19th Annual Minnesota Autism Conference: Garrison Keillor Unforgettable

April 30, 2014


I say often that if you get the chance to volunteer you should do it. I say that because I’ve never had a volunteer experience I regret. In fact, most of my volunteer experiences have led to moments in my life I will never forget.

The 19th Annual Minnesota Autism Conference began Wednesday, April 30, 2014 at the DoubleTree by Hilton Hotel in St. Louis Park, Minnesota. Garrison Keillor, of the Minnesota Public Radio Show A Prairie Home Companion, was the keynote speaker.

At 1:33 p.m. that day, after washing dishes and completing a couple loads of laundry and taking a sip of coffee while I looked out the window in front of my desk reminiscing about memories of my father and the birds I could spot outside, I saw a notification that I had a message. Moving my finger across the mouse pad, I opened it. It read: Hi Heidi! I have always admired your photography prowess, and I have a question/request for you: we have our autism conference starting tonight and our volunteer photographer can’t make it. Any chance you would be available?

Tonight, on a raining Wednesday? Tonight, the day after the third anniversary of my father passing. I hadn’t planned to do too much. Movies maybe. Or a book. I was aware of the conference, and had even tried to win tickets to go hear Garrison Keillor speak because I was curious what exactly he would have to say about autism. But I didn’t win the tickets. And my sister who I wanted to go to the conference with had to work her bartending job. And, it was just one of those days. So, I planned to spend the day not doing too much. Being, I guess, in the space of a difficult anniversary where a daughter reminisces about and misses her father. But now I had an invitation to help the Autism Society of Minnesota (AuSM).

What would I do with my kids? Did I have clean, appropriate clothes for this thing? Were my camera batteries charged? I sat for a moment and thought about the conference, and the kids, and my commitments, and my sister – would she be upset if I went to the conference without her?

My sister Amber lives two hours from me. She has two sons, one of which has autism. I was aware of and interested in the conference for that reason: the possibilities it could present for education and information that would help my sister and my nephew. To go to the conference – even as the official photographer – without my sister, was a bit disheartening. I called her to talk about it. Then, I called my mother-in-law.

My response email to AuSM read: I got a hold of my mother-in-law. I will come. Please give me the address and let me know where I “report to” once I arrive (smile).

I then posted to my Facebook: BEYOND HONORED to be packing up my camera and notebook and heading out the door to go to the 19th Annual Minnesota Autism Conference. You and the boys will be with me in spirit Amber Cunningham. I LOVE YOU! CHEERS to all that is amazing in the people around us! CHEERS to seizing the moment and embracing a last minute adventure!

It’s true. Every time someone thinks of me to record a moment in their life, I feel honored. In a flurry I ran around my house changing my clothes, getting my son ready, checking my camera gear, feeding and getting water for my dog. As soon as my daughter got off her school bus I ushered her into the vehicle where my son was already seat belted in.

“Where are we going?”

“Grandma and Grandpa’s.”


“Yeah. Mommy is going to take pictures.”


During the seventeen-minute drive to Grandma and Grandpa’s we chatted about school, where I was going to take pictures, and what music we should dance to in the truck.

“Dis one,” my son requested, wiggling around in his car seat with his hands up in the air. I watched him every now and again in the rear view mirror as we all “danced” until we pulled into my in-laws driveway. The truck door opened, kids jumped out, I yanked the car seats out and placed them on the deck as I walked into the house.

Dressed in jeans and a black sweater I asked my mother-in-law, Faye, “Do I look okay?”

Smiling she shook her head yes.

“Okay, love you guys,” I said, hugging everyone and rushing back out the door. Already after 4 p.m. I wanted to get going for fear of rush hour traffic. I was going into the city. Better than coming out of it, but I still wanted to allow time for slow traveling, possible accidents and unexpected turns. I wanted to be sure to get where I was supposed to be on time.

