In 1971 a young teacher named Jon Hassler joined the English faculty of Melrose High School. He rented a room from Clara Schulzetenberg, a widow. His entry into the world of academia was not spectacular.
A much more successful teaching career followed, in Fosston and Park Rapids high schools and colleges in Bemidji, Brainerd, and Collegeville, where he honed his teaching and writing skills, presumably using as assets what one of his students called his “quiet wisdom,” twinkly smile, and his ability to let humor shine through.
On May 16, 2014, Brainerd honored him by designating the Jon Hassler Library at Central Lakes College (formerly Brainerd Community College) as a national Literary Landmark in his honor, an award given by the United Libraries Literary Landmark Association. He joined some 250 authors, including Edgar Allen Poe, Harry S. Truman, and Mark Twain as well as Minnesotans F. Scott Fitzgerald and Sinclair Lewis in being so recognized. The library houses all of his published works and some of the unpublished as well.
The son of a storekeeper in Staples and Plainview, Jon learned about stocking shelves and bagging groceries, and even more about human nature and the ways of small town citizens, which stood him in good stead as he turned out a series of adult and young people’s novels and three short story collections which earned him a string of awards and accolades.
He served on the English and humanities faculty at Brainerd from 1968 to 1980. There he began his writing career, in a place which he says gave him “the perfect environment for teaching myself to write.”
Jon returned to Melrose in 1971 to visit his old classroom, chat with some former colleagues, and talk with the English students about what it takes to be a successful author. Reading from his books, he got chuckles and knowing looks with his deadpan recital of passages about school hot lunches and the yearly quota of student papers that teachers must read, which he called “the annual renewal of ignorance.” He said, “I got out my calculator and figured that in my career I had read 13,250 student papers. I don’t think it was good for me to figure that out, and I don’t think it was good for me to read those papers, either.” He also explained the path that his writing career had taken:
“Staggerford was the book that I poured all of my experience into. A lot of it is made up, of course, but that’s the way a novel works.”
After an incredible period when he churned out 14 short stories in 28 weeks and collected 85 rejection slips, he began being published in literary journals such as Prairie Schooner and South Dakota Review. They attracted the attention of a New York literary agent who told him that if he ever wrote a novel, she would like to see it. So with a market in sight, he wrote Staggerford, the story of a small-town English teacher, Miles Pruitt, who rents a room from an elderly lady named Agatha McGee. Agatha would return as a character in several of his subsequent novels. It was natural for Melrose readers to wonder whether how much of Clara Schulzetenberg went into her.
“The English teacher living with the landlady was from a Melrose situation, certainly. But she’s not Agatha, just as I’m not Miles.” Yet, Agatha and Clara shared some traits–both sensible, crusty, widowed landladies, both devout Catholics. “Clara was a little more flexible than Agatha, a little kinder,” Jon clarified.
He explained to the students that he didn’t work from an outline, and that he lived in dread that he would get his characters inextricably mired in a plot with no way of getting them out. One of his books, Grand Opening, went wrong in so many ways and required so many rewrites that at one point he ceremoniously carried the manuscript to his lake home in Park Rapids and buried it beside his dog’s grave. When he had done a major revision–of course, he had kept a copy–and the book emerged in satisfactory shape, his agent suggested he dig it up again, a symbolic resurrection.
“I was going to, but I realized when I got up there that I couldn’t remember if the dog was on the left or the right.”
He recounted his lunch with several high-powered movie people who paid him for the rights to another of his books, The Love Hunter, after which no one was willing to pick up the check. Later his agent told him that Robert Redford and Paul Newman had lunched to discuss the possibility of their playing the two male leads. It isn’t recorded who picked up the tab. He suspected that The Love Hunter would never be made, and he was right.
“I’ve seen the early screenplay. I wouldn’t go to see that one.” Another of his books, A Green Journey, hit the small screen in 1990, retitled The Love She Sought. Later it was restored to its original title.
Jon summed up his writing philosophy to the Melrose students in this way: “I can’t write about what I haven’t known. I’ve lived in small towns in Minnesota all my life, including this one. It might not seem to some people to be a great range of experience, but it’s more than enough. I think I can go to my grave still writing about small-town Minnesota.”