50 years and counting

Echo featured as part of History Nights, marks half-century

by Tom Coombe
For a half-century, the Ely Echo has delivered news of Ely, served the community and become a historical record of sorts.
Some of that history was shared Wednesday by publisher Nick Wognum, who spoke at the latest installment of the Ely History Night series at Vermilion Community College, sponsored by the Ely-Winton Historical Society.
The first edition of the Echo, which sold on the newsstands for 15 cents, was printed in October, 1972 and included a story about the legendary Dorothy Molter and another about a man who suffered a heart attack after rescuing a group of nuns from a capsized boat on White Iron Lake.
Another article was about the Ely Chamber of Commerce’s endorsement of proposed copper-nickel mining in the region.
“That was in the first edition of the Ely Echo, and a story we’re still dealing with today,” said Wognum.
That first issue included advertisements for long departed businesses including Gibson’s, where Buck Owens albums were on sale for $3.77 and Bridgeman’s, which offered pizza for $1.75 with a 50-cent delivery charge.
Among those pictured in that first edition were a pair of football players for the school then know as Vermilion State Junior College - current Ely residents Paul Kess and Gary Gotchnik.
Those were among the first of dozens of names - many familiar to longtime Ely residents - that Wognum read during his nearly hour-long presentation at the school’s lecture hall.
From original publisher Miles Aakhus to Wognum’s mother Anne Swenson, who passed away earlier this year after operating the Echo for more than 40 years, and from legendary Echo editor and author Jackpine Bob Cary to blasts from the past includidng retired Duluth News-Tribune outdoors writer Sam Cook, Wognum recognized many of the staff members who worked for the publication at one time or another in its history.
“A newspaper is a lot of things for people in the community, but it’s really about people, the people who work there, the people who are reported on,” he said.
The Echo started in competition with The Ely Miner, and the two publications battled it out for readers, advertisers and the city’s legal publishing contract for more than a decade until the Miner ceased publication in 1986.
In its early days, the Echo, under Aakhus’s leadership, was known to lock horns with city leadership and didn’t shy away from controversial positions.
That trademark has seemed to last through the decades and Wognum noted that the Echo’s early days came with some hot-button controversies and issues, including Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness legislation as well as a strike and later the closure of Reserve Mining Company in Babbitt.
Wognum read from a particularly acerbic Echo editorial, printed on the front page, where Cary called the U.S. Forest Service a “green-shirted Gestapo.”
Cary, who came to Ely from Chicago, became the face of the Echo, particularly after Swenson purchased the publication in 1977.
The flamboyant editor wrote features, columns and editorials and attracted international publicity - for himself and the Echo - when in 1980 he launched a spoof run for president under the moniker of the Independent Fishermen’s Party.
Cary conducted interviews with newspapers across the country and national television outlets came to the Echo’s office, then located at the corner of Sheridan and Central Avenue, to interview Ely’s presidential hopeful.
That same year, Ely hosted the 1980 American Legion World Series, attracting then Vice President Walter Mondale, luminaries including Ted Williams and Bruce Jenner and teams and fans from across the country. The Echo printed several tournament special editions.
In its early days all the way up until the Echo moved from its Sheridan Street location in 2005, the newspaper was printed in town on the publication’s printing press.
Wognum hailed a series of Echo pressmen, from Dan Kuhl to Terry Brooks, and a backroom operation that worked tirelessly to stuff inserts into newspapers and place address labels in order to make sure that thousands of newspapers arrived at their intended destination.
He noted that Swenson and longtime Echo photographer Pam Roberts were known to fill in operating the monstrous press when the situation arose.
The presentation was almost a who’s who of names for those who’ve made their home in Ely during the last 50 years.
The first paper had a column dubbed “Echo’s Echo” by Irene Grahek and future mayor Lolita Schnitzius was on the Echo staff at the time working in ad layout. Another future mayor, Ed Steklasa, was mentioned in that first edition for his work at the time as a pilot.
The Echo has taken on various projects through the years, among them the “Ely Since 1988” book published that year in conjunction with the city’s centennial.
A massive undertaking, the book had hundreds of pages, with features and photos about Ely families, businesses, entities and organizations.
Wognum said the book was a money-loser for the Echo at the time, but noted those with a copy can fetch a hefty sum for one now on eBay.
“They’re worth their weight in gold,” Wognum said of the books.
The Echo has won state awards for editorials, news coverage and photography, and Wognum made note of an array of photographers who have filled the Echo’s pages with their work - most recently with Eric Sherman dating back to others including Ken Hupila, Tom Stanton and Roberts, whose current “O’clock hour” feature is similar to a question of the week she posed to citizens on the street decades ago.
Wognum cited dozens of columnists and staffers who have contributed to the Echo’s success, from longtime bookkeper Mary Grahek and proofreader Janice Tessier, to columnists such as Pete Doran, Diana Mavetz Petrich and the late Teresa Zaverl.
An assortment of reporters got their start at the Echo including Doug Smith, who went on to a long career in the Twin Cities and Jeremy Olson, who is currently the StarTribune’s health reporter and main correspondent on Covid-19.
Sports has been a constant in the Echo through the decades and one-time Echo sportswriters included Paul Ivancich, Marley Kendall, current high school principal Jeff Carey, future StarTribune reporter Tim Klobuchar and Ric Garni, who went on to a broadcast television career in Atlanta.
Wognum also hailed the advertising representatives, who have one of the most important and difficult jobs in any newspaper.
Cook started his career as the Echo’s advertising salesperson and among others who have held that post include Vic Gustafson, Pat Farha, Tom Omerza, Ann Weckman-Folz and current representative Terri Pylka.
Those and literally hundreds of others have had their hand in producing a publication that, 50 years later, is still going strong and adopting to changes including how technology has changed news consumption.
“For now we focus on the weekly miracle,” said Wognum. “Getting the Ely Echo, which covers Ely better than anyone else, printed every week. It’s kind of a labor of love. It’s a job, a business that’s been in Ely for 50 years. The Echo is the community’s biggest supporter. The place Ely people turn to for news, important events, obituaries. We’ve put out over 2,600 issues which would not have been possible without our subscribers and advertisers.”