Ar­chi­tect-turned-trucker shared tal­ent for sto­ry­telling

Russ Ringsak ‘Prairie Home’ truck driver, writer

Star Tribune - - REMEMBERING - By JENNA ROSS • jenna.ross@star­tri­bune.com

Gar­ri­son Keillor in­tro­duced Russ Ringsak to au­di­ences as “our truck driver.” Ringsak called Keillor “G.K.”

For more than 30 years, Ringsak hauled gear for “A Prairie Home Com­pan­ion” from stage to stage, coast to coast. On oc­ca­sion, he per­formed on those same stages.

Ringsak re­counted the busted tires and breath­tak­ing vis­tas of his long hauls in let­ters he and Keillor read on the air. The ar­chi­tect-turned-trucker was a mu­si­cian, as well, who played blues gui­tar and sang on the classic pub­lic ra­dio pro­gram. Ringsak died Oct. 3 at his home in Still­wa­ter. He was 81. “He was one of the finest and most gen­er­ous sto­ry­tellers I ever knew,” Keillor said in a state­ment, “talk­ing about his youth in Grafton, N.D., where his dad was county at­tor­ney and where, as Russ said, ev­ery­one knew each other’s se­crets.”

Ringsak first stud­ied English at North Dakota State Univer­sity but aban­doned the ma­jor “be­cause he fig­ured he couldn’t make a liv­ing,” said his wife, Denise Remick. So in 1962, he grad­u­ated with an ar­chi­tec­ture de­gree. While work­ing for the firm Ham­mel, Green and Abra­ham­son, he acted as lead ar­chi­tect re­design­ing The World The­ater in St. Paul, later re­named the Fitzger­ald The­ater, which would be­come the fa­bled home base of “Prairie Home.”

At a draft­ing board, Ringsak would have to get up ev­ery 20 min­utes for cof­fee, he told Over­drive magazine in 2005. “It was kind of just a per­ma­nent antsi­ness that fi­nally got to me.”

Keillor and Ringsak met in 1971, play­ing on the same soft­ball team. “He had a se­cret yearn­ing to be a truck driver and en­joy the life of the open road,” Keillor wrote.

In 1991, when “Prairie Home” started do­ing more than half its broad­casts on the road, Ringsak be­came its full-time truck driver, Keillor said, “lis­ten­ing to blues and coun­try mu­sic al­most non­stop ... prac­tic­ing gui­tar in his sleeper cab.” He “en­ter­tained the en­ter­tain­ers,” Remick said, host­ing the cast, crew and mu­si­cians, in his ho­tel room.

“He would hold court,” said Joe New­berry, who has played gui­tar and banjo on the show. “I mean, I loved do­ing the show, but al­most as much fun was go­ing and hang­ing out with ev­ery­body in Ringsak’s room af­ter the show.”

Ringsak de­lighted in telling long, tongue-twist­ing jokes that were “in­cred­i­bly funny,” Remick said. “He would leave peo­ple drop-jawed when he’d get done with them. “There’s joke-tell­ers, and then there’s Russ.” To­gether, the cou­ple wrote “Min­nesota Cu­riosi­ties,” a col­lec­tion of sto­ries and char­ac­ters — the world’s largest cod­fish, in Madi­son, Minn., for ex­am­ple, or a two-story out­house in Belle Plaine. Ringsak turned his life on the road into a 2004 book of tales ti­tled “Semi True.”

At a “Prairie Home” show in 2003, with sparse prose and good hu­mor, Ringsak de­scribed the drive from Wash­ing­ton, D.C., to Los An­ge­les: “We car­ried the ‘Prairie Home’ house and mix­ing boards and ra­dio gear and Gary Raynor’s bass and Rich Dworsky’s Ham­mond or­gan up and over old moun­tains and through farm­land and forests. Across rivers of ev­ery size. Across lakes and swamp­land. Through new moun­tains. Be­sides fresh vol­canic ash and painted cliffs and across three deserts. All in less than three days.

“It is a re­mark­able coun­try, with past and fu­ture both so close that even a cou­ple of old freight haulers can see them.” Softly, he closed with, “thank you.”

Ringsak down­played his “Prairie Home” per­for­mances. “My ac­tual con­tri­bu­tion is pretty slim,” Ringsak once told the St. Croix Val­ley Area Low­down. But au­di­ences loved him. In 2016, at the leg­endary Ry­man Au­di­to­rium in Nashville, Ringsak was an un­billed per­former along­side coun­try mu­sic su­per­star Brad Pais­ley. Then 80 years old, he bought a new pair of cow­boy boots for the gig. “I couldn’t go out on the Ry­man stage in san­dals,” he ex­plained. “This is the mother church.”

The show was a “love fest,” Remick said. Per­form­ing “Six Days on the Road,” Ringsak’s voice cracked as he changed the fi­nal lyrics, swap­ping out “six days” for his ten­ure. “Thirty years on the road,” he sang, “and now I’m gonna make it home tonight.”

The crowd leapt to its feet.

Ringsak’s sur­vivors also in­clude sis­ters Suellen, Ruth and Randy; brother Mick; chil­dren Lisa Ni­chol­son, Hans and Karen; and eight grand­chil­dren. Funeral ser­vices will be held at 3 p.m. Sun­day, at St. Paul’s United Church of Christ.

LEILA NAVIDI • leila.navidi@star­tri­bune.com

Russ Ringsak, long­time truck driver for “A Prairie Home Com­pan­ion,” played his fi­nal gig in Nashville in May 2016.

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