REGIONAL— One of northeastern Minnesota’s most outstanding journalists died peacefully at his mother’s home in International Falls on Monday evening, Sept. 26.
Tom Klein was just 58 years-old when he succumbed to a rare liver and lung disease, surrounded by his immediate family.
Klein, born Dec. 8, 1957, wanted to be a journalist from an early age and he pursued his goal with a singular passion, a quick wit, and true humanity. “He wasn’t a reporter for the paycheck,” said John Jirik, athletic director and football coach at the North Woods School, who got to know Klein well over the years. “He was in it for the people.”
While Klein’s talents as a reporter could have taken him far, he never strayed from his northern Minnesota roots. After graduating from Bemidji State University with a journalism degree in 1980, Klein began his career working long hours for small community newspapers in Nashwauk and Deer River. He soon returned to his hometown, where he took over as news editor at the Daily Journal in International Falls. While at the Journal, he led the newspaper’s coverage of the intense labor unrest over the Boise paper mill expansion in 1989, winning accolades from fellow journalists as he broke statewide stories and penned powerful editorials on the issue for months.
Klein won many awards over this career, for both reporting and editorial writing. In 1999, Klein won the Herman Roe Editorial Award, which is considered the highest editorial honor given by the Minnesota Newspaper Association. In 2003, he also shared a Frank Premack Award for Public Affairs Reporting, an honor long considered Minnesota’s version of the Pulitzer, that was presented annually by the University of Minnesota’s School of Journalism and Mass Communication.
Klein was on old school journalist, who didn’t shy away from a tough story, particularly when it came to public officials. In the early 2000s, he took a state senate candidate, who touted his commitment to children, to task for failing to pay regular child support for a daughter born out of wedlock, a devastating story that most observers believe changed the outcome of the race.
Klein began working for the Timberjay shortly after that story appeared and it proved to be the longest stint of his career, lasting 14 years until this past May when his health declined to the point that he could no longer work. While originally hired as a local editor serving Cook and Orr, Klein soon took on a much larger role at the paper, handling major regional beats like the St. Louis County School District, the Legislature, and local politics, in addition to editorial writing. “Tom was the most dedicated reporter I’ve ever met,” said Timberjay publisher Marshall Helmberger. “He cared about the communities he covered and his reporting made a real difference. Of course, I’ll miss his great sense of humor most of all. He could always get the office laughing.”
While politicians and other public officials sometimes bristled at the attention he gave to their activities, most ended up holding him in high regard. Cook Mayor Harold Johnston remembers countless encounters with Klein, who reported on the city council there for years. “I really appreciated his fairness and his ability to dig out a story,” said Johnston.
But Klein will, perhaps, be best remembered for the humanity he brought to his work. “He was the kindest person I ever met,” said Pat Minelli, who worked with Klein in the mid-1980s at the Daily Journal and now serves as editor of the Shakopee Valley News. “If I didn’t know him and you told me he was a reporter, I would have never believed it,” he said. “He was just too nice a guy.”
Lois Pajari remembers the day her business, Cook’s Dollar Barn, burned to the ground. Writing on the website of her new business, Pajari recalls Klein’s kindness as he approached his coverage of an obviously painful story. “He cared more about all of us as people losing everything than being front and center of the “big story,” Pajari wrote. “He talked to us, he was respectful and courteous and will always hold a special place in my heart.”
Jirik remembers Klein’s words of encouragement to the high school players he coached over the years. “He was constantly there for the kids,” Jirik recalls fondly. Jirik said Klein was the first media person he felt free to talk with himself. “I considered him my friend. We could sit and talk for an hour sometimes while watching games. He was one of my favorite people in the area. I really miss him.”
Klein was gregarious, but he lived alone his entire adult life, never marrying. When not reporting, he enjoyed music and movies and spending time with his parents and siblings.
Klein was preceded in death by his father Robert Klein, in 2005. He is survived by his mother, Phyllis Klein, of International Falls, and two brothers, Mark, of Lindstrom, and Tim, of International Falls, as well as sister-in-law Suzi, nephew Lucas and niece Breanna, also of Lindstrom.
Services for Klein are set for Monday, Oct. 3, at the Evangelical Covenant Church in International Falls. Visitation is set for 10 a.m., with the funeral service to follow at 11 a.m. To leave online condolences, go to ceasefuneralhome.com.