Political reporter Gene Lahammer was always a sure bet when it came to calling a race on Minnesota's election nights. Over 50 years, he never once called an election wrong, his daughter Mary Lahammer said. She chalked it up partially to his strong skills with numbers and analyzing data.
"He just knew the political makeup of the state," said Mary Lahammer, 49. "He understood it. He studied demographics. Just with his recall, he could tell you how many points were scored in every basketball game in my life. ... He truly had a beautiful mind."
Lahammer, 90, died Monday at his home in Minnetonka from old age, his daughter said. He spent 34 years working at the Associated Press and later part-time for the Star Tribune's editorial board.
Lahammer was born on a farm in Veblen, S.D., and grew up in poverty during the Great Depression. His earliest memory was his family selling their farmhouse in foreclosure, Mary Lahammer said.
But school was his way out and he was a fast learner. He would read the entire collection of books at his local library, and read encyclopedias and dictionaries for fun.
"Books and learning were always his solace; farm work and manual labor wasn't for him," his daughter said.
After graduating from high school at 16 and college at 18, he taught kids in every grade at a rural South Dakota schoolhouse. He later joined the military, which was another way he was able to escape poverty.
"It was a way he got fed three meals a day and was clothed head to toe," she said. "I remember, he always said he felt like he was rich when he was in the service."
One reason he felt rich was that Lahammer won a significant amount of money playing poker on the side, using his photographic memory and card-counting skills, according to his daughter.
While in the U.S. Army Security Agency, he was stationed in a bunker as a codebreaker during the Korean War. Lahammer was required to keep his job a secret and never explained it further to his family, his daughter said.
Following the military, he transitioned into journalism and developed a reputation as an elite political reporter. At one point he wanted to become a lawyer, and his knowledge of the law helped him cover the Supreme Court and other areas much more thoroughly, his daughter said.
"I've already heard from a former Supreme Court justice … saying they really valued his knowledge of the law, and that he could report on court decisions more thoroughly than just about anyone," said Mary Lahammer, a Twin Cities PBS anchor and political reporter herself.
From an early age her father would bring her into the office, and he inspired her to go into reporting. His foray into reporting started a tradition of journalists in the family, with Mary Lahammer's 20-year-old daughter now majoring in journalism.
After 34 years at the AP, Lahammer retired but came back to write freelance stories for the New York Times and served on the Star Tribune's editorial board.
Since Lahammer's death, current and former Minnesota officials have reached out, including Gov. Tim Walz and former Govs. Arne Carlson and Mark Dayton.
In a social media post, U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar described him as a "legendary reporter who is leaving behind an incredible legacy."
"Gene was dedicated to journalism, even coming out of retirement to help the AP call results on election night," Klobuchar wrote.
Dayton, in an emailed statement, complimented Lahammer for "setting the platinum standard" for political journalism.
"He was deeply knowledgeable and respectful of the political process, while understanding journalists' importance as guardians of its honesty and integrity," Dayton said.
Lahammer celebrated his 62nd anniversary with his wife, Karen, the day before he died. Along with his wife and daughter Mary, survivors include his four other children Doug, Rob, Peggy and Connie, and 10 grandchildren.
His funeral is set for 11 a.m. Friday at the Washburn-McReavy funeral chapel in Edina.