Framing Brainerd’s history: Steve Kohls recounts 47 years of news photography – Brainerd Dispatch

BRAINERD — If a picture is worth a thousand words, then Steve Kohls has written millions.

From the fight to fluoridate Brainerd’s water to brutal fires that ravaged downtown businesses, celebrity appearances in the lakes area, monstrous weather events and all the graduations, championships and celebrations in between.

If it happened around Brainerd, Kohls probably saw it.

And he took a ton of pictures.

Many of those pictures — from a career spanning nearly five decades — captivated audience members Wednesday, Feb. 8, at the latest forum from the Gordon Rosenmeier Center for State and Local Government at Central Lakes College. Brainerd Dispatch photographer Kohls was the guest speaker. He took the stage with former Dispatch Associate Editor Mike O’Rourke, who along with Kohls, is a member of the Rosenmeier board.

It was, according to Rosenmeier Executive Director Steve Wenzel, the center’s highest attended forum, with an estimated attendance of around 240 people. A “triple homerun success,” Wenzel said.

Kohls and O’Rourke delved into the stories behind some of Kohls’ most impressive photos and videos during his 47-year career at the Dispatch — stories colorful enough to rival the front-page photos on display.

People talk with Steve Kohls after the Rosenmeier Forum.

Steve Kohls talks with Ingrid Anderson after the Rosenmeier Forum on Wednesday, February 8, 2023, in the Chalberg Theatre at Central Lakes College in Brainerd.

Kelly Humphrey / Brainerd Dispatch

“It’s a real challenge, every day, to come up with a stunning visual image for 47 years,” O’Rourke said. “You might have come up empty a couple times, but I could probably count that on one hand.”

Kohls was at City Hall in 1980, when emotions ran high over fluoridated water.

“Brainerd was known statewide, and probably even nationally, for their fluoride fight. … It didn’t matter what side you were on; it was strange. It was a real wild fight,” Kohls said. “It had a lot of implications for photography, for transmitting images to the Associated Press. There was a lot of interest in the story.”

In 1983, after a plane crashed onto a snowy runway and killed a Fosston woman and seriously injured another passenger, Kohls was there to cover the breaking news. It was another one of those times before photos could be directly transmitted to another news outlet.

“What we’d do is we’d take the film, process it and make a print. Or we’d just send the film by bus,” Kohls said.

“It’s changed a little bit since the Stone Age,” O’Rourke joked in response.

Kohls saw another tragedy in 1984 after two 11-car coal trains hit head on near Motley, killing three crewmen and injuring two others. He and the news crew asked for a chopper to come in to make aerial photographs possible.

“We needed the helicopter to show the devastation,” O’Rourke said.

Kohls was up close and personal with those affected by the closing of Pine Center School in the 1980s. His photo captured the emotional reaction of the school’s longtime cook.

“You have to talk about and show people’s reactions — not necessarily from the (School) Board but the people who were affected, and those people will touch your heart,” Kohls said.

He trekked to the White House in 1986 when Brainerd teacher Guy Doud won National Teacher of the year.

Steve Kohls, left, talks about his photography as Mike O'Rourke moderates during the Rosenmeier Forum on Wednesday, February 8, 2023, in the Chalberg Theatre at Central Lakes College in Brainerd.

Steve Kohls talks about an old photo of his during the Rosenmeier Forum Wednesday, Feb. 8, in the Chalberg Theatre at Central Lakes College. Kohls was joined by former Brainerd Dispatch Associate Editor Mike O’Rourke.

Kelly Humphrey / Brainerd Dispatch

Aside from focusing on a photo op with President Ronald Reagan, Kohls said he happened to notice one thing about the Oval Office.

“The Norman Rockwells on the wall are originals,” he said, as the audience laughed.

Kohls was in downtown Brainerd in 1987 and 1991 to capture blazing fires. He spoke of the level of trust he built up with firefighters over the years, and how that trust was instrumental in being able to get the right shot.

“You don’t ever break that trust because if you do, it’s not good. And if they don’t like you, they hit you with the hose,” he joked.

The firefighters at that time also told him whoever ended up with their picture in the Dispatch had to buy doughnuts for the rest of the crew. If the photo was printed in another paper, they had to buy pizza.

Kohls photographed actor and auto racer Paul Newman at Brainerd International Raceway and singer-songwriter Merle Haggard at WE Fest. He met Baxter woman Sue Huff, who received the first heart transplant in Minnesota in 1978. That same year, he saw Roger Caldwell escorted from the old county jail after his conviction for attempted murder in the Glensheen mansion case. The trial was moved from Duluth to Brainerd because of its notoriety.

He felt the unimaginable loss of the Dalquist family when 21-year-old Erika Dalquist was murdered in 2002 after leaving a nightclub in downtown Brainerd.

Steve Kohls talks with former co-worker Spenser Bickett after the Rosenmeier Forum.

Steve Kohls talks with former co-worker Spenser Bickett after the Rosenmeier Forum on Wednesday, February 8, 2023, in the Chalberg Theatre at Central Lakes College in Brainerd.

Kelly Humphrey / Brainerd Dispatch

“That’s the kind of stuff that your heart just bleeds with the pain that they’re in,” he said. “And then they ask you to come to their house; they ask you to come to the funeral. They ask you because they trust you’re not going to do anything rude or mean. It’s very humbling to get to that point. So that’s what touches you; that’s what makes you weak-kneed.”

It’s only natural for a job to change over 47 years. The first time that happened on a large scale for Kohls was in the 1990s, when he switched from film to digital photography. He described it as a “conversion experience” when someone proved to him the high quality possibilities of digital.

The second time was around 2014, when the idea of always taking video along with his images was really hammered into his head. Kohls caught the “perp walk” of convicted Little Falls murderer Byron Smith, who shot and killed two teenagers who broke into his house on Thanksgiving Day in 2012.

Upon returning to the office with his photos, the response from an editor was: “Nice shot. Where’s the video?”

“Editors are never happy,” O’Rourke joked.

“So from that day forward,” Kohls said, “I’ve dedicated my life to doing — I think — the best videos I can possibly do, with good sound, good angles, good editing.”

His video work has since been recognized statewide with various awards from the Minnesota Newspaper Association. It helps, he said, to have good editors.

And to have found a community that appreciates his work doesn’t hurt either. Wednesday’s massive turnout and standing ovation, according to former CLC President Sally Ihne, showed the effect Kohls has had on the community over the years.

And if you ask O’Rourke, “it’s like it’s not an official Brainerd event if Steve isn’t there documenting it.”

But Brainerd residents shouldn’t worry. That coverage will continue.

“This is not a retirement party,” Kohls stressed at the end of the presentation. He might be working part time now, but he’s still working.

And if he’s not in the office, he’s probably out looking for a Page 1 photo.

“My buddy Fitz always called me and he’d say, ‘What are you doing?’ I said, ‘I’m out looking for Page 1,” Kohls said. “… Every time he called me, ‘I’m out looking for Page 1.’ I think I’m going to put it on my cemetery stone.”

THERESA BOURKE may be reached at [email protected] or 218-855-5860. Follow her on Twitter at

Kenneth Proto

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