AK: Garrison Keillor’s Sitka pen pal

The first time Keillor and Woods met was in 2013, after his show in Boone, North Carolina. Woods, whose red hair is somewhere between copper and strawberry blonde, stuck straight up. “He thought this was hilarious,” Woods said, “and took a picture peeking through my hair.” When they re-met in Palmer in 2015, Woods included the picture with a note. From then on, the two became regular pens pals. (Photo courtesy of Jasa Woods)

With a new year often comes the resolution to be well. Do good work. Keep in touch. Sound familiar? That’s the famous outro to the daily “Writer’s Almanac,” hosted by legendary writer and radio host Garrison Keillor. He visited Alaska last year on a cruise and made a pit stop in Sitka to visit a pen pal. Because it turns out, when it comes to resolutions, Keillor is good on his word. KCAW’s Emily Kwong has more.

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Audio transcript:

Jasa Woods first met Garrison Keillor like most people do, as a disembodied voice on the radio. She said she has “a lot of beautiful memories of sunsets listening to Prairie Home Companion.”

Woods grew up with that voice. And she met him in 2013, briefly in her hometown, and then last summer in Palmer. Woods was working as a park ranger in Denali and at the end of his performance, gave him a note.

Garrison Keillor came to Sitka on the two-week Prairie Home Companion cruise, which previously traveled through Alaska in 2006. He also paid a visit to pen pal and former Sitka park ranger Jasa Woods. (Kendall Rock/KCAW photo)

“I put my address on the back of the card. I just took a chance,” Woods said. “And about a month later, my mom texts me and she goes, ‘You got a letter. I think it’s political because it’s really nice handwriting.’ And she calls me on the phone. I was like, “Oh no, what’s the deal?” She’s like, ‘Jasa, this letter is from Garrison Keillor.'”

She wrote him and he wrote back and pretty soon, they were exchanging letters and emails, every week.

“Every single time that I would open up my email inbox, it was just like, ‘OMG.’ Even now it doesn’t feel like real life,” Woods said. “That someone I’ve looked up to for so long would want to be friends with me.”

In August, the Prairie Home Companion was taking it’s annual cruise through Alaska and on a bright, bluebird day, word got around that Garrison Keillor was coming to Sitka. Sitkans were feeding me questions all day.  Can you ask what his favorite joke is? What’s his favorite cocktail? Berett Wilber was working as a deckhand this summer and would often be standing in the pit, hauling fish, when the Writer’s Almanac came on.

WILBER: That’s how I mark the time.So I want to know, when he does that, does he imagine people like me when he’s doing that?

KEILLOR: I will now! From now, on for sure. I’m going to imagine a woman half covered with slime and blood and carcasses of fish.

Keillor with Woods, photographer Kendall Rock, and reporter Emily Kwong on the front porch of the historic Cable House, home of KCAW – Raven Radio . (Kendall Rock/KCAW photo)

Though Keillor has handed over the reins of Prairie Home Companion to Chris Thile, the Writer’s Almanac – a five minute digestive of poetry and history – continues. And most often, Keillor says, he’s writing for someone who is very busy.

KEILLOR: “Probably a woman with children who is in the kitchen. It’s early morning. There are children running around. And she’s making scrambled eggs. Everything you do in that five minutes has to be extremely clear. You are not there to blow smoke at her. Poets like Mary Oliver. Her poem, “Wild Geese,” begins:

You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
for a hundred miles through the desert repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body
love what it loves.

And to me that’s a poem that sends a message to this woman with the frying pan that is absolutely clear. Whoever you are, no matter how lonely, the world offers itself to your imagination.”

Woods, the park ranger, and I sat there, kind of breathless, as this was happening. In the past year, through their correspondence, she and Keillor have become really good friends. He turns to her and says, “What’s terrific about you is your life as a park ranger. This adventurous life, never knowing where you’re going to be station.”

KEILLOR: “To me that’s a life so unlike my life that I just find it fascinating. I never told you that before, but you’re fascinating.”

WOODS: “Thank you.”

KEILLOR: “Yeah!”

Keillor said he wants to go to places like Alaska because he’s seeking grandeur. And he wants he vividly remembers performing at the Alaska State Fair in Palmer last year.

“All of these Alaskans who were dizzy with pleasure of summer,” Keillor said. “And I walked out into the crowd and we sang, we sang ‘Swing low, sweet chariot.’ It was absolutely transformative.”

Keillor is working on his memoir. He’s turning 75 this year.

 

When you remove the celebrity of Garrison Keillor from the simple act of keeping in touch. Knowing that words are points of contact – a way to reach out and say, “Hey you, you’re going to be okay.” A few days later, Woods and I talk and she says this is person she’s come to know.

“When he’s done autographs, I’ve never seen him turn anyone away,” Woods said. “He will always talk to the oldest to the youngest person and he wants to hear their stores. I think he just admires people for being who they are.

Which is fitting, in a way, for a man whose voice alone causes you to slow down, pull up a chair, and stay awhile.