First published in 1987 and later turned into a musical out of the Plymouth Playhouse, “How to Talk Minnesotan: A Visitor’s Guide” expanded upon Mohr’s writings for Garrison Keillor’s weekly radio variety show. The book was considered an essential look at what makes Minnesotans Minnesotan, detailing the “Minnesota goodbye,” the art of waving, the intricacies of hotdish and the difference between “not too bad a deal” and “a heckuva deal.”
“Anyone moves to Minnesota, you give them a copy of his book,” said Marcy Olson, who in the 1980s took Mohr’s popular class as a freshman at Southwest Minnesota State University in Marshall, then known as Southwest State University, and became a lifelong friend.
Mohr was a Minnesota outsider who became an insider.
Plain-spoken, gentle and kind, he told of Minnesotans’ quirks with a loving eye. He was born in Des Moines, spent some years in San Jose, Calif., then as a teen returned to a farm in Ferguson, Iowa, where he lived with his parents and four younger siblings. He transferred to Abilene Christian University in Texas to be near the woman who’d become his wife.
“We didn’t have any negative years in our 59-year-three-month marriage,” said his widow, Jody Mohr. He got his master’s degree from the University of Arkansas before studying for his doctorate at the University of Iowa. He had a knack for language, a keen eye and an even keener wit.
Mohr became part of an impressive cohort of professors in the English department at Southwest Minnesota State University in Marshall. In 1970, Mohr and two other faculty members joined the English department: Stephen Dunn, who would later win a Pulitzer Prize for poetry, and Philip Dacey, an accomplished poet. That trio, along with Bill Holm, a poet and frequent guest on “A Prairie Home Companion,” and Leo Dangel, an author of six poetry collections, garnered national attention for writing about rural life.