In 1978 Les Sellnow, editor of the newspaper in Brainerd, called a recent college graduate who was in his first year as the sports editor (and one-person sports department) for the Crookston Times. Les had an opening for a sports writer and invited Mike Bialka to return to his hometown for an interview.
The young scribe had a conflict. He would be playing in the state amateur baseball tournament and couldn’t make the interview. A couple of phone conversations later, Sellnow said simply, “If you want the job, it’s yours.” No interview, no hoops to jump through. So the young man’s first day on the job was the first day he walked into the newsroom of his hometown newspaper.
That young man’s last day on the job will be the first day of 2019, ending a 40-year career at the Brainerd Dispatch, the last 33 as sports editor. Mike Bialka is a real rarity: he devoted nearly his entire career to his hometown community newspaper and made a million friends along the way.
He announced his retirement plans last week. The reaction has surprised him but nobody else.
“It’s been really emotional. I’ve got a lot of people emailing and texting,” he said. “In a way you don’t know what impact you have on people. When you’re doing what you’re doing, you’re not the story. When you become the story I’m just not comfortable with that. I’m used to telling everybody else’s stories.”
Too bad. The Mike Bialka Story began when he was born in St. Cloud. He lived in Maple Lake (where his dad was a teacher) until the family moved to Brainerd when he was 10. Baseball was always his thing. He was a talented pitcher; in his senior season (1973) a new coach named Lowell Scearcy came to town. Earlier this year, Scearcy retired after 49 years of coaching baseball.
“I can’t overstate what Mike has meant to Brainerd athletics,” Scearcy said. “He will be almost impossible to replace, that’s for sure. I can’t think of one single person who would have a bad word to say about Mike.” (Bialka is pictured here with Twins great Harmon Killebrew.)
Bialka continued his baseball career at St. Cloud State, although his senior season was cut short by arm surgery (he played amateur baseball at other positions). He graduated with a degree in mass communications in 1977 and was hired in Crookston.
Work never bothered him. In high school he coached youth baseball and worked at Schaefer’s Red Owl as a grocery carryout and van driver. During college he sold fine footwear at Bonne's Shoes at Crossroads Center in St. Cloud.
But covering sports, that was his wheelhouse. Mike, 63, never tracked such things, but he estimates he has watched 4,000 sporting events. The highlights are many: Brainerd and nearby Staples winning state wrestling championships in 1982, Brainerd state baseball titles in 1995 and 2000, the 1987 and 1991 World Series and 1992 Final Four, Brainerd grads Josh Archibald (now playing in the NHL) and Joe Haeg (NFL), and Staples native Dave Joerger becoming a head coach in the NBA.
And then, of course, there are the thousands of stories he has written about kids and teams in Brainerd and surrounding towns, articles that for four decades have been carefully clipped out of the newspaper, displayed proudly on refrigerators, placed in frames, tucked into boxes filled with memories and kept as treasured family keepsakes.
“They had a unique feel up there, with the Dispatch covering Brainerd sports like it was college sports,” said Ty Eigner, who coached boys hockey in Brainerd for nine years and is now an assistant coach at Bowling Greem University. “It was a daily paper with preseason stories, Athletes of the Week, lots of neat things. Mike was outstanding. It was great for those athletes who grew up in Brainerd and little kids who wanted to be Athlete of the Week and wanted to be interviewed by Mike. There’s nobody like him.”
One of Mike’s boyhood friends and baseball teammates was Alan Wallace, whose father was the famously crusty sports editor back then. Jim Wallace would let the two kids tag along when he covered games, and the young Bialka boy thought that seemed like a pretty cool way to make a living.
Brainerd High School athletic director Charlie Campbell said he is not alone in appreciating everything Mike has done.
“I’ve heard that culture is created and perpetuated by the stories you tell,” he said. “Mike is the guy who told our stories so well. Since my first introduction to Mike, the guy has always been very professional, he told the right stories the right way. He never tried to sensationalize anything just to get clicks. He just wanted to tell the story of what our programs are about.”
Ron Stolski, the dean of Minnesota high school football coaches, has been coaching for 57 years, the last 44 at Brainerd. For most of those years, he has met with Bialka for an interview every Thursday during the season. Mike has stood on the sidelines for all those games all those years, keeping statistics.
“Mike has always been fair and honest,” Stolski said. “The thing I liked about him most is he wrote some really compelling human-interest stories. And the thing that endeared him to me was he never looked for an angle. He reported the game the way he saw the game. He wasn’t looking to create anything that wasn’t there. He’s a hardworking, honest reporter and he was always fair.”
Eigner said, “The industry has changed dramatically, the paper changed dramatically. He’s been passionate about what he did and I think he felt a loyalty to the people he worked for and the people of Brainerd. Who’s going to do it for 40 years like Mike did? Nobody.”
Mike’s wife, Judy, is an educator who retired six years ago. Their son Troy lives in Fargo.
“We just kind of thought we’d like to do some different things while we’re still able,” Mike said. “It looked like it was just the time to do it. I agonized over it, I had a hard time sleeping. Until I told people, and then that was a big relief.
“I haven’t had to give notice that I’m leaving anywhere for 40 years. And all of a sudden, it’s like OK, it’s final now. I’m just glad that part of it is over, the notice thing.”
Mike and Judy are thinking about spending time in Arizona during the winters and maybe taking some baseball spring training trips, which they did before they became parents.
His final day at the Dispatch will be Jan. 1. That’s fitting, because it will be a quiet day in the office. He’ll map out the next edition’s sports coverage, log off the computer for the final time, turn in his key, collect his stuff and close the book on a splendid journalism career that has had a positive impact on more people than Mike will ever know.
“It won’t be too busy that day,” he said. “I want to walk out the door and not have a parade, just kind of sneak away.
“You don’t realize how much it just becomes part of you. Right now it doesn’t seem like I’m retired because I’m still working. I will miss telling stories about people, telling their stories. And it’s big to be able to leave on your own terms.”
Mike was inducted into the Brainerd Warriors Hall of Fame in 2011 and the Minnesota Football Coaches Association Hall of Fame earlier this year. In 2017 he became the first newspaper professional to receive the MSHSL Outstanding Media Service Award (pictured). The award he might be most proud of receiving was the 2009 Media Award presented during the National Girls and Women in Sports Day celebration at the State Capitol.
Stolski still chuckles about Bialka’s induction into the Brainerd Hall of Fame.
“It was the shortest speech in history,” Stolski said. “Mike accepted the plaque, said, ‘Thank you very much’ and sat down. I said ‘Mike, this is your moment.’ ”
Nope. It’s never been about him. Follow John on Twitter: @MSHSLjohn