After graduating from Biwabik High School in 1965, I got a job at the Mesabi Daily News, on recommendation from Roy and Kathryn Coombe, owners of the Biwabik Times, where I had an after-school job proofreading and typing news items.
I would work after weekday classes at Virginia Junior College and on weekends at the old MDN plant on Virginia’s Second Avenue. Such an adventure to come to the Queen City and be earning a paycheck for my work assignments - typing obituaries and wedding stories, gathering news items over the phone, proofreading copy and getting to know the staff. And Clarence Ivonen was a special favorite.
Such a gentle soul was Mr. Ivonen. He spoke calmly and was friendly and helpful to a shy 18-year-old girl with dreams of becoming a newspaper writer. Over the years I’ve kept in touch with Clarence and his lovely wife Eila through activities at the Kaleva Hall or when Clarence and Eila would perform with the Vihurit dancers. Clarence, born in Butte, Montana, and raised in Ely, was very much steeped in Finnish culture, and Eila was born in Finland.
Clarence Ivonen died October 8, 2021, at age 99. The last few years he had been at St. Michael’s, now Waterview Pines, and Eila and daughter and son-in-law Kristina “Tia” and Brian Smith had visited faithfully.
Twenty years after my MDN job in the ‘60s, I returned to work full-time in 1984, having been hired by the late L.R. Asbach, and I was pleased to learn that Clarence was still on staff at the “new” plant, where the rural electric offices had been. Foremost for Managing Editor Ivonen was staying on-task. There were stories to be written, meetings to attend and newsroom calls to answer. Friday afternoon, he would joke, was the time people began calling with complaints. But in true Clarence fashion, he would take the calls with good humor, never a cross word in response to the caller.
I was sad when Mr. Ivonen would retire the same year of my joining the staff. What a grand party General Manager L.R. Asbach had in Clarence’s honor, and as used to be written in old-time accounts of social gatherings, “a good time was had by all.”
Bill Hetland, MDN editor at the time, wrote of Clarence on his retirement, “He is a combination of Finnish industriousness and tenacity, wrapped in gentlemanly elegance... The newspaper can always count on him. He’s punctual — always here at 7 a.m. He’s dependable — if there’s a crushing deadline, a news release that has to be typed, a special edition or daily paper that has to go to press, it gets done... Clarence has become a resident historian and one-man library... Clarence would look just as fitting in a formal tux, seated at the head of a table decorated with gold candelabra, as he would in front of a typewriter.”
On a recent visit to the Ivonen home on Virginia’s Northside, Eila and Tia displayed the same graciousness as Clarence. We had coffee in Finland-made cups and Finnish pulla with butter and Eila’s homemade jam of apples from a tree in the Ivonens’ yard. They showed an album of photos they’d done for Clarence’s 80th birthday. And Eila showed her notes of Clarence’s favorite sayings: “You made my day” and “1,000 million thanks” and “I’ll have some of both,” when offered a choice of desserts... and “I had a good life.”
And in true newspaper style, signing off at the end of a story with -30-. You did indeed have a good life.