Without even knowing what the word “viral” meant, 86-year-old Marilyn Hagerty sent the Internet world into a frenzy after reviewing a newly-opened Olive Garden in her home of Grand Forks, N.D.
Now, Hagerty, a University of South Dakota alumna, is this year’s recipient of the annual Al Neuharth Award for Excellence in the Media.
Hagerty began her career as a journalist in the 1940s, writing city briefs at the Capital Journal in her hometown of Pierre, S.D. Hagerty said her time at the newspaper in Pierre is what inspired her to pursue that particular field of work.
“When I was in high school and found a summer job, I immediately loved being in the newspaper office,” Hagerty said. “I thought it was the greatest place to be, and thought everyone that worked there were the greatest people. I was fascinated by the work they did, and I wanted to do the same thing.”
When she began her career, women were not respected or held in high caliber for the work they did. As far as newspapers went, most women found themselves working for the society pages.
“I didn’t find much encouragement for women in 1948,” Hagerty said. “Women weren’t supposed to be editors. It has taken a long time for women to find their equal place in the newsroom, but they have it now.”
Hagerty attended USD from 1944 to 1948 and was editor of The Volante in 1947.
“It just so happens that I went to school with Al Neuharth and he was two years behind me,” Hagerty said. “I hired him to work on The Volante when I was editor. We’ve always kind of joked that I was his boss.”
Jack Marsh, president and chief operating officer of the Al Neuharth Media Center, said Neuharth has told him of the impact Hagerty had on him at a very early age.
“His first encounter with Marilyn was as a student at USD,” Marsh said. “She took a chance on him 65 years ago. He then became the sports editor, and two years later in 1949, he was the editor of The Volante. The rest, as they say, is history.”
Hagerty graduated from USD with a degree in journalism in 1948. She then worked for two years in Aberdeen, S.D. with American News before moving to Bismarck, N.D., where she worked at the KFYR radio station. She also did various writing assignments for United Press International in Minneapolis, Minn. Hagerty then began working for the Grand Forks Herald in Grand Forks, N.D., and has been there for 50 years.
Throughout all of her years, Hagerty said she has never regretted her decision to pursue a career in journalism.
“I love people, I love studying people and I love writing, so I’ve had a very rich, wonderful life just writing about people I meet,” Hagerty said. “I guess you can’t ask for anything more than that. I wouldn’t want to do anything else. It has never felt like going to work for me.”
On March 7, 2012, Hagerty went viral after writing a review of the Olive Garden restaurant that had just opened in Grand Forks.
“I’m 86 years old and I’m retired, but I still write five columns a week for the Grand Forks Herald,” Hagerty said. “One of the columns I write is a review of our area’s restaurants. When I wrote about the Olive Garden last March, someone said the article was pathetic, and someone else wrote about how stupid it was to be writing a review about a chain restaurant.”
Many critics disliked Hagerty’s review of a chain restaurant; however, many people thought the article was sensational.
“Her story went viral,” Marsh said. “She appeared on national television programs and cable shows. Her story was told on the web, in newspapers and stations all over the country.”
Hagerty said she was shocked by the sudden nature of her national exposure.
“I had been doing this for forever, and one day in March, it just went wild,” Hagerty said. “It was a crazy thing.”
The reaction was something she wasn’t expecting.
“It was overwhelming and highly interesting, and there was a lot of commotion,” Hagerty said. “The phone rang constantly, and I had two or three television trucks in my driveway at one point. This is a wild dream. You could not imagine all of the things that happen when you go viral. I was getting a couple hundred emails a day from all over the country. I was getting letters from everyone I had ever known in my whole life.”
Since the explosion of her article, Hagerty has been on trips to national television stations around the country, and Anthony Bourdain has contacted her about writing a book of her columns.
But despite all of the attention she received, Hagerty said she tries to remain humble about the ordeal.
“I’m not seeking any publicity or trying to prolong it or do anything to capture attention,” Hagerty said.
Because Hagerty’s story went viral last spring, Marsh called this a “timely award,” though it’s not the sole reason Hagerty has been honored. The award recognizes lifetime achievement in the media, and Marsh said Hagerty fits that criteria very well.
“Neuharth credits her for filling him with the highest principles of good journalism at a very early age,” he said. “She then went on to have a very good career, which she continues to this day.”
Hagerty said she feels honored to be in the same category as other highly praised journalists.
“Actually, it’s the greatest thing that’s ever happened to me,” she said. “I feel rather humble though. I’m not Katie Couric or Walter Cronkite. I’m just me, an ordinary journalist.”
Despite deviations from past recipients’ backgrounds, Marsh believes Hagerty deserves this award just as much as past award winners.
“She is not different in terms of the high standards that she operates under, but she represents local community journalism. Most of the other recipients have been on a national stage,” Marsh said.
Deputy Editor of The Forum of Fargo-Moorhead Kirsten Stromsodt, who worked with Hagerty at the Grand Forks Herald for three years, said Hagerty possesses a special and personal connection with her readers, which is something a lot of writers do not have.
Although Hagerty is 86 years old, she certainly does not show it, Stromsodt said.
“She has the energy of someone half her age,” she said. “In all my years of knowing her, she has never missed a deadline. This is what she was built to do, and she enjoys the work so much.”
The Al Neuharth Award for Excellence in the Media will be awarded to Hagerty on Oct. 4 in Aalfs Auditorium in Slagle Hall. The doors will open at 6:15 p.m. for general seating, and the official ceremony will begin at