He was Mr. Austin; Former mayor John O’Rourke wore many hats – all with humor, caring

Published 8:16 am Tuesday, October 23, 2018

John O’Rourke knew, better than anyone, the strength of a smile.

And he employed that smile more often than not – and people were always the better for it, friends say.

O’Rourke – Austin’s former mayor, radio and TV announcer, teacher and friend to many – died at the age of 84 last Thursday at St. Marks Living in Austin.

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Praise from friends and former colleagues has been plentiful as word spread of his death, and all conversations included a common phrase – as former City Council member and Mayor Bonnie Rietz said, “He loved Austin.”

Mayor John O’Rourke discusses his feelings about a plan during a meeting in the Austin City Council chambers in 1988. O’Rourke took over the job just following the Hormel Strike, in 1987. Photo courtesy of the O’Rourke family.

“He was Austin’s best ambassador,” agreed Eric Shoars, who was a student of O’Rourke’s and eventually his replacement as instructor of a broadcasting program at Riverland Community College. “What a life he had.”

It was a life of many pursuits. O’Rourke, a St. Paul native and son of a teacher, came to Austin in 1961, working in sports and news broadcasting for KAAL-TV and KAUS Radio.

His voice, personality and easy humor was tapped to cover everything from sporting events for the station, to serving as emcee for events such as the Miss Minnesota Pageant and the Muscular Dystrophy Association Telethon for KAAL-TV.

O’Rourke was later asked by Riverland Community College educators to head up a broadcasting program – a position he loved, retiring in 1995 after 22 years.

During that time, he was elected mayor, a post he held for 10 years, from 1987 to 1997. It was not an easy time, noted Rietz, who served on the City Council for eight years with O’Rourke.

“The Hormel strike had just ended, and it was a tough situation,” as tempers remained hot.

But that is also where O’Rourke shone, she said.

John O’Rourke and Beth Bednar, circa 1977. The pair co-hosted the annual Muscular Dystrophy Telethon for nearly 20 years at KAAL-TV. Bednar said O’Rourke was a “genial and good-hearted man.” Photo courtesy of Beth Bednar.

“He was an excellent mayor,” she said. “He did a very good job of listening to people, but he also kept a meeting going forward. He was likeable, and had a great sense of humor – and he was fair.”

Former City Council member Jeanne Poppe – today a state representative from District 27B – agreed that O’Rourke’s leadership following the strike was critical in helping the community heal.

“He could bring sides together by listening, being fair and showing how he loved the community,” she said. “He clearly loved Austin … he wanted others to know that Austin was a great place to live, work and raise a family,” she said.

Beth Bednar, former KAAL anchor who co-hosted the Muscular Dystrophy Association Telethon with O’Rourke for almost 20 years, could not have had a better mentor, she said.

“I was just a rookie and he kind of took me under his wing” in hosting the telethon.

“I was so glad to have worked with him,” she added. “I had a lot of respect for him.”

O’Rourke often played Santa during Austin’s Christmas celebrations when he was mayor. He and his wife, Joan, are seen here with their granddaughter, Sarah Schoen. Photo courtesy of the O’Rourke family

But more impressive, she said, were comments she heard from Riverland students over the years, who had O’Rourke as their broadcasting instructor.

“I was always struck by how inspired they said they felt, how much he meant to them,” said Bednar.

Shoars also praised his former broadcasting instructor and mentor.

“He was not only an engaging personality, he cared about people,” he said. “And he loved Austin and loved broadcasting. John was part of Austin’s DNA.”

O’Rourke’s widow, Joan, an Austin native, met John after she had returned to her hometown following the death of her first husband. She was drawn to the broadcaster’s caring personality.

“I just thought he was a good guy,” she said. “He was always a nice person.”

She recalled that his expertise and easy-going nature prompted the college to seek him out as an instructor, and fellow residents to ask him him to run for mayor. He didn’t really seek the post, she said.

“He never had any advertising or signs,” she said, except for a small sign that she created, and placed in the back window of their car.

A fervent Twins fan, O’Rourke was especially happy to be able to toss a pitch at a Twins game in 1993. At right is shortstop Pat Meares. Photo courtesy of the O’Rourke family

Their son, Stefan, remembers O’Rourke as being a stern parent, “but a fair one,” he said. “And he really, really, loved Austin. He had chances to go to bigger markets,” recalling a trip to Biloxi, Mississippi, when O’Rourke  interviewed for another broadcasdting job.

But O’Rourke wanted to stay in Austin, agreed his daughter, Erin Schoen. She added one proof of that affection for his community came in his always wearing “a hat with ‘Spam’ on it everywhere he went.”

And, it wasn’t unusual for O’Rourke, no matter where he was traveling, to run into someone who knew him, “even in Colorado and Australia,” said Schoen.

“It seemed like everyone knew him,” she said.

His later years were spent traveling and enjoying his family –  especially his grandchildren — and all manner of sports, said Stefan.

“He loved the Twins,” he said, and one of his father’s great memories was throwing a pitch at a Twins game in 1993.

Special honors came to him in 2007, when he was inducted into Austin High’s Athletic Hall of Fame; and in 2015, when he was inducted into the Minnesota Broadcasting Hall of Fame.

“And, at the end, he was calling numbers at bingo at St. Marks,” Schoen said with a grin. “He loved it. He never stopped broadcasting – and he enjoyed every minute of it.”