Writer, activist, historian and keeper-of-the-culture are only a few of the words which describe Veda Ponikvar and the deep influence she has had on the fabric of the Minnesota Iron Range and the entire state. At 28 she became the youngest and the first female newspaper publisher in the nation. Nicknamed the "Iron Lady", Veda is an adventurous pioneer newspaperwoman who never forgot her love of country and her deep roots in Chisholm's Mesabi Iron Range.
From 1946 until her retirement in 1995 at age 76, Veda was the intelligent and passionate voice at the helm of the Chisholm Free Press--writing and speaking out on important topics ranging from education to economics to social issues. Political leaders such as Hubert Humphrey, John Blatnik, Rudy Perpich, Walter Mondale and Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals Judge Gerald Heaney looked to her as a reliable and important leader and indicator of Iron Range opinion.
Through the years she has focused her high energy and able mind in support of landmark issues such as the Taconite Amendment, the Boundary Waters Canoe Area (BWCA), and Voyageurs National Park. She championed the creation of Iron World U.S.A., the Museum of Mining and the Iron Man Memorial. She celebrated the values and the rich ethnic diversity which characterize the Iron Range.
The daughter of Slovenian immigrants, Veda Frances Ponikvar was born on May 26, 1919, and grew up during the depression. Her father was an underground ore miner. She was one of five children. In school she developed an interest in history and news writing and earned excellent grades. "My father could not read much English," she said, "but he knew an A from an F. Immigrant parents had a tremendous respect for the school."
Veda earned a scholarship to Drake University and worked to pay her room and board. She graduated in 1942 with a degree in journalism, and returned briefly to Chisholm. Inspired by her own brother and the large number of World War II enlistees from the Iron Range, she soon joined the U.S. Navy WAVES.
Because of her strong background in languages (Yugoslavian dialects at home, and French and German in college), she was placed in specialized language school and in the Office of Naval Intelligence in Washington D.C.--decoding and sending messages. She was discharged from the service on December 31, 1946 having earned the rank of Lieutenant Commander.
At age 28, Veda Ponikvar returned to Chisholm and founded the Chisholm Free Press where she worked as writer, editor, publisher and Northeastern Minnesota opinion leader for nearly 50 years.
At age 88, the "Iron Lady" has "retired" into a life of full-time community service and activism, serving on numerous boards and committees and as a civilian aid to the Secretary of the Army for Minnesota. She says, "I want to leave this earth knowing I did some good in every possible way I could."
~Susan Latto, Duluth, MN
Newsprint in her blood
She was in fifth grade when she decided she wanted to run a newspaper, and her commitment never wavered. Born in Chisholm, on Minnesota's Iron Range, in 1919, Veda Ponikvar studied journalism at Drake University; after graduation in 1942, she enlisted in the U.S. Navy WAVES. Trained as a linguist, Ponikvar spent three years in Washington, D.C., where she interpreted information on Eastern Europe and Yugoslavia for the Office of Naval Intelligence. She was discharged in 1946 as a lieutenant commander.
Ponikvar returned to Chisholm, where she started her own weekly newspaper, the Free Press. A decade later, she bought the town's Tribune Press, and until 1996 she published both, writing more than 4,000 editorials and covering all the town's news stories, big and small. Never an impartial observer of the day's events, Ponikvar used her newspapers to prod politicians and to help shape public policies. She was a player in her region's landmark events over the decades, from the 1964 Taconite Amendment to the 1978 signing of the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Act to the creation of Chisholm's Ironworld, a living history museum that showcases the heritage of northern Minnesota.
"Publishers like Veda felt it was a legitimate function to be a leader of the community," said Bob Shaw, once head of the Minnesota Newspaper Association. Looking back over her career as she prepared for retirement in 1996, Ponikvar summed up the philosophy that informed her fifty years in the newspaper business: "I realized a newspaper was a powerful force-for good or bad," she said. "I made up my mind to be positive, but I'd be honest. I'd do my homework and get my facts straight."
In 1965, Veda Ponikvar wrote an obituary for Dr. Archibald Graham, Chisholm's longtime community physician, who, as "Moonlight" Graham, was introduced to the world through the novel Shoeless Joe and later the movie Field of Dreams (in which Ponikvar herself had a cameo). She wrote, "As the community grew, Doc became an integral part of the population. There were good years and lean ones. There were times when children could not afford eyeglasses, or milk, or clothing because of the economic upheavals, strikes, and depressions. Yet no child was ever denied these essentials, because in the background, there was a benevolent, understanding Doctor Graham. Without a word, without any fanfare or publicity, the glasses or the milk, or the ticket to the ball game found their way into the child's pocket."
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