Perhaps it is a bit cheeky, but an unrepentant Marilyn Hagerty used her Grand Forks Herald column to write an open letter to Queen Elizabeth.
Marilyn, who turned 90 on Memorial Day, has been a beloved figure to Herald readers for decades. But she burst onto the national scene in early 2012 when food bloggers ridiculed her for writing a restaurant review about the new Olive Garden in Grand Forks. The elite foodies considered Marilyn a rube for describing the dining experience in a chain restaurant. One of her harshest critics labeled her “pathetic,” and she caused a national firestorm on social media.
But Marilyn got the last laugh. People across the United States came to Marilyn’s defense. She recounted her overnight fame in her 2016 birthday column that was addressed to the Queen: “What a hoot that was, Elizabeth! I flew into New York five times to be on the television shows,” including “Anderson Cooper 360” and the “Today” show. Chef and TV host Anthony Bourdain also stepped forward to help Marilyn get a collection of her reviews published as a HarperCollins book. This chapter in Marilyn’s life could be dubbed “Marilyn Takes Manhattan.”
Now she wants to meet Queen Elizabeth, who turned 90 just a few weeks before Marilyn.
Before Marilyn became a national phenomenon, I sat next to her in the Herald newsroom during the 1990s. Like Cher, Madonna and Beyonce, it is fitting to simply call Marilyn by her first name. Wherever you went in Grand Forks, if you referred to Marilyn, people knew you were talking about the tall, self-deprecating South Dakota native who doesn’t suffer fools gladly.
When Marilyn would roll into the newsroom after attending a community event or conducting interviews, she would often joust with the guys in sports. She coined the terms “sports goons” and “sports apes” to capture the attention of the Herald sports guys.
A major fan of University of North Dakota sports team, Marilyn knew precisely what was happening with the women’s basketball and men’s hockey teams. But she wanted to give the sports writers and editors a bad time with Marilyn’s version of trash talking.
Marilyn confessed in her recent column that she played pool for her birthday at The Hub bar. In an email to me, Marilyn disclosed, “Susie Shaft and I beat the sports apes at pool. But they let us cheat a little.”
Because Marilyn and Queen Elizabeth are both celebrating their 90th birthdays in 2016, it would be fitting to view Marilyn as Queen of the Prairie. Like Queen Elizabeth, she has had a long reign. While Queen Elizabeth determines which people deserve to become knights and dames, Marilyn regularly bestows her “Cheerful Person of the Week” award.
In 1997, Marilyn posthumously awarded Cheerful Person of the Week to Bruce Tellmann after he died unexpectedly. The owner of the Red Pepper and a colorful radio host, Tellmann liked Marilyn because she is smart, savvy, funny and genuinely cares about Herald readers.
On one of her earlier birthdays, Marilyn showed up in the Herald newsroom. She apparently didn’t want to take the day off because she had work to do. I didn’t know how long Marilyn was going to stick around. So I called Tellmann and said, “It’s Marilyn’s birthday. Get to the Herald as quickly as possible and bring some grinders and Mr.Goodbars.” In addition to the sandwiches and Marilyn’s favorite candy bar, he stopped to pick up a birthday card.
The animated conversation and laughter that ensued caused such a commotion that Editor Mike Jacobs walked out of the conference room to see what was going on. When he caught a glimpse of the principals involved, he smiled and returned to his meeting.
Marilyn’s humor is a big element of her appeal, but so is her steadfast commitment to tell the stories of people living in the Red River Valley. In a world where everything seems to be changing rapidly, Marilyn has served as a comforting constant as she chronicles the people and culture of Grand Forks and the broader region.
She also has shared the tough times she’s faced in her life with her readers: the deaths of her husband, Jack, and daughter, Carol; her breast cancer, and the renovation of her flooded home. In 1997, when Marilyn was mourning the loss of Jack and dealing with water damage to her Cottonwood Street home, I remember working next to Marilyn at our temporary Herald office in a vacant retail building.
In our makeshift office that lacked air conditioning, one day a female journalist with a national news organization was interviewing Marilyn about how she was coping. Then Marilyn turned the tables and asked the woman about her life. The reporter was worried about the ticking of her biological clock. Marilyn’s advice: “It’s time to get cracking.”
Nobody ever had to tell Marilyn or Queen Elizabeth to “get cracking.” Both of them have been women of action and service. Regardless of what happens to them, they remain curious about what another day will bring. They also have been shrewd enough to avoid retiring from the work they love.
“I’ve been in London several times over the years, and I just never ran into you anywhere,” Marilyn wrote in her open letter to Queen Elizabeth. “If you ever get to Winnipeg, let me know. It’s only a couple of hours away.”
These two women would get along famously. And I can imagine a portrait that would capture the historic meeting. A smiling Queen Elizabeth and a beaming Marilyn would be seated side-by-side, and the adorable Prince George would be ensconced on Marilyn’s lap.