Over more than 30 years of covering stories in the Northland, journalist Larry Oakes won acclaim not just for his accuracy, but also his empathy for the people about whom he wrote.
“He put himself in those stories, lived those stories,” said longtime friend and colleague Laurie Hertzel, senior editor for books at the Minneapolis Star Tribune. “He felt what people felt, and you could see it in his stories. … The facts were right, and the feelings were right, too.”
Oakes, an award-winning reporter who worked at the News Tribune for several years before spending more than 27 years at the Star Tribune with a focus on northern Minnesota, died Friday. He was 52.
Family members told the Star Tribune that Oakes committed suicide in Duluth after battling depression in recent years.
Oakes graduated from Cass Lake High School in north-central Minnesota. He later attended the University of Minnesota Duluth and the University of Minnesota in the Twin Cities. Oakes joined what was then the Duluth News-Tribune & Herald in August 1982, and spent time covering police and court stories. In 1985, at age 24, he won a prestigious Frank Premack Public Affairs Journalism Award — honoring the best in Minnesota journalism — for a series of stories he wrote about plea bargains. Oakes joined the Star Tribune later that year.
“I remember Larry Oakes when he came to the News Tribune in the early 1980s as a young, hard-charging reporter, but one who was able to make sources feel absolutely comfortable talking to him,” said News Tribune managing editor Georgia Swing. “He quickly established himself as one of our best. Even after he left to work for our big rival to the south, he maintained friendly ties with News Tribune folks and kept us on higher alert to avoid being scooped by our former colleague.”
Oakes spent more than two decades at the Minneapolis paper’s bureau in Duluth, until the bureau closed in 2009. He then spent two years as an editor at the paper, before shifting back to regional reporting. He continued to call Duluth home.
“I think he enjoyed nothing more than writing about the people and the issues of that part of the state,” said Rene Sanchez, managing editor of the Star Tribune. “Over the years we saw over and over again how gratified readers were by the kind of stories that editors didn’t just assign but that he chose to tell. Those were choices from the heart. It’s a heck of a legacy he has in the state.”
Sanchez cited northern Minnesota topics that were close to Oakes’ heart, including the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness, tribal issues, Lake Superior, “and the stories you find along Highway 61.”
Oakes won many honors over the course of his career, including for his 2004 series “The Lost Youth of Leech Lake,” for which he and a photographer lived on the Leech Lake Reservation for months to chronicle the struggles faced by its youth. Among other stories, he also covered the 2005 Red Lake shooting and the ongoing issue of synthetic drugs.
And he remained familiar to News Tribune readers, just last week appearing on the cover of the Outdoors section with a column about deer hunting in northern Minnesota with his father, brother and son, along with personal reflections of surviving a stroke in 2011.
News Tribune reporter John Myers crossed paths with Oakes many times over the past 26 years, as they often covered the same stories in the Northland. He said Oakes never lost his empathy for the people he interviewed.
“I remember the day after a horrific murder in Grand Rapids, saying goodbye to each other after a press conference at the police station, only to drive up at the exact same time to the house belonging to the family of one of the suspects. Even though we worked for different papers, it was Larry’s idea that we do our interviews together that day so the families wouldn’t be bothered twice,” Myers said. “He did his job so well, he was tenacious, but he never stopped being a good person.”
Ann Glumac, a communications consultant in Duluth, worked as a reporter at the News Tribune at the same time as Oakes. Even on the difficult cops and courts beat, Oakes had a way of connecting with his sources, Glumac said. And unlike some of her other young colleagues, Oakes didn’t bring an attitude of cynicism to the newsroom.
“He just was fun,” she said. “We had those blocks of cubicles, and what you’d see with him were those twinkly eyes peering over the cubicle. He was a wonderful, positive force in the newsroom.”
That continued to be the case at the Star Tribune, Sanchez said.
“This is a tough one for our entire newsroom,” he said. “Larry has long been one of the most well-liked people in our newsroom, widely respected, and just a guy that people got along with. So it’s a heartbreaking day.”
Oakes’ son, Mike, told the Star Tribune that his father had been taking anti-depression medicine for at least five years and had been hospitalized Wednesday after telling his children that he was having suicidal thoughts. He returned home to Duluth from the hospital Friday and made plans to go to his daughter’s house for dinner. But instead he drove to Hawk Ridge, hiked about a mile into the woods and shot himself.
“His depression got the better of him in the last week, and I don’t think he was able to handle the weight of the world or whatever he felt,” Mike Oakes told the Star Tribune. “It just became too much to bear.”
Larry Oakes is survived by his wife, Patty, and three children. Funeral services have not yet been announced.
The Minneapolis Star Tribune contributed to this report.