Remembering my mentor and friend Mike Simonson

Mike Simonson (PHOTO: Wisconsin Public Radio)

Mike Simonson (PHOTO: Wisconsin Public Radio)

UPDATE 2: Mike’s full obituary ran in the Wednesday Duluth News Tribune. I was honored that his wife Jennifer asked me to write this, with her expert editing.

UPDATE: Funeral services will be held at 11 a.m. on Saturday, Oct. 11 at Our Savior’s Lutheran Church, 4831 Grand Ave., in Duluth. Visitation will be held from 5-7 p.m. Friday, Oct. 10, and for an hour prior to the Saturday funeral. Peter Passi of the Duluth News Tribune wrote a lovely piece about Mike, and WDIO also put together a solid TV story.

(Sunday, Oct. 5, 2014) — Tonight I received word that KUWS news director and Wisconsin Public Radio reporter Mike Simonson died Sunday morning in his sleep at his Duluth home. After learning his craft at Duluth Denfeld, UW-Superior and KQDS, Mike had done groundbreaking radio journalism in the South. Since 1990, he had settled in his native Twin Ports, living in Duluth and working at KUWS, the station shared by WPR and UWS.

I worked for Mike at KUWS when I was in college. Mike was somehow the toughest and kindest mentor I’ve ever had. Mike took 30-word sentences and made them 12-word bulldozers. He’d call you into the studio, ostensibly property of the radio station, but his de facto empire of reel-to-reel tape and scripts, each one always printed in Comic Sans because it was such a terrible font that it made you read slow and deliberate like Edward R. Murrow.

If you went into the studio with unanswered questions, excuses, sloppy copy or a hint of mush he’d mark up your script and scrawl the names of three more people to call to get the story right. You’d stay until it was done, because tomorrow’s biology test didn’t matter. The news mattered. Being right mattered. Mike taught a legion of students this way. They work across the country now.

See, Mike didn’t yell at you. It’s just that his talking sounded like yelling, and it took a few months to figure that out. By then, you were a functional cub reporter and you didn’t turn in crap to Mike Simonson. You knew better than that.

For the longest time I never knew if Mike liked me. Then it was time for us to go to a conference in the Twin Cities. He drove the van full of budding reporters. I had shotgun. Some awkward moments, but then we got on the road and “Midnight Train to Georgia” came on the radio. I reached down to turn it up. He looked at me, and from that point forward he treated me as an equal. That. Precise. Moment.

Mike produced Final Edition, a show featuring reporters and editors from rival newsrooms in the Twin Ports. He also produced Radio Superior, a show that recreated old time radio newscasts using archives from the Superior Daily Telegram. Long after I left college, Mike would periodically send me copy to record in my home studio, which I attacked with black-and-white-movie zeal.

Where do I stop writing this? Every day last summer Mike swam across Stryker Bay on the St. Louis River, where the headwaters of the Iron Range flow into the biggest freshwater lake in the world. Mike was the biggest man I ever knew, literally and figuratively. A lifetime of struggle with his weight had culminated with a life changing surgery and many lost pounds in recent years. But hell, I couldn’t swim across Stryker Bay at any weight.

Big man. Big voice. Big heart. Endless loyalty and devotion to his former students who went on to do much more than we could have without him.

“I hope you are well old friend.” That’s how Mike signed his last e-mail to me in August.

To tell you the truth, Mike, I’ve been better. But I know you wouldn’t want me moping around. There is important work for us to do when we’re still locked onto this spinning rock. That’s what you kept telling us! It’s true! No time to be sloppy, or lazy, or in bed with the powerful. No time for that. No time. Make your calls. Write it up. Check it out.

You left journalism? No you didn’t. You never do, if you ever knew Mike Simonson.

My deepest condolences and prayers are with his wife Jennifer and the KUWS family. I’ll pass along word of services when I know more. I didn’t edit this mess, Mike. I’m sure you can tell.

The 1999 Northwest Broadcast News Association awards banquet. Here I am with Mike and Jenny Moravchik. We cleaned up in the student category that night. Mike's kids always did.

The 1999 Northwest Broadcast News Association awards banquet. Here I am with Mike and Jenny Moravchik. We cleaned up in the student category that night. Mike’s kids always did.


  1. RIP Mike

  2. Jennifer Simonson says

    Aaron would you please call me? I’m staying with my mom right now and her number is (218) ***-****.

  3. Aaron: The world lost an inquiring, diligent thinker, and all around great guy. Funny that, the first time you and I meet (two weeks ago in Park Rapids) we end up talking about our mutual friend Mike and how much he meant to you as a mentor at UWS. Beyond the awards and the accolades and the great radio he brought us, I’ll miss that voice. He had me on KUWS with many of my books, not because he had to, but because he was interested in what I was doing and what I had to say. In that, he was even a mentor to guys a few years older than himself.
    Nicely done. Mike is smiling,.

