Maggie Lee: Northfield’s Purple People-Pleaser

Originally Published in the May 2011 Entertainment Guide

One of many awards, “Best Special Section,” came in 1983.Photo: Northfield Historical Society

When I moved to Northfield from New York in 2004 and took an interest in researching and writing about the history of the town where I had attended college in the 1960s, I knew there was only one person that I could consult about almost any aspect of Northfield. That was Maggie Lee, who celebrated her 90th birthday on Jan. 5 of this year. Amazing, but true: during this month of May she is celebrating her 67th year of working for the Northfield News. She started as the bookkeeper for her hometown newspaper in 1944 but quickly found her métier as a writer and later editor and still is writing today. There will be a tribute to Maggie on June 5 at the Grand Event Center at 7 p.m., featuring friends of hers, professional entertainers with hometown roots, Johnny Western and Marilyn Sellars.

During Northfield’s Sesquicentennial of 2005, Maggie (I just can’t seem to call her by her last name for this column) wrote a book “Northfield Ink: Community Stories Along Division Street.” She had at that time written 990 “Do You Remember?” columns about people and events in Northfield’s past but only had room for 75 in her book. As former Northfield News editor Scott Richardson said in his introduction, Maggie covered “city council, school board, agriculture and business development. She wrote editorials, columns, obituaries; reviewed local concerts and plays; and roamed Division Street year-after-year promoting local businesses and the people who ran them. She has been the community’s historian, its promoter, its confidante, its ombudsman, its conscience.” In a Northfield Historical Society oral interview with Marie Gery, Maggie said she once knew the story behind every house in town.

We owe so much as a community to Maggie, who was among the founders of the Northfield Historical Society, tireless promoter of river beautification, winner of almost every award that has been given out in Northfield, including the Joseph Lee Heywood Award in 2009. On top of all that, she lives to the hilt her role as a town “character.” She is recognized by all for her love of cats (at one time she had a collection of 3,000 cat figurines) and her propensity for wearing purple. For a role as a reporter in “Bye Bye Birdie” in 2009, I donned a wig, purple suit and a cat pin to pay her a tribute and she loved it!

Maggie was born Margaret Ferne Lee on Jan. 5, 1921, at the hospital which was then at 8th and Water streets. (A famous story of her birth was that the furnace in the hospital nursery went out overnight and the babies had to be “warmed” in the oven of the kitchen range.) She was the only child of Edward and Ferne Lee. Her father did construction work and was maintenance carpenter for Carleton College. Maggie’s future calling was presaged with her position as news editor of the Periscope newspaper her senior year. But after high school and after encountering some health problems, she went to business school in Minneapolis to study accounting and found work there.

One day, while taking the train back to Northfield for a visit, she heard that there was a bookkeeping job open at the Northfield News. She then discovered her mother had already set up an appointment for her. Maggie nabbed the job and it wasn’t long before she moved into a reporting role as well. Covering city council and school board meetings stimulated her interest in town politics. She rose through the editorial ranks, becoming editor in 1967, a position she held for 19 years, sometimes working up to 90 hours a week. Maggie “semi-retired” in January of 1986, but continued writing. She still culls news items from the past for Wednesdays and has a column “Maggie Says” on Saturdays. A StarTribune story about her on Jan. 2, 2003, said she has no plans to retire. Maggie told that reporter, “I hope I never have to do that. I hope they carry me out.” She affirmed to me that she still feels that way.

Maggie taking notes during Northfield’s “bed races” down Division Street circa 1979.Photo: Northfield Historical Society

The Northfield News garnered many prizes for Maggie’s writings on history, family, lifestyle and for page layouts and special sections (such as “Back to School”), as well. The headline for Feb. 19, 1953, was “More Honors for Maggie: Elected to Regional Press Women Post; Wins State Prizes on Columns, Stories.” She had won both first and second prizes for her weekly newspaper column, called “For Women Only,” though it is likely men sneaked a peek as well. Her columns depicted everyday events in an engaging, colloquial manner and she would write of trips, including vacations to Mexico, and special events such as to a national convention in Hollywood in 1953 as board member of the National Federation of Press Women.

“Maggie Lee Wins National Prize” was the Northfield News headline of May 19, 1955, when she placed second for a news story in a weekly newspaper about a devastating home fire, where Northfielders came to the aid of the now homeless family of seven. Maggie had been one of 616 state contest winners entered. In 1966, when Maggie won second prize in the Minnesota Press Women’s Contest for columns in weekly newspapers, a judge wrote, “The writer is a born story teller, able to weave a major item around the most minor happening and make it all so important.” Another judge praised an editorial of hers, saying, “Making readers see facts in new lights is one of the great challenges for the editorial writer, one this writer accomplishes.”

