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WDAY: The News Leader

Published October 19, 2013, 10:00 AM

Master storyteller lets his subjects shine

ST. PAUL, Minn. (AP) — When Boyd Huppert was growing up on a dairy farm outside River Falls, Wis., he wanted to be on the radio.

By: AMY CARLSON GUSTAFSON, St. Paul Pioneer Press, Associated Press, WDAY

ST. PAUL, Minn. (AP) — When Boyd Huppert was growing up on a dairy farm outside River Falls, Wis., he wanted to be on the radio.

His younger brother Jay, who now runs the third-generation farm, remembered a young Huppert marching around with a microphone in hand.

"He wanted to be a DJ," Jay recalled. "Boyd would listen to Casey Kasem every single Saturday and count down the hits with him."

Years later, Huppert, 51, is still in broadcasting -- but instead of radio, he turned to television and became a nationally recognized storyteller, prolific award winner and in-demand teacher, the St. Paul Pioneer Press reported.

Last week, the KARE-TV reporter known for his touching stories was honored with his ninth and 10th national Edward R. Murrow awards, which recognize the country's best in broadcast journalism. His latest awards honor his writing for a compilation of three stories and the other for feature reporting, along with KARE photojournalist Jonathan Malat.

Huppert is no stranger to awards -- he's won so many that he gives some away to the people in his stories -- but snagging 10 national Murrows is a grand achievement.

"I've been around the organization for about 20 years," said Derrick Hinds, communications director at the Radio Television Digital News Association, the group presenting the Murrow Awards. "I don't know of anybody who has a record like that. Certainly nobody in recent memory."

With a last name as common as Johnson in Wisconsin's Pierce County, Huppert is the oldest of five children born to Janet and Andy. A busy kid involved in 4-H, speech, drama and the high school newspaper, Huppert was even Pierce County tractor driving champion as a teen.

"My sons found the trophy in the attic one day," Huppert said. "They thought it was cooler than any other award I had ever won. It's got a nice tractor on it."

While Huppert chose not to farm, his childhood in the country plays a big part of who he is today, said his mom Janet: "I think so strongly this is where his work ethic comes from. It's a wonderful place to raise a family."

Huppert decided to sign up for a journalism class in high school: "Probably because I couldn't get into welding," he smiled. It was around the same time he was offered a job at the local radio station WEVR. Jay says his brother wasn't a big partier; he was too busy running the board at the radio station on the weekends.

When he was 17, Huppert was showing livestock at the Pierce County Fair and while hanging out in the sheep barn with some cousins, he met his future wife, Sheri Heltne, who was playing in the Prescott, Wis., marching band.

Sheri said he looked like actor Robby Benson with hair down to his shoulders. The "party girl" quickly fell in love with the "wholesome country boy."

"He was so kind and very gentle," said Sheri, a librarian at the Minnesota State Law Library in St. Paul. "At first I thought he was like any other guy just trying to get some action, but he never eased up. He was always this great listener and so polite."

Added Sheri: "The priests at his local parish took him to dinner when he was 17 to ask if he would consider being a priest because he did have that gentleness, that kindness about him. It's not an act."

Even though he declined priesthood, his Catholic faith has remained strong over the years.

At the University of Wisconsin-River Falls, Huppert focused on a radio career, working as news director at WRFW, the college radio station. Then he had a few TV station internships including locally at KSTP-TV and WSAW-TV in Wausau, Wis., where he landed his first TV reporting job.

"I was hooked on television after that," said Huppert, who was named Distinguished Alumnus by the college earlier this year. "I loved the collaborative process in television. There was just so much energy in the newsrooms."

Michael Norman, one-time chair of the journalism department at the UW-River Falls, remembered Huppert as one of the most focused students he's ever taught.

"What you see now is how he was at 22," Norman said. "That same demeanor, very serious, but at the same time laid back. He was willing to give everyone else credit for things. He never blew his own horn."

After maintaining a long distance relationship while in college, Huppert and Sheri married soon after graduation. They have two sons -- Sam and Matt -- who are now in their early 20s. Next year, the couple will celebrate their 30th anniversary.

Huppert worked at TV stations in Omaha, Neb., and Milwaukee, Wis., before landing at KARE-TV in 1996. It's at KARE where he solidified his reputation as one of the best TV journalists in the country, whether reporting on a major snowstorm or a quirky story about a local delivery man who is joined on his route by a duck.

"I hope my reputation is that I'll treat people well and honor their stories," said the mild-mannered Huppert. "It's a privilege to tell them. A lot of the stories I do are about people who will never have another TV or newspaper story done on them. They're not people who tend to be in the limelight, but they're living their lives in extraordinary ways."

In his office in his Edina home, he bypassed his awards to show off a framed 1990 cover of Farm Journal featuring his brother Jay and sister-in-law Lisa. Only a small fraction of his awards are displayed in the room including a national Emmy he won for a 2006 story about an artist who paints portraits of fallen soldiers.

"It's tough to win one of those as a local affiliate because we don't have too many opportunities for national distribution for our stories," said Huppert, who has won nine of his 10 national Murrows and a majority of his more than 70 regional Emmys during his time at KARE. "But the 'Today Show' aired it. It's hard to do and it probably won't ever happen again for me."

