the Star of the North,” said R.T. Rybak, former Minneapolis mayor and a former newspaper colleague of Flanagan’s. “Barbara is one of the major reasons I wanted to grow up to be mayor, and the bonus was getting to work with her at the Star Tribune, where I learned my childhood hero was also a truly lovely person.”

Although remembered as a tireless advocate for downtown vitality and historic preservation — at a time when neither was a mainstream topic — Flanagan’s one-of-a-kind journalism career, which spanned 44 years, started in 1944 in the promotions department at the Minneapolis Times.

Flanagan recalled in 1988 that she “wrote house ads, did the company newsletter, read the funnies on WTCN, wrote Dick Cullum’s radio show, did my own women’s sports show on radio, interviewing people like the championship lady wrestler.”

Two years later she won a transfer to another Cowles family-owned property, the Minneapolis Tribune, writing obituaries on the night shift. Bright, articulate and hardworking, Flanagan spent two decades climbing the newsroom ladder in a male-dominated profession, covering fires and murders as a general assignment reporter, and then tackling a world of subjects as women’s editor for the morning Tribune, the afternoon Star and the Sunday Tribune editions.

The newspaper sent Flanagan on 13 overseas assignments, and her range was astounding. In a pre-People magazine era, Flanagan met every U.S. president between Harry S. Truman and George H.W. Walker Bush, as well as Queen Elizabeth II of Great Britain and the Shah of Iran.

Parisian fashion collections and the Academy Awards were on her beat, and she interviewed the era’s most famous faces. While she emblazoned their names in her signature boldface type, she wrote about Cary Grant (“The handsomest celebrity I ever met,” she later recalled), Judy Garland, Rock Hudson, Rosalind Russell, Omar Sharif, Ginger Rogers and other luminaries as if she’d bumped into them at Target.

In 1965, Flanagan was tapped to replace longtime columnist Cedric Adams with a three-times-a-week column in the Star, alternating days with another new columnist, Jim Klobuchar.

“They decided to promote us as the twin columnists for the Twin Cities,” Flanagan said in 1995. “ ‘We’ll take a woman feature writer and a male sportswriter with a lot of pizazz, throw them in there and they’ll sink or swim.’ ”

The formula was an instant hit, and the two columnists occasionally riffed on one another. In 1966, Klobuchar was the first to report that she was marrying, a column Flanagan later recalled as one of his funniest. She took him tango dancing, an experience that sent him straight to the doctor, who said it was “the kind of injury received by running backs who collide with linebackers,” Klobuchar wrote in 1988.

Flanagan filed more than 3,000 bylines over a 23-year run as a columnist. Armed with an endless curiosity, what was surely an Olympic-sized Rolodex and a seemingly limitless supply of column inches, she used her widely-read Variety section real estate as a newsprint-lined bully pulpit, taking on countless causes (well-shoveled sidewalks), specific projects (“My beloved Nicollet Mall,” as she said in 2016) and quirky personal interests (the year-round availability of iced tea) with equally relentless fervor.

“Growing up reading Barbara Flanagan had an enormous impact on how I chose to live my life because I knew with each boldface that Minneapolis could, and should, never settle for anything but greatness,” said Rybak.

She also chronicled downtown’s movers and shakers — the business owners, shopkeepers and restaurateurs — in a way that made the city come to life for her readers.

“They said, ‘Now Barbara, you just write about whatever interests you,’ ” Flanagan recalled in 2016. “I was interested in the City Council. I was interested in saving great old buildings. I was interested in sidewalk cafes, which is the only thing I seem to be remembered for, but that’s OK.”

It’s true, Flanagan’s No. 1 legacy was, arguably, sidewalk cafes. She first encountered them while on assignment in snowy Copenhagen in 1949, only to return home and discover that they were banned in Minneapolis. That finally changed in 1972, when City Council member John Derus drafted a sidewalk cafe-friendly ordinance.

“Barbara Flanagan kept saying it was a good idea, and that we should do it,” Derus told the Star Tribune in 2015. “And I agreed with her. So I introduced the resolution that passed, and the rest is history.”

The column wasn’t all fervent pleas against the wrecking ball. A 1973 entry, outlining her pro-choice position on abortion, drew an unprecedented volume of letters and phone calls. Still, Flanagan’s push for a more beautiful and livable Minneapolis never diminished.

“Some developers are devoted to uglification, you know,” she noted in her last regularly-scheduled column, published on Oct. 12, 1988.

Her singular tenure at the newspaper made her not only an agent of change but a living institution. Here’s a measure of her outsized influence on the Twin Cities: at her public retirement party in the IDS Crystal Court, 960 members of her devoted readership lined up to have their photo taken with the woman whom many affectionately referred to as “Babs.”

On her last day in the newsroom, she packed up memorabilia that now fills 78 boxes at the Barbara Flanagan Collection, part of the James K. Hosmer Special Collections at the Minneapolis Central Library.

Post-retirement, Flanagan wrote a monthly column, the Flanagan Memo, for the Star Tribune, through 2012. She is also the author of three books: “Minneapolis,” a social and cultural history of the city (1973); “Ovation: a Partnership Between a Great Orchestra and a Great Audience,” a history of the Minnesota Orchestra on the occasion of its 75th anniversary (1977); and “Minneapolis-St. Paul: Linked to the Future” (1997).

She served on the boards of the Minnesota Orchestra, American Swedish Institute and Hennepin Center for the Arts. Gov. Wendell Anderson appointed her to the state bicentennial commission. In 1978, Flanagan received the YWCA’s first Outstanding Achievement award, and in 1970 and 1972 she received achievement awards from the Minneapolis Committee on Urban Environment for “persistent and skillful efforts for a more beautiful city and surrounding area.”

Flanagan never lost the carriage of a person who had spent ages 3 through 18 at her mother’s dance studio. Her energetic and outgoing personality was probably rooted in the two years she studied dramatics at Drake University in her hometown of Des Moines, Iowa.

Her husband of 50 years, Earl Stanley Sanford, died on May 17, 2017.

In 2014, after spending several decades splitting their time between Minneapolis and Naples, Fla., the couple moved to Wayzata.

Flanagan was predeceased by granddaughter Grace Magill and is survived by children Anne Magill (Jim Magill) of San Franciso, Mindy Sanford of Minneapolis, Albert Sanford (Dorothy Wildman) of Aspen, Colo., and two grandchildren. A celebration of Flanagan’s life is planned for December 17.

Rick Nelson • 612-673-4757 @RickNelsonStrib

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