I drove through an Arby’s drive-thru in Lino Lakes and scarfed down some roast beef from the roast beef sandwich I purchased while I continued down 35. I didn’t want to arrive to the conference hungry or be shaky when I was trying to hold my camera and take pictures. Thirty-eight minutes later I pulled into the parking lot at the DoubleTree in St. Louis Park.

Once I turned my vehicle off I took a deep breath, smiled, snapped a “selfie” and made a post to my Instagram account: Excited to be on my way into the 19th Annual #Minnesota #Autism #Conference at the #DoubleTree Hotel in #StLouisPark Cheers to #love #support #education and #AUSM The Minnesota Autism Society.


New to Instagram, I was hopeful posting about the conference while it was going on may inspire someone. Maybe someone who didn’t know about it would see something that interested them and come for the following days? Maybe. I grabbed my gear and went into the hotel.

The woman at the front desk explained I should take the elevator around the corner up to the second floor, so I did. The doors of the elevator opened, I stepped out, walked down the carpeted walkway toward the table with the AuSM lettering, and there I was greeted by a bright smile belonging to a woman named Kelly.


“Hi. Is Julia around?”

“She’ll be here any minute.”


And seconds later Julia showed up with an equally bright smile. “Hi,” she said, “Let me show you around.”

Julia pointed out the merchandise on the tables closest to us, the rooms down the hallway where vendors were setting up and the book store was, and, the Park Ballroom where Mr. Keillor would speak.

“I don’t think our guest of honor is here yet,” she said.

“I’ll just walk around and take some pictures,” I said.

“Great,” she said. “Thank you.”

I hung my yellow rain jacket on an empty hanger outside the ballroom thinking, It’s like a piece of sunshine. I opted to keep my brightly colored puzzle piece autism scarf on. It made me think of my sister and my nephew, and made me feel a part of the AuSM team. I pulled my camera from its placement sliding the neck strap over my head, zipped up my camera backpack, put my arms through the straps and pulled it onto my back. Here we go, I thought. Then I headed over to a sign perched on an art easel with a picture of Garrison Keillor.

Fatherhood. This evening he was speaking about fatherhood. Somehow I had missed that. I clinched my back teeth together and smiled while I swallowed a lump in my throat snapping a picture of the sign.

AuSM April 30, 2014

I captured images of artwork, vendors, books and resources sharing them on Instagram with information about the conference. Never know who might need to see this, I thought. Never know. Around 6:45 p.m. I found a spot in the ballroom behind a bump out in a wall where I would be close enough to the stage yet out of the way of people sitting. My goal was, as it usually is, to document the evening without being distracting.

As I watched the chairs in the Park Ballroom slowly fill, I listened to a small group of adults gathered near me. Unbeknownst to me at the time, the speakers for the parent panel were standing next to me talking about “Why does he (Garrison Keillor) want us up there? People came to hear him speak.” The comments made me curious. Why didn’t these people think what they had to share was as important as Garrison Keillor? I’m as interested in hearing from the waiter as I am from a well-known chef or celebrity. People are people and the lives they live are interesting. I was sure that while people most likely had come to hear Mr. Keillor speak, they would also be delighted to hear what these parents had to share. I decided not to tell them I had overheard their conversation. I snapped a few pictures to be sure my camera settings would work.

Everyone found their seats and a few minutes after 7 p.m. more than 150 parents, educators and autism community members joined Autism Society of Minnesota’s Executive Director, Jonah Weingberg, in welcoming Garrison Keillor to the stage.

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AuSM April 30, 2014



Garrison Keillor. He’s a really big deal in these parts, and I hate to admit it, but I didn’t know much about him. I know, I know. What in the world? I’m from Minnesota and I love storytelling. You’d think I would know a little something about Garrison Keillor. Well, what I knew was that I saw him once, in 2006, outside The St. Paul Hotel during the movie premiere of “A Prairie Home Companion”. He was with people I assumed were his family, holding what I assumed was his daughter’s hand. He was wearing a suit with red shoes and a red tie. Red is my favorite color. I absolutely loved that he was wearing a suit and red tennis shoes. And I absolutely loved that he was holding his little girl’s hand. I told my dad and he smiled.

