Bob Bestler

How one quirky mayor made my arrival to newspapers an extremely unique experience

A person points at Saturday front pages of newspapers from across the country that announce Robert Mueller has finished his report, outside the Newseum in Washington, March 23, 2019. The special counsels work may be done, but prosecutors in Manhattan and elsewhere are pursuing investigations into the presidents family business and more. (Erin Schaff/The New York Times)
A person points at Saturday front pages of newspapers from across the country that announce Robert Mueller has finished his report, outside the Newseum in Washington, March 23, 2019. The special counsels work may be done, but prosecutors in Manhattan and elsewhere are pursuing investigations into the presidents family business and more. (Erin Schaff/The New York Times) NYT

We’ve been doing some serious downsizing lately and for me that means tossing decades-old memories displayed on the pages of newspapers.

Among these were some still-fresh memories of my first newspaper job at The Forum in Fargo, N.D., in 1968.

I had come to The Forum from the University of Minnesota in desperation. Job applications had been rejected by several newspapers, including those in Minneapolis and Chicago, both of which had hired classmates.

On the recommendation of a professor, I received an invitation to interview with The Charlotte Observer, but I would not graduate for several months. The Big O needed someone now.

With a family to support, I was about to accept a position in the Hennepin County (Minneapolis) public information office. And then came The Forum, the major newspaper in North Dakota, offering me a job as City Hall reporter. Thank you, God.

The first words I heard on my first few days went something like this: “Wait’ll you meet the mayor. You’re in for a treat.” The words were usually followed by a little chuckle.

The mayor, it turned out, was Herschel Lashkowitz and he was clearly an oddity in this town.

He dressed in early Salvation Army. He was a Democrat. He was Jewish. And he had been winning elections in Fargo since 1946, first as a state senator, then, since 1954, as mayor of Fargo.

Even people in the newsroom could not figure out his appeal, but my cynical city editor tried: “The little old ladies in tennis shoes love him.”

As a Democrat on a Republican-dominated City Council, he tended to play the victim on every critical issue, ranting about how he was the only one watching out for those little old ladies while the others only wanted to appease Fargo’s business interests. He would get into red-faced rages at a moment’s notice and I would religiously transcribe them all, knowing that every word was golden. It was great theater.

One tirade was especially memorable, when he cried: “Two thousand years ago they crucified a Jew! Tonight you’re crucifying another Jew!”

Amazingly, on more than one occasion, the mayor would call me at home within the hour and ask what I thought of his performance. It always surprised me. Did the mayor really care what I thought? Was he trying to shape my story for the next day’s paper? Or did he just want reassurance that he had not gone too far? Not at all, Mayor. Not at all.

One time, at the Fargo airport to greet presidential candidate George Wallace, he spotted Harry Belefonte, who had given a concert the night before. Laschkowitz shook hands, then asked if Belefonte would campaign for him, a fellow Democrat.

“I didn’t see many black people around here, Mayor,” Belefonte said. “I don’t think I could help you.”

After six bone-chilling months I left Fargo for Charlotte (after locating it on a map). Days after settling in, I received a letter from Herschel. Enclosed was a copy of a letter to Charlotte Mayor Stan Brookshire, who he knew from national mayors’ conferences. He told Brookshire, in essence, that I was a good and fair reporter and Charlotte was lucky to have me.

Wow. Thanks, Mayor. Rage on anytime.

Contact Bob Bestler at bestler6@tds.net.

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