Maggie continued her winning ways after she was promoted from managing editor to editor in February of 1967. The March 14, 1968, Northfield News told of six awards in the annual writing contest of Minnesota Press Women, including first place awards for an editorial asking, “Can the council, businessmen communicate?” and for a river beautification series. During visits to San Antonio, Maggie had seen a river development project there which she felt might be successful in Northfield, where the Cannon River’s course through town was not very picturesque. Through a drumbeat of stories, Maggie pushed for river enhancement. The first front-page story on April 6, 1967, had a huge picture of a riverside dining scene in San Antonio and was entitled, “A dream that could come true for Northfield – a beautiful Cannon River.” The opening salvo had been made. Years later, with the hard work of volunteers and a city planner, at long last Northfield developed river walks which have greatly added to the aesthetics of the town. Arts fairs are held there during Defeat of Jesse James Days and, as of last year, Riverwalk Market Fair is held on summer Saturdays. And the new bike trail on the east side of the river was dedicated to Maggie Lee. Of course, the ribbon she cut at the inauguration was purple.

Maggie explains her passion for purple by saying that she always loved the color. Then for a while manufacturers were not making purple clothing. When purple became popular again one spring, she bought several tops, skirts and dresses in that color. One day she wore a red outfit downtown and was asked, “Where’s your purple?” So she decided to adopt that color as her fashion statement – not only for purple clothes and shoes, but for her fingernails, handbags, wire-rimmed glasses, rings, and so on and gradually, Maggie says, other colors faded from her wardrobe.

Maggie is also known for her love of cats and her mania for collecting cat objects of all types, ceramic, metal, wood, fabric, bobble-heads, music boxes, globes, salt and pepper shakers, plates and more, since 1946. A child of the Depression era, Maggie says she finds it difficult to dispose of things, but in the course of downsizing from one apartment to another on Division Street in 2004, she had to sell off some of the cat collection. She also had to dispose of most of the Mexican artifacts from vacations there and her collections of watermelons, small bells, rabbits, turtles and rocks. She finally sold a stuffed peacock that had been in her family since 1909. She now lives in a small west side home where the remaining cats are on shelves, including a shelf which circumnavigates her living room. A live cat, Princess, has succeeded her cats named Pooter and Jiggs, all of whom have been mentioned in her columns from time to time.

Maggie is devoted to Northfield, a town of “very intelligent people,” who often band together to help those in need. She adds, “I can’t think of any other town I’ve had the same feelings for.” Always dedicated to her work, she once said, “My job meant more to me than any guy I ever met.” Maggie concludes, “If I’m ever speaking to young people, I tell them to be sure to pick an occupation they love to do. I surely wouldn’t be working at 90 if I didn’t love it.”

Maggie with her minister, Will Healy, when she was given the Joseph Lee Heywood Award in 2009.Photo: Northfield Historical Society

A hometown booster, Maggie chronicled the rising careers of Johnny Western and Marilyn Sellars. Western was the youngest country music DJ in America at the Northfield radio studio of Faribault’s KDHL at the age of 14. He went on to work with the famous singing cowboy Gene Autry and appeared in 32 television shows and five feature films. In 1958, Western wrote and sang the “Ballad of Paladin” theme for the CBS television series, “Have Gun, Will Travel,” starring Richard Boone. Western joined the road show of Johnny Cash as featured performer and emcee and recorded many singles and albums with Cash and on his own for Columbia Records. An inductee in many halls of fame, he has played in sell-out concerts in Carnegie Hall in NYC three times. Western recently retired from being DJ at KFDI in Wichita, Kansas, where he had worked since 1985 when not touring the world. He and his wife, Jo, now live in Mesa, Arizona.

Maggie first saw Marilyn Sellars when she wrote about a one-room country school where Marilyn was a standout pupil. Maggie later followed Sellars’ successes as she was named Miss Northfield, competed in Aquatennial and Miss Minnesota contests, and sang and played piano at the Ambassador Hotel in Golden Valley. Then came stardom in Nashville, as Sellars’ first album, “One Day at a Time,” charted nationally for 43 weeks. Her album even overtook Elvis Presley on the country LP list and she won Cashbox Magazine’s “Best New Female Artist Award.” Sellars went on to headline with such performers as Bob Hope, Red Buttons, Bobby Vinton, Frank Gorshin and Ronnie Milsap and has sung at the Grand Ole Opry and for three presidents. Her versatility with Broadway, pop, gospel and country songs makes her a hit throughout the world (she has sung in Brazil, Israel, Switzerland, Bermuda and China) and at corporate shows, charitable events, fairs, telethons, political conventions, sporting events, dinner theaters, churches, Disney World, Branson, Missouri, and senior centers. She has been a particular friend of Three Links in Northfield, where her mother lived out her life. Sellars lives in Edina with her husband, Dr. Peter Kuipers.

Sellars says that she is thrilled to be able to sing at Northfield’s celebration of Maggie’s remarkable career and life. “To me, she’s truly ‘one of a kind;’ a wonderful role model to women who love to write and aspire to careers in journalism, an unparalleled Northfield community backer, and I’m proud to have her as my friend.”

Western and Sellars last performed together during Sesquicentennial celebrations in Northfield held over the 4th of July in 2005 and are looking forward to being on stage again to honor Maggie Lee, on June 5.

The concert celebrating Maggie Lee, emceed by Rev. Will Healy and featuring Johnny Western and Marilyn Sellars, will be held at the Grand Event Center on June 5 at 7 p.m. Tickets of $10 may be purchased beforehand at the Northfield Historical Society, 408 Division St. S. There is a Northfield Historical Society oral history of Maggie Lee at www.northfieldhistory.org.

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