Readers and writers: Minnesota broadcast royalty make a memorable Mystery Night

22 July 2023

You know a program is going to be fun when people line up to have their pictures taken with the guest speakers.

Ron Handberg, left, and Don Shelby, retired WCCO-TV colleagues and friends, talk about television and writing books Monday during a sold-out Monday Mystery Night reading series at Axel’s restaurant in Mendota. (Mary Ann Grossman / Pioneer Press)

That’s what happened last week at the monthly Monday Night Mystery reading series at Axel’s Restaurant in Mendota, when WCCO alums and longtime friends Ron Handberg and Don Shelby presented a mostly light-hearted program about writing, television and the emotional price reporters pay for doing their jobs.

“I’m in the position of introducing men who need no introduction,” said host Rob Younghans, handing the mic to the two men who helped shape WCCO-TV into a winner of Peabody Awards and national Emmys.

Looking relaxed and comfortable with one another, Handberg and Shelby together represent nearly a century of work in radio and television

Shelby was at the station as a reporter and then anchor for 45 years. Handberg was a news writer and reporter for WCCO radio and moved to television in 1964. He was director of news and public affairs at the station, then vice president and general manager. They were instrumental in launching the I-Team, dedicated to investigative journalism at a time when this was uncharted territory for local television.

Handberg, author of seven novels, began their free-form conversation recalling how the associate principal at Robbinsdale junior high complimented him on a story he wrote about two soldiers going through a jungle. “I thought then I might have a future in writing,” he said, adding that he carried that energy to the University of Minnesota journalism school.

“I am grateful for guidance from Ron and Dave Moore,” Shelby said, referring to the much-respected and admired ‘CCO evening news anchor. “Dave Moore was the best reader of copy in the history of TV. I sat next to Dave and wrote stories for him to read. He’d tear them apart. One year he read a story just as I wrote it. I thought, ‘I have arrived.’  It was the best day of my life. That’s when I thought I could be a writer for ‘CCO.”

Reminiscing about their investigative coups, the men recalled an I-Team investigation involving a pedophile judge who was so prominent he could have served on the state and U.S. Supreme Courts. It was a sensitive story and Shelby admits he was torn about airing it. Handberg’s reaction: “If you’re not going to report it I will.”

The story aired, but the station took a beating, including a full-page ad signed by lawyers in the state denouncing the I-Team. One of many phone callers thought they should “rot forever in hell.”

Shelby: “I called my friend John Finnegan (Pioneer Press executive editor) and told him, ‘I think my career is over.’ He said, ‘Don’t you think if I had that story it wouldn’t be on the front page?’ ”

Thanks to the fast pace of TV journalism, Shelby “didn’t have time to weep” because he had to immediately begin work on another story. And as we know, his career not only survived but flourished.

Another time Shelby went to Handberg saying he had second thoughts about a story, that he didn’t think he could do it. Handberg told him: “It’s not your story. It’s the people’s story.”

“That’s when I realized the story was more important than me. I’d never thought of that before,” Shelby admitted. “From that day forward I was a journalist.”

Both men are book authors. Handberg’s latest novel is “On Nowhere Street: Jennie’s Journey,” fiction inspired by a newspaper story about a teen caught in the drug/sex trade in Minneapolis.

Shelby wrote “The Season Never Ends: Wins, Losses, and the Wisdom of the Court.” He has been in organized basketball as a player, coach and advocate since 1960 and his book is made up of 22 stories about pivotal games in which he played or that inspired him, and how these lessons apply to daily life.

In retirement Shelby has turned to acting. After the Monday program he was leaving for Alexandria to take the stage with another WCCO alum, Nancy Nelson, in the play “Love Letters,” first introduced at Chanhassen Dinner Theatre.

Shelby had a stroke two years ago and was unable to speak for six months. He decided when he recovered he would concentrate on learning to do a Scottish dialect, adding to the 15 he already speaks. Then he drew laughs by reciting a few sentences of the Gettysburg Address in unintelligible Scottish style.

Junghans ended the program by saying, “Tonight we heard from broadcast royalty.”

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