For the past 14 years, our Cook-Orr Editor Tom Klein has been an integral part of the Timberjay’s editorial staff. His official title, while limited to Cook and Orr, didn’t express the breadth of his role in helping to make the Timberjay what it is today. Given his talents as a writer, his intelligence, and his boundless enthusiasm for covering the news, we broadened his role at the paper soon after we hired him back in 2002.
He took over other important regional reporting beats, including covering the Legislature, the St. Louis County School District, and political races and issues. He also wrote many of the Timberjay’s editorials over the years.
Readers don’t always pay attention to bylines, so subscribers to our Tower-Soudan and Ely editions may not have recognized Tom, but much of the quality reporting they’ve come to expect from the Timberjay over the years, came from the well-worn keys of his laptop computer.
Tom, I am very sorry to say, will not be returning to work. As many folks in the Cook and Orr area are well aware, Tom has been suffering from deteriorating health in recent years, as a result of a genetic liver disease. More recently, he had developed difficulty breathing and that is what forced him into the hospital in late April. He spent more than three weeks at St. Mary’s in Duluth, where doctors eventually diagnosed him with end-stage liver and lung disease. Earlier this week, he returned to his hometown of International Falls, where he will be receiving hospice care at his mother’s residence. He is only 58, and far too young to be at the end-stage of anything.
Tom always wanted to be a journalist and he poured himself into his profession like no other reporter I’ve ever met. We used to kid him that he didn’t have a life, just work, and it has certainly been true throughout his career. In the early days of his life as a journalist, he worked almost around the clock, sleeping many nights on the floor of tiny newspaper offices in various small towns in northern Minnesota. He went on to serve as news editor at the Daily Journal in the Falls for 12 years, where he led the paper’s coverage of the incredible labor unrest over the Boise paper mill expansion in 1989, winning accolades from his fellow journalists as he broke statewide stories and penned powerful editorials on the issue for months. Ten years later, in 1999, Tom won the Herman Roe Editorial Award, which is considered the highest editorial honor given by the Minnesota Newspaper Association.
Tom came to the Timberjay three years later and I quickly realized we had not only hired an outstanding reporter, but someone who shared my vision for what a community newspaper should be. Tom is an old school journalist who worked tirelessly to report the news, regardless of whose toes he might be stepping on.
Tom and I worked closely together on many important issues and stories and he never shied away from a controversy, even as he invariably endeavored to be accurate and fair. He’s a little guy in physical stature, but he stands tall when it comes to his ethics and courage. I learned a tremendous amount from him over the years and hold him in the highest regard.
For more than a decade, my Monday mornings began with a phone call to Tom, who worked from his home office in Cook. While I might have spent the weekend working in my vegetable garden or woodshop, canoeing, or exploring another remote corner of the Lost Lake Swamp (in other words, trying not to think about work), Tom had been busy tracking the news and usually had three or four stories he was already working on.
Later in the week, we’d talk again about the week’s editorial. He invariably had strong topics and was ready and able to write a good one. Many of our readers have assumed that I‘ve always written our editorials, but over the past decade, Tom probably wrote the majority.
It’s been difficult for all of us here, and for many of Tom’s fans in Cook and Orr, to watch the steady decline of his health in recent years. Because his liver disease has made it difficult for Tom to keep down food, he has been slowly disappearing before our eyes. Lately, he’s been reduced nearly to skin and bones.
Despite the discomfort of his illness, Tom remained committed to doing the job he loved, until he simply couldn’t do it any longer. After returning from covering an event over the weekend of April 25, he found he was struggling to breathe more than usual. He visited the clinic in Cook the next day and was immediately admitted to the hospital, with a blood oxygen level so low that doctors were surprised he could even speak coherently. He was soon taken to St. Mary’s, in Duluth, where, over the course of the next couple weeks, doctors finally arrived at their sad diagnosis. With supplemental oxygen, Tom can sit up, but even walking a short distance is now an exhausting experience. Doctors say there is nothing more they can do but make him comfortable
We’re now looking for a replacement for Tom, but we know it will never be the same around here without him. Tom, little guy that he was, bought his shoes from the kids’ rack. But his will, nonetheless, be very, very big shoes to fill.