2008 Communicator of Achievement Merrie Sue Holtan

Merrie Sue Holtan was recognized as NDPC’s 2008 Communicator of Achievement at the annual conference held April 25-26 in Grand Forks.

The Communicator of Achievement award honors its recipients for accomplishments in the communications field, service to the community and contributions to NDPC and NFPW. Holtan, along with Communicators of Achievement from others states will be honored at the NFPW conference in September in Idaho.

After serving as the high school newspaper feature editor and weekly “Tattler” gossip columnist, Merrie Sue Holtan went on to be a feature writer for the American University “Eagle” newspaper in Washington, D.C. For two years in D.C., she worked for Senator Walter Mondale and his wife Joan as a part-time nanny while the senator ran Hubert Humphrey’s presidential nomination campaign.

Holtan then returned to Minnesota and graduated from the University of Minnesota with a degree in speech communication and English education. Becoming a waitress at Lutsen Ski Resort in Northern Minnesota and a church youth worker, she traveled up and down the north shore of Lake Superior converting taverns (with bricks and mortar) and building coffee houses for Lutheran youth. She honed her writing skills by creating church newsletters and editing several church cookbooks. She learned how to cut stencils, use clip art, and still misses the alluring scent of ditto machines. She said she would never marry a pastor, but did, and ended up in St. Paul, Minn. (seminary), Guadalajara, Mex. (seminary internship), Makoti, Minot and Fargo, ND, and Perham, Minnesota. 

While in Minot, the CEO of Verendrye Electric Cooperative persuaded her to be the Verendrye newsletter editor. For five years, this opened a large can of feature writing opportunities with the statewide Rural Electric Cooperative magazine, Minot Greeter magazine, Area Market Review, the Lutheran Standard, Scope, a Lutheran women’s magazine, and public relations writing for Camp Metigoshe and the Norsk Hostfest, a Scandinavian festival.

In 1984, Holtan and her family moved to Fargo where she became a member of Media Club (now Fargo-Moorhead Professional Communicators), North Dakota Press Women (now North Dakota Professional Communicators) and National Federation of Press Women. She has been president of FMPC, has organized the state convention, been a state and local workshop presenter and conference planner and was a state NDPC area director. 

Holtan began teaching writing and public speaking at Minnesota State University Moorhead and Concordia College in 1986 while operating a part-time public relations writing business. She learned the breadth of PR/media writing — advertising, corporate histories, newsletters, fundraising materials, news releases, Web writing, photography, news conferences, interviewing, grant writing and writing for broadcast and film. For two years, she worked part time as communications coordinator for the F-M Family YMCA, where she published an NFPW award-winning cookbook, “Y Winners — Cookbook of Champions.” She also served in roles as feature writer and editor of Area Woman magazine 1984 to 2006. 

It is always her mission to find and tell the “little stories gone missing,” and this was fulfilled, she believes, with Area Woman by moving women’s stories from the back pages into the spotlight. Currently, Holtan serves as managing editor of a new publication OPEN, a lifestyle magazine, which seeks out voices and images gone missing in the community, including the gifts of diverse and minority populations. She also continues to freelance for newspapers such as the Forum of Fargo Moorhead and magazines such as The Lutheran and Lake and Home Magazine.

Her interviews have included a man who lived alone in a steel grain storage bin, a family who lived in an apartment inside their sheep barn, sled dog racers (never interview with dogs present), turkey ranchers, reindeer ranchers (never interview with rutting reindeer present), a woman cake decorator who switched careers to become a police officer, a woman elementary school principal who had triplets (never interview with triplets present), the first lady of North Dakota, a woman who survived a Rapid City, S.D., flash flood by holding onto a fencepost for three hours, families with disabled and dying children, and in general, people who often tell their entire life drama, from tragedy to triumph, without ever saying “off the record.”

It has been a privilege for Holtan to interview fascinating, ordinary people whose tales weave into hers making one colorful quilt, enriching her own life with a variety of patterns and textures. She takes this phrase seriously — “Everyone has a story. If only someone would listen.”

Holtan received a Master of Science degree in speech communication from North Dakota State University, and in 2004, she completed a Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing from MSUM. Her thesis, “Power and Stride, The Nancy Burggraf Story,” will be published by Finney Press, Minneapolis, and the hour-long documentary of Nancy’s life will be re-released in DVD format to accompany the book.

Nancy Burggraf, Roseau, Minn., was the first woman nominated to the United States Hockey Hall of Fame. In five decades, she touched the lives of more than 40,000 players (from preschoolers to professionals) through her power skating camps and clinics. Burggraf died from ALS in 1999, and the documentary/biography tracks her journey through a “man’s world” of hockey and through terminal illness. Holtan has also produced three short documentaries with student teams. 

She continues to teach public speaking and intercultural communication at MSUM, and in the past taught interviewing, journalism, humanities, media writing, public relations, sports communication and communication teaching methods at Concordia College where she also advised the student newspaper for two years. From 1998-2000, she did corporate training for Great Plains/Microsoft in intercultural communication and has done professional communication/writing/speaking workshops for many groups. 

The Burggraf documentary team earned a screening at the Fargo Film Festival and the Grand Forks Film Festival in 2003 and was awarded the Ruth Landfeld Award for portraying women of compassion, conviction and courage. In 2008, OPEN magazine was presented with the Martin Luther King Human Relations Award. Holtan has achieved several NDPC and NFPW awards over the past years in a variety of categories. 

In the community, Holtan has been an officer in church and church women’s groups, organized the Church World Service Hunger Walk, and worked in Nicaragua on an international Habitat for Humanity Team. She has lead five student/adult study trips to Mexico and in 2008 will lead a team to El Paso/Juarez to study immigration issues. She continues to teach baton twirling at the YMCA and has trained two national champions. 

Merrie Sue and her husband, Rev. Phil Holtan, have three grown children, Elise, Mark (wife Haley), and Johanna.

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