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November 7, 2004

NPR star Keillor tells of home life on a prairie

Tears of laughter rolled down audience members' cheeks as National Public Radio (NPR) superstar Garrison Keillor related humorous stories on childhood and provided insights on the election results at Rockefeller Memorial Chapel Wednesday at 8 p.m. The event celebrated the opening of the new University of Chicago Comer Children's Hospital.

Following University President Don Randel's warm introduction, the famed author, host, and wry wit of A Prairie Home Companion, started by commenting on election results.

"I am a Democrat—it's no secret. I am a museum-quality Democrat," Keillor said. "Last night I spent my time crouched in a fetal position, rolling around and moaning in the dark."

Not one to shy away from speaking his mind, Keillor proposed a solution to what he deemed a fundamental problem with U.S. elections. "I'm trying to organize support for a constitutional amendment to deny voting rights to born-again Christians," Keillor smirked. "I feel if your citizenship is in Heaven—like a born again Christian's is—you should give up your citizenship. Sorry, but this is my new cause. If born again Christians are allowed to vote in this country, then why not Canadians?"

Gary Comer, who donated $21 million to the building of the $130 million state-of-the-art pediatric facility, is founder of the clothing company Land's End, which sponsors Keillor's show A Prarie Home Companion. The Hospital invited Keillor to speak upon remembering the connection he had with Comer.

A Prarie Home Companion illustrates the past of a fictitious little town, and is heard by four million listeners every week on over 550 public radio stations.

Keillor often traveled to Chicago as a young man from St. Paul, Minnesota in search of excitement. He remarked on two special qualities of the new children's hospital: that it is located in Chicago, and that it is named after Comer—who, according to Keillor, was passionately interested in the climate's effects on the polar ice cap. "At first I assumed this was a hospital for children who had suffered from abrupt climate change—which is to say, winter."

Keillor also shared testing experiences he had with his daughter, who is now almost seven, and noted that he and his wife had bought "350 books" on childcare when she was born. He sang a song that was originally used as a lullaby to put her to sleep when she was a toddler: "Only you, only for you, I hold out my hand, only for you. That's why I'm here, that's what I do. Only for you, only for you."

Elaborating on the idea that parents hold out their hands only for their children, he told a story of his daughter's first time eating calamari with pesto sauce at a restaurant. "She was one-and-a-half, just a little girl, but she loved the calamari and the sauce. She swallowed it, smiled, then got an odd look on her face, and bent forward," he said. "Nothing your child does disgusts you. I caught this entire green flood, put it in a bowl, and pushed it aside for the waiter to take away."

He illustrated the same theme with another anecdote. While cooking one day, he decided he had to change his daughter's diaper. At one point, "she got up, and I realized she wasn't quite done yet," he said. "Because of pure reflex and also because of the newly waxed kitchen floor, I skidded across the floor and caught both of them with my two hands. She turned and laughed, and I told her,' I would only do this for you." All the things that come out of this hospital will be in great demand," Keillor said, going back to his discussion of the value of a children's hospital at an institution like the University.

He then turned back to the election. "People voted for all sorts of things they don't know they're getting," he said. "They voted for freedom to worship, which is sort of like buying a plane ticket to London so you can eat a pack of salted peanuts. Even after they get what they wished for—like the two or three justices it may take to overturn Roe v. Wade. If you forbid a doctor to perform an abortion for a young woman working at McDonald's who has no health insurance, you have set the motions for an American tragedy."

At one point, Keillor conducted the entire chapel audience as it sang an a capella rendition of "We Shall Overcome" in perfect harmony. He expressed his "hope for the best—for more Gary Comers to come along."

Then Teen Advisory Committee (TAC) to the children's hospital presented him with a white lab coat, which he put on immediately and did not take off for the rest of the evening. One of the TAC members referred to him as the "Doctor of Humor." Keillor said he felt "natural" in it.

The legendary radio host, after giving signatures and schmoozing with the audience post-speech, said the University is "sort of like a forbidden city. A Camelot. A place of myth."

"The University of Chicago is actually a distant legend for me," he said. "It's one of places I could never get in."

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