That year I listened to A Prairie Home Companion a couple of times, and I was sure I would become an avid listener. At twenty-seven years old, I did not become an avid listener. I did, however, enjoy a cd collection of the show while I was on bed rest pregnant with my daughter. Sadly, I’ve never read any of Mr. Keillor’s books. What I knew about him was that he is from Minnesota, he tells stories, and he has a radio show called A Prairie Home Companion which also was made into a movie. That’s what I knew when I walked into the Park Ballroom. What I know now is that I will never forget my first time seeing Garrison Keillor speak. The room erupted with laughter, sat silent, and burst into song. Educational, inspirational, humorous and fun, Garrison Keillor is one of the most magnificent speakers I have ever listened to and watched. Really incredible. Really memorable.


His speech was beautiful and eloquent in a way that at times throughout the evening left me mesmerized. I found myself standing in that room, my camera still, my notebook resting in my crossbody bag. Anyone who knows me knows that is not how I typically am during an event. I take pictures. I write down too many details. But that night, I was there, in the moment, listening fully.

Keillor’s talk began with him explaining that some would say he is on the autism spectrum. He smiled and said, “I’ve come to meet the others.”


From entertaining remarks about what the male species contributes to a relationship and the start of a family to notes about normalcy and how he was glad he wasn’t “typical”, the audience, myself included, enjoyed a few chuckles.


The laughter continued with the story of a snowstorm in February when Keillor had an appointment at the Mayo Clinic. Weather officials urged: “no unnecessary driving”.

Keillor explained, “To a Minnesota man this was like a bugle call.”

Audience members clapped their hands, slapped their legs, leaned forward in their chairs and threw their heads back roaring over the details of the semi, and the look, and Keillor finally fastening his seat belt. “A bugle call.” I so easily could picture my husband explaining to me: “I’ll be fine.”

The tone and depth of Keillor’s voice, the words he chooses, the sentences he says, how he pauses along the way and infuses important and serious details with humor – it’s captivating. In the Park Ballroom on the second floor of the DoubleTree in St. Louis Park, Minnesota with my camera draped around my neck not taking pictures, I came to understand why so many people love and embrace Garrison Keillor and his storytelling. How had I not spent more time listening to A Prairie Home Companion? How had I not read any of Garrison Keillor’s books?


As the night went on the laughter faded into the amber colored glow of the room and moments of seriousness came to light. Autism. How does autism effect Garrison Keillor?

“How it effects me is to make me profoundly grateful for this life,” he said.


Profoundly grateful for this life, shouldn’t we all be?

Mr. Keillor continued, standing in the spotlight with a huge AuSM sign illuminated behind him, “You have no right to hold yourself above other people, it changes your view of the world.”

I imagined it difficult to hold ones self above the six-foot-four-inch man, born in Anoka, Minnesota, but I got the feeling there were times in his life when people had. In his dark pinstripe suit wearing red tennis shoes and a red tie, he paced back and forth, holding his glasses in his left hand; putting them on and taking them off and placing them up in his hair. In his right hand he grasp the microphone, pointing it not at his lips, but at the portion of his neck that houses his voice box. Mostly he didn’t make a lot of eye contact. Mostly.


Much of the evening he kept a straight face while he told the tale of a boy who didn’t want to be tackled by the players of the high school football team, so he decided to write the sports column for the school newspaper. A boy who went to a state mental hospital with a friend and saw someone he recognized from school. A boy who went on a job interview and got the job, and kept the job, because he showed up consistently and did the job. A boy who met a woman and went to a fish restaurant and decided to be part of having a baby. A boy who came so incredibly close to no longer being able to speak. A boy who became a father and had a child who wasn’t quite like the child he had imagined. A father who had to make the decision to do what was best for his daughter and let others care for this child he loves.


