Garrison Keillor has been saying goodbye as long as I have been listening to him. I think I first heard him in the summer of 1986. I was a seminarian, and went out to preach one weekend at one church in a multi-church district in western Pennsylvania. The district pastor was a friend and classmate, and I stayed at his house. His wife pastored in a neighboring town. That night the three of us were in separate rooms, putting the final touches on our sermons. In the background the radio played, and it shifted from music to a commercial, but that commercial was unlike anything I had heard. The narrator wandered around the block before settling in to shop at Bertha’s Kitty Boutique, or maybe it was the Chatterbox Cafe. Maybe he ordered a mink kitten collar with built in homing device, or maybe he ordered a slice of Beboparebop Rhubarb Pie. And I found myself asking, “What in the world is that?” “That,” said my friend, “is ‘A Prairie Home Companion.'”
I was hooked. And I tuned in faithfully every Saturday night. Did I mention I was a Lutheran at the time, attending the Lutheran Theological Seminary at Gettysburg? And his constant references to things Lutheran had me in stitches as I did homework, or finished a sermon, or just relaxed in our small seminary apartment.
Just when I was a true believer, he said he was quitting and moving to Denmark. For the final weeks of the show he teamed up with The Disney Channel, so that you could not only listen on Public Radio, but could watch as well. I remember in particular Bobby Mgferrin’s one man virtuoso performance of “The Wizard of Oz,” and it was only on The Disney Channel that I could see him swat at an imaginary tail as he, as The Cowardly Lion in the grab of a guard, marched into the Witch’s Castle, the audience (and those at home) joining him in the rhythmic chant, “Wo we oh, buh doooo, dum.”
And then came the final performance June 13, 1987. He ended the long running story of Buster the Show Dog. He told a quiet tale of a rainy day in Lake Wobegon, his home town. The Kamehameha Schools Concert Glee Club and Chet Atkins and Jean Redpath sang. The highlight was a star-spangled tribute in honor of Flag Day, with Vern Sutton singing the original lyrics to Sousa’s, “Stars and Stripes Forever,” with Philip Brunelle on the theater organ, and Tom Keith filling the air with fireworks.
But the most poignant, and prophetic, piece of the evening was his “Songs of Parting,” or, “Overture in Three Songs by Handel.” Tunes of Handel were pilfered to tell the comic tale of Minnesotans slowly saying goodbye after a long evening visit. Prophetic, I say, because Keillor’s parting has been as long and drawn out as the partings of that song. He protested throughout the show. He begged to be invited back into our homes. He went to Denmark for three years, but came back, and he got back onto radio, this time under the title of “The American Radio Company of the Air.” He did that a while, but he eventually returned to the title and format of his magnum opus, “A Prairie Home Companion.”
It’s been a long goodbye, but this time he means it. A replacement will be on board in the fall. He’s touring the country with farewell concerts (I won’t make the one in Galveston this weekend, unfortunately). And then he’ll be gone. He promises.