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John O’Rourke, the Walter Cronkite of Austin, Minn., dies at 84

November 9, 2018

In 1986, John O’Rourke was elected mayor of Austin, Minn. His election came several months after the end of a bitter, 10-month strike at Hormel Foods Corp. — Austin’s largest employer.

During O’Rourke’s first year as mayor, a festival called Austin’s Cedar River Days was created. O’Rourke told the Star Tribune, “Austin’s had nothing but bad publicity for the last two years and we want to turn that around.”

State Rep. Jeanne Poppe, whose district includes Austin, said O’Rourke was the ideal person to be mayor under the circumstances.

“What stands out for me is John’s sincere desire to move Austin forward,” Poppe said. “He understood his role was to promote Austin. After the strike it was more challenging, but he kept a smile on his face and just kept plugging away. I can’t imagine a better person to serve as Austin’s mayor after the strike.”

O’Rourke, a member of the Minnesota Broadcasting Hall of Fame, was respected in Austin.

“I think John was Austin’s Walter Cronkite. People knew him as a television personality, thus they trusted him,” Poppe said. “He was non-threatening and neutral. He was a big personality, friendly, well-liked, and sincere.”

O’Rourke, who served as mayor for 10 years, died on Oct. 18 in Austin. He was 84.

O’Rourke, the oldest of four siblings, was born in St. Paul on March 23, 1934. After graduating from Cretin High School in 1952, he spent a year at St. Thomas College before enrolling at Brown Institute of Broadcasting in Minneapolis. While studying at Brown, he interned at WCCO Radio.

In 1954, O’Rourke joined the U.S. Army and was stationed in South Korea, where he spent the next two years on the air with an Armed Forces Radio Service station known as Gypsy.

After leaving the U.S. Army, he worked at a radio station in La Junta, Colo., and television stations in Ottumwa, Iowa, and Sioux Falls, S.D.

In 1961, he moved to Austin, where he became the sports director for KMMT-TV (now KAAL-TV) and KAUS Radio. In 1968, he became the news director for both stations.

Besides broadcasting Austin High School and Austin Pacelli High School sport evenings, he also did news and sports programs. In 1971, he was the first person on the air for KAVT-TV (now KSMQ-TV), Austin’s PBS member station.

For nearly two decades he co-hosted the Muscular Dystrophy Association Telethon and served as emcee of the Miss Minnesota Pageant.

In 1972, he started the Radio and Television Broadcasting program at Riverland Community College in Austin. He oversaw the program until 1995. His broadcasting students were able gain experience by helping with the production of “The Sports Show with John O’Rourke.”

While serving as mayor, he hosted a program on KAUS Radio called “Meet the Mayor.” Known as “the voice of Austin,” he was inducted into Austin High School’s Athletic Hall of Fame in 2007 and into the Minnesota Broadcasting Hall of Fame in 2015.

His daughter Erin Schoen told the Austin Daily Herald last month, “And, at the end, he was calling numbers at bingo at St. Mark’s [the assisted living community where he lived]. “He loved it. He never stopped broadcasting — and he enjoyed every minute of it.”

In addition to his daughter, O’Rourke is survived by wife, Joan Grimley O’Rourke; son, Stefan of Keystone, Colo.; two grandchildren; sister Sheila Belting of Tucson, Ariz., and brothers Gerald O’Rourke of Australia and the Rev. Bryan O’Rourke of Los Angeles.

Services have been held. The Rev. Bryan O’Rourke officiated.

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