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Woodworking. Pottery. Beekeeping. Organic gardening.

Few viewers who watched Don Shelby on the news had any idea of the hobbies that occupied him when he was away from the set.

"I have a rampant curiosity. An insatiable drive to know more. I can't not tend to it," said Shelby, who anchored the news at WCCO for 32 years. "It's a gun at my head, placed there by myself."

Shelby is also a collector of first-edition books and is a self-taught scholar of basketball, the Arctic and the historic exploration of the Mississippi River, to name a few of the subjects in which he's immersed himself.

As a student of the blues, he's fronted a blues band. As an admirer of Mark Twain, he applies his own stage makeup and dons a white suit for a one-man show channeling the 19th-century humorist.

"My hobbies taught me to think critically and fed my creativity," Shelby said.

His varied skills and knowledge left many colleagues wondering where he found time to pursue so many interests while holding down a demanding job and raising a family.

Since retiring 11 years ago, he's at them full time.

"There's a kinetic part of my ceaseless determination to try things. Had there been doctors around who knew what ADD was when I was younger, I likely would have been diagnosed with that," he said.

But Shelby is the rare Renaissance man. In recent decades, few people have cultivated hobbies with his vigor.

The American Time Use Survey, conducted by the Bureau of Labor Statistics, confirms that hours spent with hobbies declined over the past half-century as Americans worked ever longer weeks and screens gobbled up more free time. Its recent report finds that 55% of Americans' leisure time is spent watching television, whether live, recorded or streaming.

"This is where we see that people are more sedentary," said Sarah Flood, director of U.S. Survey Projects at the U's Minnesota Population Center. "Public health issues like the obesity epidemic and chronic cardiovascular disease are tied up in the ways we spend time."

Research on how we filled our altered schedules during the year of lockdown is still being gathered. But there's no doubt that as commutes, sports and restaurant dinners came to an abrupt halt in 2020, Americans found new ways to be engaged, even generating hobby fads like making sourdough bread, pedaling through Peloton sessions and putting together puzzles.

"Big changes in behavior and leisure activities don't happen in short time periods unless there is a massive event, like the pandemic," said Flood.

Another such massive event was the Great Depression. There are many parallels between the COVID-19 shutdown and the long economic slump of the 1930s.

Our grandparents and great-grandparents took up hobbies as money became more dear, finding frugal fun through gardening, bird-watching, making music and playing cards and board games. Cities and schools sponsored hobby clubs. Americans even copied President Franklin Roosevelt's favorite hobby, stamp collecting.

A similar hobby surge happened in 2020. A survey by Lending Tree found that 60% of respondents had embraced a new hobby (or two) as the pandemic dragged on. The national poll noted the three most popular activities were reading, baking or cooking and gardening, with meditation ranked fourth.

Don Shelby stood outside his workshop, located in a 160 year-old barn outside his daughter’s home.
Don Shelby stood outside his workshop, located in a 160 year-old barn outside his daughter’s home.

Aaron Lavinsky, Star Tribune

Finding a hobby

Not sure how to explore a field or an activity you're curious about? Check out your local community education catalog or website, a service that's part of all of Minnesota's 336 school districts.

These adult enrichment courses are fee-based but affordable, often held during evening hours in schools or community centers. Participants can sign up to learn a sport — pickleball is wildly popular — or can try new cooking and gardening techniques or explore arts and crafts. There are classes on stargazing, art appreciation and learning a new language.

"We stress lifelong learning. A lot of people get interested in our classes starting at age 45 to 50. They have more time and want to keep their minds engaged," said Michelle Glynn, enrichment and marketing coordinator for Bloomington Community Education.

While many community education classes in the past year had to cancel or shift online, schedules are gearing back up and Glynn said programs are "expecting a wave" of eager new students.

Glynn herself recently took a class devoted to crafting glass mosaics.

"There were 10 of us, on two successive Thursdays, and it was fun to be with others doing something in common. There was lots of laughter," she said. "I had no skill going in, but my project turned out really good."