With each story Keillor raised his eyebrows at just the right moment. He flung out his hands and threw up his fist and pointed up into the sky at just the right moment. He increased the volume of his voice and spoke almost in a whisper at just the right moment. He stood still, looked over into the audience and revealed his cheeky smile, at just the right moment. In that spotlight on that stage, the chapters of Garrison Keillor’s journeys came to life and audience members could feel what it is he has experienced. In him, this iconic Minnesota man, they could find pieces of themselves.


I remained in my original spot near the wall for a little while, then quietly I walked around the back of the room to the other side. I snapped pictures from the new angle and next went to the back of the room. At some point, maybe halfway through Mr. Keillor’s presentation, I folded to my knees on the carpeted floor behind the last row of people sitting in chairs. My right hand “trigger finger” pressed the shutter release a few times then my camera once again hung from the strap around my neck, its body resting in the palm of my left hand.

“We were afraid of bullying . . . meanness . . . being ostricized,” he said about his daughter and going to school, “as all parents of interesting children are.”

“Parents of interesting children.” What a great way to phrase that. I thought of my sister and her magical sons, and my own children with their wonder, and I smiled.


After a humorous remark about a particular pastor on a particular day in church, Garrison Keillor recalled a moment when his daughter Maia, who has been diagnosed with Angelman syndrome, was sitting next to him, her head resting on his shoulder. She had fallen asleep. He had wished he was asleep.

He told that story in such a way I imagined a church I’ve gone to with my own dad. I could see the pews, and the people, and I could imagine a few rows up and on the other side, a little girl with her head resting on her father’s shoulder.

The room sat mostly silent and a few tears crept down my cheeks and fell to my shirt. An image of a little girl comfortable, safe, loved; resting her head on her father’s shoulder while she sleeps beside him during church – that’s the image I continue to have when I think of Garrison Keillor and what he shared at the 19th Annual Minnesota Autism Conference. That image of a child beside her parent is what I continue to see when I remember a father talking to a room full of strangers about the daughter that he loves.

Julia, the Autism Society of Minnesota Director of Marketing at the time, had come over to tell me how impressed she was with Garrison Keillor.

“I had no idea,” she whispered as she knelt down beside me.

I smiled.

“I figured,” I whispered. “He’s really amazing.” I figured only because for years I had been hearing about how wonderful Garrison Keillor and A Prairie Home Companion are.

Julia and I both stopped whispering and looked back toward the stage. Mr. Keillor kept speaking of his daughter. The one who loves water. The one who doesn’t want him to go shopping at the mall with her when she is going with her friends. The one who may never read his books, but can alphabetize them on a bookshelf. The one who he knows and loves.

With both hands I held my camera to my chest and let tears drip off my cheeks. I did not look at Julia. Recently she too had lost her father. My heart quivered for her, and for myself, and I clinched my back teeth trying to maintain composure. Julia wiped her face with her hands. I imagined my dad smiling and saying something like: “Not too bad, that guy with the red shoes.” Garrison Keillor would be alright in my dad’s book. I held my camera up and took a picture.


I cut through the silence with a soft whisper to Julia, “Wouldn’t you love to talk to him?”

“Come to the book signing,” she smiled, “It’s right after this.”

“Oh, okay.”

I didn’t know there was a book signing. That’s how little I knew about Garrison Keillor; I hadn’t realized he just released another book.

Julia stood up and went back to her co-workers. I remained on the floor watching this 71-year-old man from Minnesota standing on stage speaking from the heart about memorable, and sometimes challenging, moments in his life. He continued to talk about children, and parenting, and love.

“You learn that the way to get something done is to just do it. Sometimes it’s that straightforward,” he said. He continued, “We cannot count on others to do our work for us. We must do it ourselves.”

I made a note for inspiration: We must do the work ourselves.

Personally and professionally it appeared Garrison Keillor had done the work. Married with children, he successfully wrote a number of books, had an incredible radio show which was made into a movie, had traveled a bit, lived a bit, and talked a bit. He said of A Prairie Home Companion, “I invented it, and now, I believe in it.”

