While most Minnesotans know him as a supremely indoor person — after all, he appeared right inside their living rooms from the WCCO-TV news desk for more than three decades — Don Shelby is truly a man of the outdoors.
“I get outside every day,” the award-winning journalist said. “I just spent three days at our place on the St. Croix River, looking at the water and enjoying the quiet. I came back completely rejuvenated.”
Shelby’s connection with the outdoors goes back to his childhood in rural Indiana.
He would disappear as often as possible into any patch forest he could find near his home.
“I knew every rabbit trail and raccoon warren, and I loved just being alone and getting lost in the woods,” Shelby said. “Spending time in nature gave me ability to focus on little things, and to find peace and solitude in the sounds of nature and the wind in the treetops. Even storms gave me great peace of mind.”
Shelby came to Minnesota for a job at WCCO-TV in 1978, eventually taking over the primary anchor chair from Dave Moore, a legendary newscaster himself.
Shelby — who won three national Emmys and two Peabody awards during his career — retired in 2010.
But he seems to be busier than ever these days — acting, writing, spending time with his kids and grandkids, and advocating for a number of issues, especially environmental ones.
The next generation
Long ago, Shelby passed along his love of the natural world to his daughters.
“My dad instilled in us three girls an appreciation, respect and love for the outdoors,” said his middle daughter, Lacy Shelby.
Along with her older sister, Ashley, and younger sister, Delta, she was often on the receiving end of her dad’s grand schemes for outdoor adventure.
Lacy Shelby remembers one “epic” trip in particular that took place when the girls were in junior high.
“Dad had this harebrained idea that we would take a canoe trip to recreate a portion of the Lewis and Clark journey,” she said. “I have no idea how he talked my mom into it.”
Shelby’s girls had become accustomed to paddling on little lakes.
“But we spent the next week on the massive Missouri River,” Lacy Shelby said. “And we had so many hilarious moments with all of us sharing one tent. You get cozy in a tent in a way that you can’t back at home.”
Friends in high places
Shelby, 70, said his daughters have asked him to make a list of all the famous people he’s met and interviewed.
“I’ll be saying, ‘You know, when I was with Anwar Sadat, he told me …’ and they’ll interrupt and say: ‘Dad, you met Anwar Sadat!?”
If he ever gets around to making the list, it will be a long and illustrious one — and will include the former Egyptian president and Nobel Peace Prize winner.
Former Vice President Walter Mondale said he and Shelby became friends shortly after he moved to town.
“I admire him so much, not just for being a great newsman, but for pushing for reform and for his support of the environment,” Mondale said. “He brought so many important environmental issues forward when he was working at WCCO, and he’s still at it today. I salute him — and I thank God for people like him.”
Polar explorer and educator Will Steger came to know Shelby long before any of his notable ice-cap expeditions.
They met backstage at the convention center — at an event in which Shelby was the emcee. Backstage, Shelby overheard a couple of influential men telling inappropriate, offensive jokes.
Shelby stepped in and politely set them straight. And they stopped.
“I was so impressed by that,” Steger said. “I thought, ‘He’s a great gentleman.’”
Steger has also been impressed with the way Shelby’s tackled retirement.
“It’s really been a beginning for him in many ways, and he’s using retirement as a way of fulfilling his purpose,” Steger said. “In addition to all his outdoor actives, he sings and acts — he’s a Broadway show unto himself. It’s been a privilege to have him as a great friend.”
Doug Kelley — a trial lawyer and former assistant U.S. attorney — first met Shelby when he was prosecuting a mafia case that Shelby was covering.
After discovering their mutual interest in outdoor pursuits, he and Shelby went ice climbing with their two daughters, Erin and Lacy.
“It was a special father-daughter thing,” Kelley said. “Those were good times.”
Shelby has since accompanied Kelley and his son, Brett, on pheasant-hunting expeditions.
Kelley described Shelby as a kind and supportive friend, who was there for him when Brett was serving as an airborne U.S. Army Ranger in Afghanistan.
“People all think of him as a big, tough anchorman,” Kelley said. “But he has a soft side.”
Thanks all around
Shelby continues to be deeply grateful for the community support he enjoyed during his 32 years at WCCO-TV.
“The audience made me into the person I am,” Shelby said. “When I first started in the business, I wanted to be perceived as honest, trustworthy, credible, authoritative, knowledgeable and friendly. The truth is, I was an imperfect person — and I wasn’t those things. But, from time to time, I would get feedback from someone who had watched me, and they believed in me. I wanted to live up to their expectations.”
Shelby also mentored others in the field of journalism, including Larry Jacobs, a professor and director of the University of Minnesota Humphrey School of Public Affairs.
“Don spotted me as a new professor at the U and took me under his wing, explaining the rules and business of journalism,” Jacobs said. “He was a generous, smart and entertaining mentor. There is certainly a lot that I need to know, but whatever I’ve done in the media world, I credit Don.”
