The Diva of talk

Too loud, too opinionated, too brash. Few thought Katherine Lanpher could revive Minnesota Public Radio's sagging Midmorning. WRONG!

Though Lanpher says she doesn't consciously think about her voice when she's on the air anymore, she certainly did when she came to MPR. In fact, she worked with local voice coach Shirley Venard to learn how to better modulate her pitch for radio conversations. "Women tend to go into upper registers," Lanpher notes. "My register is pretty broad. I can go high or I can go low. They were trying to get me to stay low so as not to alienate listeners with my voice. You want to keep your voice in a register that doesn't distract people from the content of the show.

"As long as they let me laugh," she concludes, "I'm fine."

 

Daniel Corrigan

 

By about 2:00 p.m. every day, Lanpher takes her stacks of research and leaves the MPR building, driving an old white Volvo sedan back to her house. At home, in good weather, Lanpher will attend to her reading on the porch. She'll sit in a wicker chair with a pen and a stack of Post-its that she uses to make notes in her books--writing in the books themselves is a sacrilege, she explains.

Lanpher's 1914 home, looming and gray, is perched on a little rise back from the quiet street. Inside, the wood tones of the floors and furniture create an almost gloomy atmosphere in the living room, complete with a grand piano in the foyer. Though she doesn't play--"It's the world's most expensive card-holder," she quips--she has it tuned for parties, so friends can perform. Paintings of greenery and flowers adorn the walls--a friend's artwork. Lanpher herself once took a botanical drawing class, only to discover she had no talent for it.

The heart of the house is the kitchen, warmed with shelves of European cookbooks, ceramic pitchers bearing French phrases, a framed rooster made from seeds and kernels--Lanpher's own elementary-school rendition of crop art. The personality of the kitchen seems to trail out the back door, into a lush garden filled with tomatoes, herbs, flowers, and, in one corner, a rustic model of the Eiffel Tower made from sticks. The skeleton is bare; Lanpher can't seem to get plants to climb along it.

Lanpher bought the house in 1996 with her then-husband, Vincent Gracieux, an artistic director for the Theatre de la Jeune Lune. The two divorced about a year ago (Lanpher makes it clear that she'd rather not talk about that publicly), but the home is still clearly central to Lanpher's identity.

The front porch is the essence of the restored house. A vase holds graceful stems of gladiolus. Stacks of newspapers--she gets the St. Paul Pioneer Press, the Star Tribune, and the New York Times--occupy a large table by the front door. On the weekend she sits here and watches the neighborhood live and breathe--the gardening at the house next door, the garage sale across the street, the mail carrier delivering junk mail. A steady stream of blond-haired cherubs comes to the door, seeking cookies from Lanpher, who, thankfully, has recently stocked up. At night she and friends sit out here, sipping a glass of wine, talking.

"It's like I live in Mayberry," she says. "This is why I haven't moved from this neighborhood. This keeps me alive."

Lanpher is a rabid fan of her adopted hometown. Though she's not a St. Paul native, she might as well be, having moved here 18 years ago. The first person in her family to go to college, Lanpher attended Northwestern University and then earned a master's degree in American cultural history at the University of Chicago. Then she took a reporting job at the Pioneer Press.

She is a child of the heartland; born May 27, 1959, she grew up in Moline, Illinois. Her parents still live there, and Lanpher calls them once a week. And, not surprisingly, she comes from a family of yakkers, from her father's sense of humor to her mother's sly wit. Her relatives, she says fondly, "had great laughs; big, open-mouthed... When they thought something was funny, you knew it."

It's in that spirit that Lanpher laughs now as she says her life is remarkably boring. Her friends say the Midmorning job has changed Lanpher's lifestyle. "It did turn her from a night owl to an early bird," Tillotson says. Lanpher tries to be in bed by 11:00 p.m.; if she's entertaining, she sets a kitchen timer on the porch to remind her when the evening should be over. A typical weekend involves trips to the farmers' markets in both St. Paul and Minneapolis, perhaps a block party with her neighbors. Lanpher likes to play cards, cook, garden in the summer, cross-country ski in the winter. She rarely watches TV (her only set is ancient and she chooses not to invest in cable) unless Ventura is on the late-night talk-show circuit, in which case she tunes in to hear what he says in case it comes up on her show.

Regrets are few in Lanpher's life, though it certainly hasn't turned out the way she imagined. At 41, she'd expected to be married with children, still working at the newspaper. Instead, she's working on accomplishing goals she'd always had in the back of her mind. She'd like to write essays and fiction, and this fall she's taking a fiction-writing seminar at the University of Minnesota. "I think there are times in our lives when we want to tell stories, and I happen to be in one of those times," she explains. "I've weathered major career change. I've weathered a divorce. I've weathered turning 40. At some point, you look in the mirror and it's put up or shut up."

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