Experts also suggest looking back for clues to identify a hobby sure to satisfy. What did you do as a child for the pure enjoyment of it, when you had plenty of time and no expectation that you should turn your play into a means of making money, being productive or improving yourself?

As the 2020 shelter-in-place orders were issued, Laurie Wilson Spencer of Edina returned to needlework.

While the retired human resources director "learned how to stitch a straight seam" in junior-high home economics, she hadn't sewn much since. The demand for masks by first responders pulled her back to her long-abandoned skill.

"I have one friend who works at a nursing home and another whose daughter is an ER doctor and they said, 'We'll take whatever you can make,' " said Spencer. "I'd sit and play my tunes and enjoy my beautiful fabric. It was good therapy."

Before the need eased, Spencer made and donated a thousand colorful masks.

She also picked up her crochet hook.

"In school, I wasn't much of a painter in art class, so my teacher taught me to crochet. It came right back to me when I started again and I really went to town. I've crocheted every day for more than a year," she said.

Spencer has now turned out more than two dozen afghans, given as gifts and to nonprofits.

"It sounds boring now that I say it, staying home and crocheting, but this hobby filled my soul in ways I never expected, and I think people like getting what I make," she said. "I'm sticking with it."

Hobbies for health

Spending time with a hobby can provide more than pleasure and a sense of accomplishment.

On a webpage with tips for maintaining mental health and well-being during the pandemic, the Mayo Clinic recommends staying busy, citing the enjoyment of a hobby as a healthy coping strategy.

Trying a different skill or activity enhances memory and keeps the brain running efficiently. A study by the University of Texas at Dallas found older adults who tackle challenging mental activities boost their cognitive functioning. And researchers at the Harvard Medical School discovered the onset of memory loss is delayed in older people with a lifetime of higher levels of intellectual stimulation.

"Science has lengthened the number of years that people are functionally independent; they may have a medical issue or two but that doesn't pose a significant intrusion in their ability to live vibrant, robust lives," said Dr. James Pacala, a geriatrician at the University of Minnesota.

"An aspect to successful aging we recognize is the importance of social interactions, physical activity and engagement with the community. There's no longer an expectation that older people are supposed to slow down."

In it for good

In 2004, Don Shelby suffered two debilitating strokes that threatened not only his career but every aspect of his life.

"I could not keep anything in my head," he said. "I said, 'I can sit here and completely lose my mind and my memory or pack my brain full of material and work it like a muscle.' "

Poetry became his self-prescribed therapy. Shelby memorized classics from Poe and Shakespeare, then went deep with Robert Frost, committing 60 of his poems to memory.

"Four years later, a CT scan showed the part of my cerebellum that had been killed off had sent off brand-new neural networks," he said.

Now a grandfather of four, Shelby is conscious of his years, not because of his health but because he's 73. That's how old his mentor, the legendary WCCO anchor Dave Moore, was at the time of his death.

"I need to pick and choose how I spend my time. I feel the urgency to make a difference, to bend the arc," he said.

Today Shelby's passion is sharing both his knowledge and his grave concern about the environment. Ever the reporter, he's studied climate science for years and can't stop spreading what he's learned. His expertise earned him an invitation to Oslo for a Nobel Prize Forum on the topic in 2018. Today he speaks and writes on the subject and interviews international experts on his science-dense Earth Intelligence podcast.

His environmental activism has also turned him into a modern version of Johnny Appleseed. His latest hobby is starting oaks, maples, chestnuts and pines from seed. When they're sufficiently mature, he tucks the seedlings in his backpack and plants them in spots far and wide.

"Here's a confession," said Shelby. "In the past, once I had gotten good at something, my interest faded. I would wake up one morning and say, I've accomplished that and I'm ready to move on," he said.

"It's different with this sustainability work. That won't happen. It can't. I'm in it until I'm out."

Kevyn Burger is a Minneapolis-based writer and broadcaster.