Oakes committed suicide, his family said Saturday.
A graceful writer with a dogged work ethic and deep empathy for the people he wrote about, Oakes was comfortable covering high-profile court cases, labor battles at paper mills and natural disasters, but also could weave an evocative tale about hiking the Kekekabic Trail. He wrote sweeping stories about life on the Iron Range and the people who lived, worked and played in Minnesota’s woods, lakes, hunting blinds, Indian reservations and towns. Most recently he was a statewide reporter working out of the Minneapolis newsroom.
“No one painted a better mural of northern Minnesota with his reporting and writing,” said Rene Sanchez, the Star Tribune’s managing editor. “His skills and values as a journalist, and his generous, self-effacing spirit as a person, will be deeply missed in our newsroom.”
Among Oakes’ best-known projects were a prize-winning 2004 series called “The Lost Youth of Leech Lake” and “The New Life Sentence,” a 2008 series that examined Minnesota’s controversial practice of keeping sex offenders behind bars indefinitely after finishing their prison sentences. Last year, a federal judge ordered the state to make changes to that policy.
Recent articles on his family’s tradition of deer hunting and a Bemidji grocer who turned ownership of his store over to employees displayed Oakes’ talent for offering insights into the complex emotions behind everyday activities.
“He also could take issues apart and put them together so they made sense for people,” said Howard Sinker, his editor at the Star Tribune from 1995 to 2008. “A lot of journalists can write about people, but his range was so great.”
Oakes’ son, Mike, of Duluth said 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 from the hospital Friday and made plans to go to his daughter’s house for dinner. Instead he drove to Hawk Ridge, on the northeast edge of Duluth, 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,” said Mike Oakes, a journalist at KDAL in Duluth. “It just became too much to bear.”
Oakes grew up in Cass Lake, just east of Bemidji, graduated from high school in 1978 and attended the University of Minnesota Duluth and the University of Minnesota. He was hired by the Duluth News Tribune in 1982. Shortly after winning the prestigious Frank Premack Public Affairs Journalism Award for a series on plea bargains in the court system, he was hired by the Star Tribune in 1985. He worked in the St. Paul bureau, manned the Duluth bureau for 21 years and edited Minneapolis coverage for two years before returning in 2010 to his first love: reporting.
Navigating a community’s landscape in the wake of disaster was one of his specialties, because he was sincere and devoted to the truth, said Chris Ison, who hired Oakes at the Minnesota Daily, worked with him at the News Tribune and Star Tribune, and now teaches journalism at the University of Minnesota.
“It was Larry who taught me that sometimes it helps people to talk, even to reporters, after a tragedy,” Ison said. “He was such a sincere guy that you couldn’t help but trust him.”
He was also an idealist and regularly pushed for the bigger story. The idea for “The Lost Youth of Leech Lake” came to Oakes when he covered the murder of a blind man by teenagers in his hometown of Cass Lake.
The community’s young people were unraveling violently, and Oakes turned his full attention to the story. He and photographer Jerry Holt lived on the edge of town for nearly six months and delivered a haunting portrait of the town’s problems that ran in the paper over the course of three days.
“It was a really powerful series,” Ison said. “He saw his work as a way to help people understand things in the right way, and I think that came through in his personality.”
Oakes is survived by his wife, Patty, and their daughter, Hilary, of Duluth; Mike Oakes and Amy Mertz, of Duluth, his children with his former wife Sherry Hildebrand, of Hibbing; and his parents, Larry and Carol Oakes, of Bemidji. Funeral services were pending.
Adam Belz • 612-673-4405