Believing in it – whatever it is – is what really matters, isn’t it? Who better to believe in something than its creator? Parents, who better to believe in someone than the person who created and brought that being into this world?

As Garrison Keillor came to the end of his talk he told a favorite joke of his daughter Maia’s, and he shared a version of this story:

Once upon a time, there was an old man who used to go to the ocean to do his writing. He had a habit of walking on the beach every morning before he began his work. Early one morning, he was walking along the shore after a big storm had passed and found the vast beach littered with starfish as far as the eye could see, stretching in both directions.

Off in the distance, the old man noticed a small boy approaching. As the boy walked, he paused every so often and as he grew closer, the man could see that he was occasionally bending down to pick up an object and throw it into the sea. The boy came closer still and the man called out, “Good morning! May I ask what it is that you are doing?”

The young boy paused, looked up, and replied “Throwing starfish into the ocean. The tide has washed them up onto the beach and they can’t return to the sea by themselves,” the youth replied. “When the sun gets high, they will die, unless I throw them back into the water.”

The old man replied, “But there must be tens of thousands of starfish on this beach. I’m afraid you won’t really be able to make much of a difference.”

The boy bent down, picked up yet another starfish and threw it as far as he could into the ocean. Then he turned, smiled and said, “It made a difference to that one!”

I loved that story. “It made a difference to that one” – I love that. And I loved what happened next.


Garrison Keillor invited three parents to join him on stage to discuss what it is like to be a parent of someone with autism: Michele and Dave Silvester, and Dawn Brasch. They took their seats on stage and then . . . Keillor began to sing.


“Glory, Glory, Hallelujah” almost made me lose it. I burst out laughing, bit my lip and smiled. Tears came down and I thought: FAVORITE MOMENT! While I enjoyed everything Garrison Keillor had said, all of his honesty and bravery with sharing personal stuff, the moment he simply started singing “Glory, Glory, Hallelujah” on stage in front of people who clearly were not expecting him to sing, comfortable as can be in his own skin – that moment was simply fantastic. Even greater than that was the second he held up the microphone encouraging everyone in the room to sing, and they did. They did! That ability to inspire others by being himself is something great about Garrison Keillor.




After two more songs Garrison Keillor and the parents on the parent panel, sat. The topic was parenthood and what life with autism as a parent is like.


The Silvesters shared that autism is as fascinating as it is frustrating. They have twins on the spectrum. Like all individuals their twins are unique from each other. What they as parents worry about most is how others will treat them; how they will get through life when they (Michele and Dave) are not there.



Dave Silvester explained that one of his sons loves applause. “When he is riding with me in the car he will say, ‘Irish Dad’ wanting me to put on one of the cds of live Irish music,” he said.


The Silvester’s other son, Nicholas, loves lights. Go to a concert or a play and he wants to know what color the lights were. What the Silvesters said they love most about their children is looking at the joy on their innocent faces.

Dawn Brasch also has twins: Jacob is autistic. Michael is not. When Dawn took her seat on stage Garrison Keillor joked with her that she had fast-talking syndrome, a condition common among Wisconsin people.



“I’m from Chicago,” she said.

“She grew up in Chicago, but she longs for Minnesota,” Keillor said, and the audience laughed. Dawn Brasch went on to share her highs and lows of being a parent who deals on a daily basis with autism.




What the parent panel shared was every bit as important as what Garrison Keillor shared. He sat on stage with them, on the edge of his seat, leaning forward, with his arms crossed, focused and interested in what they as parents go through; what they as parents experience because of autism. His request for that parent panel, and his sincere interest in what they had to share, is another reason why I have found Garrison Keillor to be fascinating. I will never forget how lovingly and beautifully Mr. Keillor and those parents of the parent panel spoke about their “interesting” children. At the end of all the speaking I made a point to find Michele and Dave Silvester and Dawn Brasch and tell them that they did a great job and it was wonderful to hear what they had to say.

