Remembering my friend Al Eisele
Someone I considered a good friend (despite having spent very little time together in person) died last week.
Blue Earth native son, Albert “Al” Eisele, passed away on Tuesday, June 29, just one day after his 85th birthday. He died of congestive heart failure at an assisted-living facility in Falls Church, Virginia.
Who is Al Eisele, you may ask.
Eisele was a veteran newspaper editor and a member of the Washington press corps for many years. He co-founded The Hill, a newspaper dedicated to coverage of Congress, the White House, politics, and all things about life in the nation’s capital.
Eisele was born June 28, 1936, in Blue Earth, the son of Albert and Susan Eisele, who both farmed 160 acres and moon-lighted as newspaper writers/ columnists, as well.
He graduated from Blue Earth High School in 1954 and from St. John’s University in Collegeville in 1958.
He married Moira Conway in September 1962 and they had two daughters, Catherine and Anne. Moira Eisele died at age 77 in 2016.
Al Eisele was first a newspaper editor in Mankato, then in St. Paul at the Dispatch & Pioneer Press before moving to Washington DC in 1965 where he became a correspondent for Knight-Ridder newspapers.
He and two others founded The Hill in 1994, and he served as its editor until retiring in 2005.
Along the way he also served as Walter Mondale’s press secretary when Mondale was vice president, wrote several books, served as an officer in the U.S. Army and once spent three and a half seasons as a pitcher in the Cleveland Indians farm system, among many other things.
I first “met” Al Eisele shortly after I became the editor of the Faribault County Register 15 years ago.
I say “met” with quote marks because he randomly called me on the phone one day just to chat. The first part of the conversation was him explaining to me just who the heck he was. Then I explained to him who the heck I was. Then we chatted about Blue Earth (both past and present), politics (both local and national), Walter Mondale, Hubert Humphrey, sports, Al’s mother, Susan, and I don’t remember what all else.
An hour and a half later we had become pretty good friends. I really don’t remember if there was a specific reason he called me or not. Didn’t matter. We were both editors. Visiting with people is what we do.
That was the start of quite a few more phone calls and a whole bunch of emailing back and forth over the next few years. He sent me a bunch of random things. Sometimes it was stories or news clippings or other items he had found in his files and copied and thought I might be interested in reading.
Often I would get a manilla envelope in the U.S. Mail and it would be full of items he wanted me to see, and always a personal note about something going on in Blue Earth. Or something that had happened in Blue Earth in the past. Or what was happening in the world.
Some of his notes and letters were written long-hand, some were all typed up on The Hill official letterhead.
I still have them all in a file in my desk. Yeah, I keep everything. Don’t judge me.
Then one day back in 2012, Al called me with something strange and unusual.
Did I know who Donald Deskey was, he asked.
Luckily, I had heard of Donald Deskey just a year earlier, at a Chamber of Commerce event, and I had spent some time researching Deskey and writing my column about him.
Sure I know about him, I told Al. He was born in Blue Earth and became a world famous designer. Created packaging for Crest toothpaste and many other products. Designed the New York Radio City Music Hall. Was big into art deco design.
All true, Al told me. But Donald Deskey also designed the street lights for New York City, he said, and there are thousands of them.
OK, I said. So what?
Al told me that all those street lights were being replaced and he was going to get one of those original Deskey lights. Seems Al knew New York mayor Michael Bloomberg, which didn’t surprise me. Al knew everyone.
Now, Al continued, all we have to do is figure out a way to pay for it to be shipped to Blue Earth, adding it would not be cheap. And that, he told me, was going to be my job.
He said he figured I could quickly raise a few thousand dollars with donations from local businesses. I did get a few donations, including a hefty one from the local newspaper editor.
Sure enough, the light was shipped to Blue Earth and we arranged to have it placed in the downtown Gazebo Park, along with a plaque donated by the Faribault County Historical Society.
Next, we planned a dedication ceremony for the new light. Al booked a flight and showed up in Blue Earth, as did two of the top execs of the Ohio-based Deskey Company Al had invited. The company is still designing stuff long after Donald Deskey’s death in 1989.
Al had also invited New York City mayor Bloomberg to attend, but the mayor had declined as he was busy banning high calorie soft drinks in the city, Al said.
At the dedication I gave a talk about Donald Deskey. With a lot of research on the Internet, I had become an expert of sorts. The two execs of the Deskey Company also spoke. Al Eisele was the keynote speaker and gave a speech about how he had always had a fondness for Blue Earth and wanted to donate the Deskey streetlight to the city.
Al gave me a printed copy of his speech, of course, and I still have it in my file, of course. So I will quote from it here:
“I am thankful I grew up in a community full of wonderful, caring, salt of the Earth people who instilled in me values that have served me well all my life.
“I’ll always think of Blue Earth as the place that shaped me more than any other. The more I see of the world – and I’ve seen a lot of it – more than 80 countries on every continent – the more convinced I am that a sense of community is very important, and its absence is the cause of many of our social problems.
“So I want to pay homage to Donald Deskey and to my hometown and its people. But I also want to tell the young people of this community that, like Donald Deskey, you should set your sights high and don’t let anybody tell you you can’t achieve your dreams if you work hard and believe in yourself. And, best of all, you don’t have to leave Blue Earth to do it.”
Wise words from a smart guy. I’m sure going to miss getting those phone calls, emails and mailed packets from my friend Al.