  4. Thanks for writing Aaron. You got it exactly right. Mike was a tough, straight forward journalist to the core. I remember being very intimidated by him while I was an undergrad and when I worked at KUWS. In fact, I went in to do a phone interview at 6am while I was ridiculously sick because I knew how much he wanted that interview (later that day I found out I had mono). I went back and told him I’d need to some time off because of how sick I was and he sent me home indefinitely until I felt better. But I wouldn’t have dragged myself out of bed at 5:30am that ill for any other boss I’ve had. That says a lot Mike, I hope you know that!

  5. Brandon Clokey says

    I too had the honor and unique experience to be in the KUWS studio with Mike many, many times including moderating Final Edition. Although I was not a student, I was able to simply sit behind the mic and learn, simply by listening to him. His natural ability to convey news and reality, was rare, and through that, was able to relate to so many. Mentor, friend, colleague, are all simply understatements for the man we have lost. We will all be forever inspired!

  6. Cheryl Holly says

    I was greatly saddened this morning to hear about the passing of Mike Simonson. Although I never met him, like many listeners in the Northland, I felt I knew him through his reporting. I greatly enjoyed listening to his relaxed, pleasant voice especially while he discussed a variety of topics with his collegues on air. It was very apparent, then and now, that Mike was respected and loved in the WPR community. I will miss hearing him.
    My condolences to his family, friends, and listeners.
    ~Cheryl Holly

  7. ‘Big man. Big voice. Big Heart. ‘ AB 10/5/14
    Thanks Aaron. Beautiful words.

    Due to Mike’s tough-love devotion to teaching and student learning, every single year student journalists at UW-Superior won state, regional, and national awards for their work. Every single year.
    Jennifer, our thoughts and prayers are with you. We are putting together a tribute to Mike in our central showcase, collecting for a Mike Simonson Memorial Scholarship for journalism students here, and posting a tribute on our homepage.
    Away, but never gone.
    Martha J. Einerson
    Department of Communicating Arts

  8. I love the way you wrote this, Aaron. It made me laugh, especially the part about the biology test. “You’d stay until it was done.” Yes, you did. And the “yelling.”


  9. Mike was one of the best friends I ever had. A great influence in all aspects of my life… especially radio news and Minnesota. I miss him already.

  10. Trisha Marczak says

    I smiled as I read this, because you expressed Mike’s nature with accuracy. Even before reading this, I called my Dad to tell him the sad news… and through tears recalled that he was the toughest and kindest mentor around. Mike is a man that left a tremendous legacy. I am so sad he is gone, but I am so profoundly thankful to have had him in my life. I don’t think he has a former intern out there who doesn’t realize the tremendous impact he had on their life. He taught us a lot… and he cared a lot. Hugs.

  11. Eric Schubring says

    Mike was the best and I never tired of telling him so and that his “Superior Bureau” was the best in the network. A big man with a big heart and seemingly tireless in his dedication to his craft. I only wish his energy and endurance had been as boundless as they seemed. The people and the region he served with such commitment and integrity are going to miss him — and the airwaves won’t be the same without his voice. My condolences to his family, friends and the many who counted on him to be there. He always was. I love you Mike.

  12. Chris Earl says


    Beautifully written. I can’t say that I knew Mike too well but I certainly listened to him quite a bit and understood that he mentored so many. He interviewed me for a piece in 2004 and I found him just delightful to work with.

  13. Tarina Beatty says

    I was stunned to happen across Mike’s obituary over the weekend… and devastated.
    My deepest condolences to Jennifer and Mike’s entire family, KUWS, UWS and the entire Northland region.

    It broke my heart to hear of Mike’s passing… such a loss not only to those who loved him the most, but all of us who were touched by him – from the hundreds of students he mentored to the thousands of listeners who found comfort in his familiar voice each day.

    I never planned to be a reporter when Mike recruited me for KUWS – I thought I was going to be working behind the scenes. But when I walked into Mike’s studio for the first time, he handed me a notebook and told me to call a state representative. And changed my life. Literally. It is no exaggeration to say the entire course of my life was truly changed that day.

    That Mike was able to turn this uncertain, shy student into an award-winning reporter is a testament to his ability to bring out the best in others – even if it wasn’t always an easy road.

    Mike demanded excellence. And we excelled because of him. The hundreds of awards lining the walls of KUWS are testament to that.

    There were days when I walked out of his studio wanting to SCREAM – but I had never been pushed before the way I was pushed by Mike, nobody forced me to think outside the box the way that he did.
    My life is better for having had the opportunity to work under and learn from Mike. And I know I am not alone in that.

    Even in his passing, Mike’s influence will continue to have a positive impact on the world.
    And for that, I thank him

    Rest in peace, Mike.

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