Poet, storyteller, humorist and popular radio show host Garrison Keillor spoke Sunday of his 11th-grade love, Margaret, the smartest girl in school, whom he wrote a sonnet for.
Margaret smelled of exotic French cologne and made Keillor become Luciano Pavarotti while singing in the school choir staring at the back of Margaret’s head.
“Boys sang in the choir because it was the closest you could sit next to girls and not be thought weird,” said Keillor, who wore a suit with red tennis shoes and red socks to match his red tie.
“In the summertime, when the girls wore sleeveless blouses, you don’t even want me to start talking about that.”
Keillor brought his descriptive, sometimes embellished stories of growing up in fictional Lake Wobegon, Minn., to Mesa Sunday, where he spoke in front of about 450 fans in the Dobson High School auditorium.
The crowd laughed and applauded as Keillor sat in a chair on stage, reciting sonnets, retelling his never-ending childhood stories and singing during the hourlong talk.
He told of the cold, wintry days of Lake Wobegon, where children kept warm “by the exertion of carrying heavy clothes.”
As he walked out his door, he said he had to dodge icicles that could fall and split him “like a filet.”
“The snow was lashing at my face. That’s why my complexion is pockmarked,” Keillor said, adding that sometimes instead of the school bus, a sled pulled by horses picked the children up for school.
Keillor also spoke humorously about his most recent health issues. He was originally planned to speak at Changing Hands Bookstore in Tempe in early October but had to cancel after he suffered a stroke that luckily caused little damage, Keillor told the audience.
Keillor said he drove himself to the hospital after he felt funny and started slurring his words during his regular massage therapist appointment.
“I jumped up naked, put on my clothes and drove to the ER,” said Keillor, 67, who said a blood clot had entered his brain. “I had an MRI, and if you’ve never been claustrophobic, this is your chance.”
He later said he waited in line at the hospital, behind people with “minor” problems like skin irritations, so he could tell the nurse, “I’m having a stroke.”
After Keillor promptly rescheduled his Phoenix talk, Changing Hands had to move the event to a larger venue because of high ticket sales, said co-owner Gayle Shanks. The independent, community bookstore can seat about 300 people, with an extra 50 or so standing, she said.
The Close Enough String Band started off the 3 p.m. event by playing folk music. The local six-member band also entertained the crowd after Keillor spoke as audience members waited in line to meet Keillor and have him sign a book.
Keillor is promoting two new books: “Pilgrims: A Wobegon Romance,” and “A Christmas Blizzard.”
He is best known for his popular weekly, old-style radio show, “A Prairie Home Companion,” which airs on National Public Radio locally on KJZZ (91.5 FM) at 5 p.m. Saturdays and rebroadcast at 10 a.m. Sundays.
Keillor also gives a literary biography from a daily author’s birthday, then reads a poem, on his daily, five-minute morning show, “A Writer’s Almanac,” on KBAQ (89.5 FM).
Ron Schneider of Gilbert, who brought his wife and 13-year-old daughter to listen to Keillor, said he has been a fan for about 10 years.
“He’s the last of the great storytellers, no doubt about it,” said Schneider, 59, a co-owner of an awning company. “I grew up in the Midwest as a Lutheran, and he’s right on the money.”
Lois Enochs, a nonfiction author and businesswoman from Phoenix, is a longtime fan who said she also identifies with Keillor’s stories. While getting her book signed, Keillor told her he’s a writer, not a storyteller.
“He has an exceptional talent of expression and timing that gives infinite added value to the words themselves,” said Enochs, 62. “He was 100 percent true to the image that we all have from listening to him.”