“People like to hear about real moments,” I said to Michele and Dave Silvester. It’s true. People like real and raw and honest.

After I told the parents I was happy they were brave enough to share their stories, I walked to the back of the room where Julia thanked me for volunteering my services with a copy of Garrison Keillor’s latest book: The Keillor Reader. How incredible, right? I thought so.

“Thank you so much for the book,” I said, “I cannot wait to read it.”

Julia smiled.

I thought a second and said, “You won’t mind, though, if I have it signed to my sister, will you?”

Julia smiled and shook her head no.

When I volunteered to photograph Walk Now for Autism Speaks I designed a t-shirt with pictures of my sister Amber and her two boys on it, and had Miss Minnesota write a message to my sister. That way Amber had a small souvenir to remind her that I take her and her sons with me in spirit when I volunteer and learn a little more about autism. My sister loved the shirt. I knew she would love the book, too.

I headed to the book signing room and began taking pictures of Garrison Keillor meeting his fans and signing their books. He leaned in and listened to questions and comments, posed differently for every picture, held props and took selfies when requested. He didn’t sit. He didn’t complain. He didn’t look bored, annoyed, or rush the process.








I waited until every person had their moment to meet Mr. Keillor and have their books signed before I handed off my camera and took my turn. I walked up, smiled, and handed Garrison Keillor my book.

“And who is this for?” he asked.

“To my sister Amber,” I said, “she is a parent of an interesting child.”

I said it and grinned while I stood next to him as he opened the book and began writing. Some of the AuSM staff snapped a few pictures for me. As I stood there I could feel myself tearing up thinking about my sister and her son and autism and this conference and this night and Mr. Garrison Keillor. When he was done signing my book, as he handed it back to me, I wrapped my arms around his waist giving him a hug as I softly said, “Thank you.”

Thank you for sharing your stories; for encouraging other parents to share their stories; for listening so intently; for cherishing every person who purchased a book and took the time to meet you; for smiling and laughing and being amazing; for agreeing to be a part of the autism conference. Thank you, thank you, thank you, I thought. Thank you.

A short while later I watched Garrison Keillor put on his taupe jacket and disappear down the hallway. I collected my things, gave Julia a hug, thanked her for the opportunity, and made my way to the elevator. Rethinking the night I smiled and hummed “Glory, Glory, Hallelijah”. Out of the elevator, down the hall, and across the parking lot I went. Unlocking my truck door, I climbed in, put on the interior light, folded back the cover of the book I was given and looked to see what Mr. Keillor wrote. It was perfect: For Amber Goodness, Humor, Strawberries.

Strawberries! For my little sister, who I used to tell reminded me of Strawberry Shortcake with all her freckles and loveliness. I snapped a picture so she could see right then that she was there in spirit with me. I uploaded it to Facebook:


Dear Sister,
The Minnesota Autism Conference didn’t fit perfectly into my schedule tonight, but they asked me to come and I love to help. And, it was for autism. How could I not go? I missed you terribly. I took some pictures. I listened to some stories. I fell in love. If ever you should get the chance to hear Mr. Garrison Keillor speak about his life, his being a father, his daughter…IF EVER…you must go. I smiled. I cried. I sang, “GLORY, GLORY, HALLELUIAH…” And at the end, when I could stand it no longer, I hugged him. Tight. I love you. I miss you.

During my drive home that evening from St. Louis Park I had tears streaming down my face. How lucky Garrison Keillor’s family is to have someone who notices all those little details. How lucky his children to have a father who celebrates “interesting”. How lucky those parents on the parent panel to have this man who is the keynote speaker sit on the edge of his chair and listen – I mean REALLY listen – to them. How lucky we all were to hear what Garrison Keillor and those parents had to say. About parenthood . . . and autism . . . and life. I replayed it in my mind the entire drive home. I had no doubt that night a lot of people were positively impacted on the final day of April, the month of National Autism Awareness. I couldn’t wait to see what the rest of the conference would bring.



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