The mythical Lake Wobegon may be in central Minnesota, but everyone knows it has a lot of Anoka in it.
And in Garrison Keillor’s hometown, news of his abrupt firing Wednesday over sexual harassment charges was stirring up “very turbulent feelings,” as one resident put it.
“He was always one of those people we pointed to with pride,” said Patricia Joy, who was five years behind Keillor in high school. As word of his sudden dismissal spread, Joy said, “I started getting e-mails and texts from family members, saying, ‘Oh, no — not Garrison!’
“These were people you looked up to and respected,” added Joy, citing Keillor as well as “Today” host Matt Lauer and a growing list of powerful men felled by harassment charges. “We’re all like, who’s next?”
Across the café table, Joy’s mother, 91-year-old Earline Martin, shook her head in disgust.
“These men, they’re something else,” she said. “And what about President Trump?” she asked, referring to multiple charges of sexual harassment that the president has denied.
At Billy’s Bar & Grill, the mostly middle-aged male patrons were more understanding of Keillor’s plight. The outpouring of harassment stories from women has left them feeling as if long-held patterns of behavior are being suddenly upended.
“I’m not taking all this at face value from these gals,” said Anthony Gerster. “We’ve gotten to a point in American culture where you can’t flirt with someone. It’s gotten to the point where I’m afraid to talk to someone in the workplace.
“That’s my take, and I know a lot of people who feel the same way.”
Jack Peterson agreed.
“If he did it, he did it,” Peterson said. “But it’s a bad state of affairs when you look at some girl cross-eyed and she’s gonna say it was sexual harassment.”
Things were different when he was growing up in the 1960s and ’70s, said Tim Palmer.
“Let’s be realistic,” he said. “If you weren’t groping when you went to the Anoka Theater, you weren’t trying.”
Bill Boxwell called sexual harassment an issue “all through society,” saying people have to understand there are lines they can’t cross.
“I can see where it’s creepy at work,” he said. And he understands why Minnesota Public Radio acted so swiftly to fire Keillor.
“They know if they don’t cut these guys loose, they’ve got a problem,” he said.
Helping her daughter with a coloring book at a downtown Anoka restaurant, Karen Beck said every woman has a story — and it’s important that they be told.
“Not every guy harasses women, but there isn’t a woman who hasn’t been harassed,” she said. “And I think it’s time we stood up as a society and said, ‘Enough.’ ”
Has Beck been harassed?
“O-o-h, yes,” she said with a slow, emphatic nod.
Back at Billy’s, where the meat raffle was coming around, patron Doug Scanlon said the solution is simple: “Keep your hands to yourself,” he said.
Closer to Keillor’s St. Paul residence and businesses, opinions were similarly divided. Carol Ann Pedersen, who works near the Keillor-owned Common Good Books, said she has met the public radio star and seen his live show. She was “disappointed” to hear about the allegations against him.
Near the Fitzgerald Theater, several people said they listened to Keillor’s “Prairie Home Companion” and also attended live performances at the downtown St. Paul theater that was its home base. They were “shocked” about Keillor’s firing.
At Macalester College, where the first “Prairie Home Companion” shows originated in 1974, student Aberdeen McEvers hadn’t heard the allegations, but said the college is “proud to be across from the bookstore” and to be associated with Keillor.
“But that could change now,” McEvers said. “Judging by how people reacted to [the allegations against Sen.] Al Franken.”
June Lang, who was shopping several stores away from the bookstore, said she was “totally surprised,” but her perception of Keillor hasn’t changed.
“He’s well-loved in Minnesota and across the country, as far as I’m concerned,” Lang said. “I wish him well.”
Lang said the growing number of sexual harassment allegations has the potential to tip into a sort of feeding frenzy. “I think this has gotten to be a popular thing — women doing this,” she said. “I just can’t believe it.”
Staff writer Karen Zamora contributed to this report.
John Reinan • 612-673-7402