Huppert said he prefers being behind the camera rather than in front of it.

"People from time to time will pay me a compliment and say, 'He stays out of the way, he lets the people in the stories tell the stories,' and I appreciate that," he said. "A lot of that has to do with the fact I've never been very comfortable on camera. I get nervous when I'm on camera, I think in a good way, but it's never where I've felt the most comfortable. I tend to stay out of the way in my stories because they're not about me, they're about the people in the stories."

Numerous stories have made an impact on KARE news director Jane Helmke during her 31 years at the station, but there are only a handful of specific lines she can recite. She has no problem recalling her favorite from Huppert that opened a 1997 story he did on the devastating Red River flood: "On the Lord's day in Granite Falls, life along the river went to hell."

"It was excellent," Helmke said. "You could see it all in that one moment."

Even after all the prestigious honors, Huppert isn't resting on his laurels. He's "extremely competitive," she said, and it's not unusual for him to be at the station until 3 a.m. making sure one of his trademark feature stories is "exactly right."

"He doesn't shy away from difficult stories," Helmke said. "He still loves to cover important breaking news. And he still works on the desk on daily stories. I think having that breadth of experience is why his work is so good."

One reason reporter Lindsey Seavert left WCCO last year for a job at KARE was for a chance to work alongside Huppert, her mentor for nearly a decade. Seavert says Huppert not only is a master storyteller, he's an equally talented teacher sharing his trade secrets with thousands in the industry. Huppert and Malat conduct video storytelling workshops all over the country. They've even traveled to New Zealand, Denmark and Norway to teach.

"His influence and his teaching have left an imprint on journalism for generations to come," she said. "If you go to one of these conferences, there are hundreds of kids lined up to meet him. Everybody knows his work."

Seavert remembered competing against him while at WCCO: "I think the general thought is, 'Oh, no, Boyd's on this story. Crap, we're going to get beat.' Also, 'I really need to step up my game now.' "

With all his accomplishments, some wonder why he's stayed in the Twin Cities. Huppert admitted he's taken a "couple flights to New York" to talk job opportunities, but believes KARE is a good fit for him.

"Success in this profession often means moving to a bigger market or to the network," he said. "I feel like I've released myself from that expectation and I'm trying to measure success in a different way. It means I'm happy, I'm satisfied, I'm challenged and I love going to work every day -- that is the greatest success."

On a recent Tuesday in Minneapolis, Huppert and Malat are busy shooting an upcoming story. As Huppert conducts the interview, he remains silent for several minutes, allowing the story to unravel naturally and asking questions when necessary. Meanwhile, he's always aware of where Malat is with his camera to stay out of the way. Crouching, sitting in the long grass, standing, moving closer, backing up -- the two of them do an unspoken dance. Even when the story hit an unexpected snag and they have to finish shooting at a later date, they seem unfazed.

"I would call them an old married couple," his boss Helmke said. "They're both masters at their art. When you have someone you're working with so closely that pushes you to be better at your craft, that's a great thing."

Malat recalled their first assignment together -- covering Minnesota Twins favorite Kirby Puckett's retirement.

"I felt like we spoke a similar language from the beginning," said Malat, who has an impressive roster of accolades rivaling Huppert's, including being named Television News Photographer of the Year twice. "It blossomed from there. I feel like running as fast as I can, even faster, when I'm working with Boyd. I feel like my best performances are often with him. We both seem to have the same passion for what we do everyday. We have similar work ethic."

What started out as an occasional feature Huppert and Malat originally pitched eight years ago, "Land of 10,000 Stories" is now a popular weekly segment often showcasing everyday folks doing extraordinary things. Shedding a tear or breaking into a smile happens regularly while watching these thoughtfully told pieces.

"Everybody has a story to tell," said Huppert, whose journalism idol is Charles Kuralt. "My favorite thing is to go out and cover a story, but then to find layers of the story that are even deeper than the story we went to cover."

And Huppert and Malat are determined to uncover those layers.

"We're really dedicated, sometimes bordering on insanity," Malat laughed. "It seems like we'll do whatever it takes to do for a story -- whether that's working extra hours, coming in early and staying late, reworking something. It's sort of a disease."

Malat predicts plenty more success in the future for his storytelling partner.

"Boyd Huppert's going to win 10 more Murrows because that's how he's wired," Malat said. "To always be striving for excellence. I don't think it's gone to his head, it's more pressure for him in a way. He wants to tell the best stories in a totally selfless way."

"At this point, his reputation has become almost a liability," said Scott Libin, former WCCO and KSTP news director who now works at Internet Broadcasting and is a regional director at RTDNA. "I can't speak for all judges, but I'll just tell you that at a certain point in judging, you kind of want somebody else to win. I say that not only as an admirer of his, but frankly as a friend. He doesn't win everything he enters, but he's got an outrageously good batting average."

Libin believes Huppert's greatest accomplishment isn't winning the awards, but how well he is serving the community. Whether he's covering floods, warning people about the dangers of towing a boat or telling us about a man fighting cancer who's fixing up an abandoned country church, Huppert's stories not only impact viewers, but have an effect on him as well.

"You can't help but take a little piece of every story you cover with you," Huppert said. "Some more than others. I'm who I am today in part because of all the wonderful people I've met doing this job."

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