Veda Ponikvar, founder and publisher of two Chisholm newspapers, esteemed American civilian military leader, and arguably the most powerful person in Iron Range politics of the latter 20th Century, died Tuesday in Chisholm at the age of 96.
One could remark that Ponikvar was the most consequential women in the male-dominated industrial history of the Iron Range. But that would be selling her short. No one had as much influence or ability to affect progress, garner funding or impact community attitudes through a long, full life than Ponikvar.
The daughter of Slovenian immigrants in Chisholm, Minnesota, Ponikvar decided in the fifth grade she would be a newspaper editor. While studying journalism on a scholarship to Drake University in Des Moines, Iowa, she learned of the bombing of Pearl Harbor while working on the latest issue of the school paper.
After graduating in 1942, she enlisted in the Navy, where she was placed in Naval Intelligence due to her ability to speak Slovenian. She quickly rose in rank, spending much of the war working at the top secret cryptography desk for Poland, Yugoslavia and Czechoslovakia, one of very few women assigned such tasks. After the war she was honorably discharged as a lieutenant commander.
Returning to Chisholm in 1946, she borrowed money to found a newspaper in her hometown, the weekly Chisholm Free Press.
“They said she’ll go broke in six weeks,” Ponikvar told D.J. Tice in 1996. “Then it was three months. Then six months. Then it stopped.”
Ten years later she bought her rival Chisholm Tribune Press and published both newspapers for the next 40 years as the Iron Range’s most authoritative journalist.
She summed up her editorial philosophy in an article published in “Minnesota 150: The People, Places and People That Shape Our State” by Kate Roberts.
“I realized a newspaper was powerful force — for good or bad,” she said. “I made up my mind to be positive, but I’d be honest. I’d do my homework and get my facts straight.”
She had a close relationship with Iron Range DFL politicians, shaping the careers of men like Congressmen John Blatnik and Jim Oberstar. For decades it seemed like many of the Range’s politicians came from Chisholm — and that was because Veda helped put them in office with her pen.
The tallest freestanding sculpture in Minnesota and the most iconic work of art on the Iron Range is the Iron Man memorial along Highway 169. That statue looks the way it looks because Ponikvar said that’s how it should look. (It looks like her dad).
The 1964 Taconite Amendment. Ironworld. The Chisholm-Hibbing airport. Northwest (now Delta). Many times politicians got the credit, but Veda was involved in all.
Ponikvar was a civilian leader in the national guard, held the diplomatic level of a general, and was for decades the only person on the Iron Range who could cause military jets to fly over any given location, a power she used sparingly but to great effect.
Ponikvar wrote more than 5,000 editorials in her career, though the exact number varies and the task of figuring it out is monumental. She was guarded and strategic in what she told readers, always fixated on putting the best face on Chisholm and the Iron Range. Nevertheless, she tirelessly reported everything if you paid close attention.
In one piece, Ponikvar wrote the obituary for Dr. Archibald “Moonlight” Graham, the town doctor who had played briefly in Major League baseball. When novelist
Ray W.P. Kinsella found Graham’s entry in a book of baseball statistics, he was inspired to travel to Chisholm to find out what happened to him. The exchange he had with Ponikvar ended up in his novel, which was turned into the Kevin Costner movie “Field of Dreams.”
To quote that now famous editorial about Graham:
“As the community grew, Doc became an integral part of the population. There were good years and lean ones. There were times when children could not afford eyeglasses, or milk, or clothing because of the economic upheavals, strikes and depressions. Yet no child was ever denied these essentials, because in the background, there was a benevolent, understanding Doctor Graham. Without a word, without any fanfare or publicity, the glasses or the milk, or the ticket to the ball game found their way into the chid’s pocket.”
Ponikvar was at her best talking about the good in her community. She took an active role in describing and creating good in that community.
I last saw her before the 2011 House 5B special election debate.
“How old do you think I am?” she asked.
“No, tell me. I don’t mind.”
“83?” I hedged.
“You’re lying. I’m 92 years old! And she grinned ear to ear before turning to watch the debate and talk to the candidates afterward. I didn’t see her again because she would spend the last years of her life in a nursing home, struggling with the effects of aging.
Ponikvar leaves this life knowing more about the Iron Range, America, and the world than she told us, and she told us plenty. She was, quite simply, one of the most important figures in Iron Range history.
Aaron J. Brown is an author and college instructor from northern Minnesota’s Iron Range. He writes the blog MinnesotaBrown.com and hosts the Great Northern Radio Show on Northern Community Radio. This piece also appeared in the Thursday, Oct. 15, 2015 edition of the Hibbing Daily Tribune.