Updated: Longtime Hudson Star-Observer reporter Jon Echternacht dies
Longtime Hudson Star-Observer reporter Jon Echternacht, 68, died early Saturday morning, March 29, at his home in River Falls. He had been diagnosed with lung cancer shortly after Christmas.
Echternacht held a variety of positions during his life. He came to the Star-Observer in 1999. His regular beat was St. Croix County courts, county board and the sheriff’s department. Over the years he had also covered Hudson School Board and the North Hudson Village Board. He also did regular feature stories, photo layouts and an occasional column titled “Jon’s Jottings.”
One of favorite topics to write about were stories about veterans. Himself a veteran, he wanted to preserve the sacrifices and pay tribute to all veterans.
Publisher Steve Dzubay recalls how happy he was to hire Echternacht in 1999.
“I remember the glee I felt when Jon dropped off his resume,” Dzubay said. “He was mildly inquiring about the possibility for part-time work.”
When Dzubay saw his resume -- former AP writer, managing editor of the “Ray Nitschke’s Packer Report,” past business-owner and daily newspaper editor, his immediate response was "When can you start?"
“Jon didn't require any coaching,” Dzubay said. “He was usually teaching us. His cops and court beat can be one of the more problematic with defendants sometimes taking issue with a reporter's characterization of one alleged crime or another.
“I could count corrections we ever ran on Jon's work on one hand in 14-plus years. He rarely misinterpreted court narratives or police reports. While reporters aren't always universally popular with law enforcement or court workers, I think Jon was respected. Only last week, I passed along a get-well card from the St. Croix County Clerk of Court office.
“Behind his gruff exterior was the proverbial Renaissance man. He was as comfortable in the kitchen as in the woods.”
Dzubay went on to say “he and I were the few ‘gun nuts’ in our newspaper group. Jon preferred waterfowl or bird-hunting to deer, but when he and Jean lived near Houlton, I loved trading stories about turkey hunting or harvesting a whitetail.
“One of Jon's greatest reporting gifts was his knowledge of military culture and interest in our veterans. Whether writing about a recent Army returnee from Afghanistan, reflections by a Vietnam-era- or World War II veteran, Jon could speak the language -- interpreting the jargon and exposing poignant tidbits that brought stories to life.
“In short, he was what every community journalist should aspire to be; a premier story-teller who remained behind the curtain while drawing his subject into the spotlight.
“We'll miss him a great deal.”
Fellow reporter Randy Hanson also had high praise for Echternacht.
“Jon was a consummate newsman,” Hanson said. “He cared deeply about his profession, and was a stickler for accuracy and getting straight to the point in his reports.
“He had a heart for working people and the underdog, and wasn’t afraid to express his opinions on politics, religion, sports, literature or a host of other topics.
“Jon defied stereotypes. He was a proud Navy veteran who attended a liberal college, where he played football and studied English literature. He was an outdoorsman who liked to cook and read.
“His well-organized desk is in the neighboring cubicle. He was there most mornings when I came to work -- often with a story to tell or a point to make. I miss him more than I knew I would.”
Fellow reporter Meg Heaton also reflected on Echternacht.
“I was a little intimidated when Jon was hired to fill in for me during my leave of absence in 1999,” Heaton said. “I read how he covered my beats and it was clear he was a real newspaper man.
“Fortunately he was generous and supportive in his advice and feedback and I became a better writer because of him. That, and we shared a certain fondness for salty language –- a coping skill that nobody used better than Jon. He will be more than missed.”
Fellow reporter Margaret Ontl also talked about Echternacht’s impact.
“Anyone who worked with Jon knew he was a complex person,” Ontl said. “I used think it was like having Oscar Madison, in the neighboring office but his character was much deeper. His attention to our area veterans made him a hero to me. Many of their histories were recorded, thanks to Jon, who had a keen sense of perspective.
“My dad and Jon had a unique connection and chatted whenever the elder was in town. They both served on the same ship, in two different eras, the USS Howard W. Gilmore.
“I thoroughly enjoyed working with Jon, he brought a lot to the paper including a love of gardening, great food, sports and old fashioned tight journalistic writing. He wore his love for his wife Jeannie on his sleeve. It was clear to all of us that she was the great love of his life.”
Echternacht graduated from Brainerd, Minn., Washington High School School in 1964 where he was co-captain of the football team, He graduated from Macalester College, St. Paul, in 1968 with a degree in English; he also played on the college football team. He served in the U.S. Navy from 1968 to mid-1970. He first job came with the Associated Press (1970-72). He worked in AP bureaus in both Minneapolis and Fargo, N.D.
He worked as sports editor at the Wahpeton, N.D., Daily News (1972-73) before working as the assistant sports information director at the University of Minnesota (1974-75). During his time at the university he did graduate work in journalism, completing that in 1974.
From 1975 to 1985, Echternacht was the managing editor of the “Ray Nitschke’s Packer Report.” During his stint with the Packer’s weekly football magazine he directed a staff of eight writers and photographers. His job with the Packers publication involved traveling with the team each season and brought him to many NFL experiences including Super Bowls.
From 1985 to 1986 he was the managing editor of the Albert Lea, Minn., Tribune.
He left journalism in 1986 and he and his wife owned and operated the Lake Hubert Store near Brainerd until 1995. During that stretch, however, he still worked part time for the Brainerd Daily Dispatch sports department.
Echternacht landed in western Wisconsin in 1995 when he moved to Somerset and did free-lance writing for several newspapers in western Wisconsin, including Hudson, Somerset and New Richmond.
He later moved to Houlton and started full-time with the Star-Observer in 1999.
When not writing, Echternacht had a wide variety of interests and hobbies including jewelry-making, gardening and canning, cooking, woodworking, fishing and hunting.
Among his survivors are his wife, Jeannie; and sisters, Jane Hallas of St. Paul and Jean Ness of Minneapolis. A memorial service is being planned for later this spring.