Opinion editor's note: Editorials represent the opinions of the Star Tribune Editorial Board, which operates independently from the newsroom.
A fish tale, according to the Britannica Dictionary, is "a story that is so strange or surprising that it seems very unlikely to be true." Which may be the natural reaction to the story reported on Monday about Connor Halsa, a 14-year-old angler from Moorhead who made quite a catch this summer on Lake of the Woods.
Fishing in 20 feet of choppy water, Halsa snagged not a walleye but a wallet that had been lost the previous year by Jim Denney, a livestock hauler from Mount Ayr, Iowa, just north of the Missouri border. In it was $2,000 of U.S. currency and a business card from a livestock owner in western Wisconsin.
The first wonderment in this true fish tale is just the odds of hooking a sunken, small wallet in a lake 70 miles long and 60 miles wide.
The second more profound marvel is what young Connor and his cousin, Brandon Klipping, did next: They separated the wet bills, dried them out on the boat's dashboard, and without hesitation went to work with Connor's aunt, Christine Klipping of Red Lake Falls, to track down the rightful owner and return the money. Money that Denney told Connor to keep as a reward for his honesty, but the Halsa family refused.
Of course, this story should not by rights fit Britannica's definition of something so strange as to seem improbable. But honesty, while always the best policy, isn't always a priority these days. In politics, to be sure, as schoolbook tales of "Honest Abe" and "I cannot tell a lie" George Washington yield to today's news narrative of former President Donald Trump's four indictments and congressional scrutiny over current President Joe Biden's business dealings.
But politics is hardly the only endeavor experiencing a crisis of confidence among Americans. Multiple professions have near- or record-low ethics ratings, according to this year's edition of the annual Gallup poll. Nurses still lead all 18 surveyed professions, with 79% of Americans rightly saying they have "very high" or "high" ethical standards. While impressive, that's down 10 percentage points from the early pandemic high, just as doctors and pharmacists, the second- and third-highest professions, are sharply off their previous peaks.
Only one other calling — teaching high school — gets more than half of Americans' approval, and the other 13 are often well below 50%, including the lowest two: Members of Congress and telemarketers, who both dial in at less than 10%. (Journalists score a bit higher at — gulp — 23%).
A less recent, but still telling, Pew Research Center poll from 2019 on "Trust and Distrust in America" suggests that "Many Americans think declining trust in the government and each other makes it harder to solve key problems."
It's unlikely that the 14-year-old fisherman was considering this constellation of data points when his integrity test emerged from the lake. It's more likely that an honest, earnest young man, well-raised by his family and community, instinctively did the right thing, and in his own way wove the social fabric just a bit tighter.
"Just about every religious tradition I'm familiar with, or every ethical system, has some sense of the golden rule," which Connor impressively acted upon, Bernard Brady, a professor of theology at the University of St. Thomas, told an editorial writer.
That's important on an individual level, but also a broader one.
"Common morality is something on a basic level that all of us share — it is individual responsibility underlying the whole social fabric." These acts are "vitally important; it's part of the threads that keep us together," Brady said, adding, "We need to hear these stories; I think we need to be inspired by them."
Which is perhaps why this fish tale hooked so many — and not just in Moorhead or Mount Ayr, but at "Inside Edition," the New York Post and elsewhere, including the Star Tribune.
"The only things you hear about anymore is crime and stuff like that," Denney told the Star Tribune's Tony Kennedy. "For someone to find something like that — which is pert-near impossible to begin with — it needs to be put out there."
And, like all good fish tales, repeated.