Shelby was born and raised in Royerton, Ind., population 108, outside the “big city” of Muncie. He met his wife, Barbara, when he was stationed at an Air Force base in Washington, D.C.
“I was a writer for the base newspaper, and she was the secretary in our office,” he said. “It just worked out.”
The Shelbys, who have been married for 43 years, live in Excelsior in a new-construction, 2,600-square-foot farmhouse-style home.
Built using reclaimed wood, energy-efficient technology and a self-contained storm-water management system, the home is certified at the highest levels by GreenPath, LEED for Homes and Minnesota GreenStar.
A ‘failure at retirement’
In the seven years since his final WCCO-TV broadcast, Shelby seems to have ramped up, not slowed down, his activity level.
“If retirement is meant to be putting your feet up and letting others do the work, I’m failing,” he said.
Shelby serves on the boards of Audubon Center of the North Woods; Climate Generation: A Will Steger Legacy; the Climate Science Rapid Response Team Roundtable; the Great Plains Institute, the Mississippi Park Connection, Mixed Blood Theatre and VocalEssence.
Shelby also recently headed up the capital campaign for a new Minneapolis headquarters for the Washburn Center for Children, the oldest social service agency in Minnesota.
“I had never been involved in fund-raising before, but we raised $24.5 million for the building,” Shelby said.
Shelby’s friend, Richard Louv, author of Last Child in the Woods and co-founder of the Children & Nature Network, consulted on the Washburn project to find ways to bring nature into the building.
His work extended to the outside of the building, with the creation of the Don Shelby Playground.
Shelby’s so-called retirement failure is well-known among his friends and colleagues.
“Don has handled his retirement with energy, enthusiasm and enlightenment,” said Good Age columnist Dave Nimmer, whose own career included reporter and editor posts at the Minneapolis Star and reporter and associate news director roles at WCCO-TV.
“He’s an activist in helping scientists explain the reality of climate change,” Nimmer said. “And he’s always got plans, so he’ll be busy when the devil comes calling.”
Shelby sees tremendous value in contributing to society in one’s later years.
“I think the accumulated wisdom of people our age is still necessary and important,” Shelby said. “Our young people are gathering information at lightning speed, but they lack what can be gained from lived experience. True wisdom comes when you’ve lived through things, not just read about them.”
Shelby’s also spending part of his retirement sharing his love of the outdoors with his grandchildren, including fishing trips with all four.
“They love it,” said Shelby, who recently took his grandson on his very first overnight canoe trip on the St. Croix.
Lacy Shelby said it’s been a true joy to see her father teach — but not preach — about the outdoors and nature.
“It’s like he’s sharing a secret in a loving way, allowing them to discover for themselves and ask questions,” she said. “He’s instilling values that are slipping through the grasp of many people these days.”
Lacy Shelby described her father’s connection with nature as near spiritual, versus purely recreational.
“He has had the gift of friendships with members of the Red Lake Band of Anishinaabe, and that’s only strengthened and broadened his understanding of nature and our role as humans on the planet,” she said. “Everything I understand about nature, and about our responsibility to care for the Earth, was passed on to me from my dad.”
Shelby takes the idea of Mother Earth very seriously.
“If you denigrate or harm her, I will defend her, just the way a loyal son would,” he said, expressing deep concern about current attitudes toward environmental science.
“I want to stop the politics of anti-science. And I want to do that — not through bombs and disruptive behavior, but through inescapable truth and fact — through objective reality,” he said. “We have a proud history of Republicans and Democrats working to preserve our Earth and nature. But now we’re faced with an administration that is dead set upon casting aside all scientific fact for commercial gain.”
Bohemian in waiting
Asked about what his future “dream life” might look like, Shelby said: “I’d like to become a bohemian. I wouldn’t smoke any dope, because I have a ‘mellow’ that drugs can’t improve upon. It would be fun to be someone who didn’t have anything to do but think deep thoughts and tell others about his ideas.”
That is, of course, “pretty much the opposite of what I’m doing now,” Shelby said, adding: “My bohemian period will be right before death. I’ll put on a beret and dark glasses and become a beat poet. When you see that, you’ll know I’ve gotten word that the end is near.”
Julie Kendrick is a contributing writer for many local and national publications. She lives in Minneapolis and blogs at kendrickworks.blogspot.com.
Keeping up with Shelby
Don Shelby has been active since his 2010 retirement, including serving as catcher during a farewell event at the Metrodome in 2013 (above) working behind the plate at Target Field during the Legends Game in 2014, featuring Kent Hrbek and Terry Steinbach (bottom) and channeling the spirit of author Mark Twain in a touring one-man theatrical show (below) in which Shelby donned full makeup, including a fake nose.
Find theatrical performances, upcoming appearances, blog posts and more at donshelby.com.