Wisconsin farm boy turned journalist has his own story to tell
ST. PAUL, Minn. (AP) – Back in September, KARE 11 reporter and "Land of 10,000 Stories" host Boyd Huppert was preparing to take a trip to Denmark to conduct a workshop for one of the country's television networks when he realized he had an eye floater.
He mentioned it to a neighbor who happens to be an eye surgeon, who told Huppert it could be a torn retina and that he should get it checked before getting onto an airplane. His eye doctor confirmed his retina was fine, but there was some hemorrhaging behind his eye. After seeing a specialist and getting some blood tests done, Huppert learned he was safe to fly, but that he was anemic and there were "some other areas of concern."
Upon his return, he saw his doctor.
"Next thing you know, I was in the hospital," Huppert said. "I wasn't in a good place."
Huppert was diagnosed with multiple myeloma, a relatively rare blood cancer with no known cure. "I was at risk of a heart attack or stroke, that's how messed up my blood was," Huppert said. "Myeloma causes the production of protein and, this is getting beyond my realm of understanding, but my blood was messed up."
Now, Huppert is undergoing chemotherapy and doing his job from the Edina home he now leaves just twice a week, once for chemo and once for blood tests, the St. Paul Pioneer Press reported.
"It's kind of hard to wrap yourself around the notion that things will never again be as they were," he said. "But this is what I have to do."
Wisconsin farm roots
Huppert, 59, grew up on a Wisconsin dairy farm outside of River Falls. While in high school, his English teacher did play-by-play at basketball games for the local radio station. The station was looking to hire a student who could watch the board on weekends.
"That was my entry, at 16 years of age, into broadcasting," Huppert said. "My role expanded and I think by that point I realized I wasn't dairy farmer material. It seemed like this could be a pretty good fit for me."
Huppert went on to major in journalism at UW River Falls, thinking he'd go into radio. But an internship at KSTP changed his career path.
"Radio, at least at that level, was a solitary pursuit, me alone in a booth. When I got to a TV station, it was like I had arrived at the circus. The newsroom, oh my gosh, it was lion tamers and spinning plates, so much energy. I was immediately hooked. TV is what I wanted to do."
Huppert spent his first two years at a station in Wausau, Wisconsin.
"The great thing about going to a smaller market is you learn what you're good at," he said. "With anchoring, you're stuck in the building. I loved being in the field and I loved working with photographers."
He went on to another station in Omaha and spent seven years at Milwaukee station, during which time he and his wife, Sheri, had two sons. In 1996, KARE came calling
Land of 10,000 stories
For 10 years, Huppert worked as a general assignment reporter. One day he and a photographer were on a flight to cover a story and Huppert pondered what was next for him at the station. The pair came up with the concept of what could have been "Boyd Next Store" had Huppert not passed on that name, deeming it kind of corny. Instead, it became "Land of 10,000 Stories," an ongoing series of off-the-beaten path feature stories that has won Huppert nearly every broadcast award imaginable, including more than 100 regional Emmys and 21 national Edward R. Murrow awards.
"We didn't pitch it as a weekly segment," he said. "We just wanted to brand it, so we could do some feature stories and build some brand equity. Whenever we came up with a good story, we'd pitch it."
In 2011, "Land of 10,000 Stories," went weekly and Huppert spent three days a week working on the segment and the other two reporting daily news.
The series covers lighthearted stories from around the state, like the woman who has collected 13,822 cow-themed knicknacks or the farmer who owns 44 vintage windmills.
But he also tackles more serious topics, like the hardships St. Paul gymnast Sunisa Lee faced during her journey to the Olympics or the Vermilion Community College football coach who is recruiting Black athletes to move to Ely, population 3,460.
What they all share in common is Huppert's deft touch at storytelling.
"There's such quality to his work," said KARE 11 anchor Randy Shaver. "If you watch his stories, he says a lot by saying a little. It's not just a conglomeration of a bunch of words, every word is important in Boyd's scripts. And he brings out such emotion in people. He's the best feature reporter — maybe just the best reporter — of any local news organization in the country."
The danger of such storytelling is the tendency to get hokey, or lean too heavily on cliches. Huppert is the first to realize that.
"It's a fine line and I feel like I'm constantly walking at the edge of it," he said. "I try to write in a way that allows viewers to be part of the storytelling process. I take it what I call right to the edges of the videos and let the viewers fill in the rest of the blanks.
"My job is to get people leaning in. I don't need to talk over that moment. I don't need to tell you what you're already seeing. That's kind of my guide while I'm writing. I don't need to tell you something is special or emotional. Those are things that, if I'm doing my job as a writer, you already get."
After his diagnosis, Huppert spent four days in the hospital. It took 45 bags of donor plasma to get his blood stabilized. The chemotherapy has left him immunocompromised, thus his current stay-at-home policy. "As long as this pandemic continues, I'm in a dangerous position if I go out. Is it worth that risk? The answer is generally no."
Looking back, Huppert knew something was wrong before the eye floater. He felt fatigued. He typically did most of his writing at night and would work until 2 or 3 in the morning. But he started to fall asleep by 9. He started getting nose bleeds, something that never happened to him before. He started losing racquetball games to a former colleague, when the pair had previously been pretty evenly matched.
"I thought I was getting tired because I'm getting older," he said. "You want to brush things like that off. There were plenty of signs and it's fortunate I paid attention to at least one of them. I could have still been walking around with cancer and not know it, and that's when bad things start to happen."
While in the hospital, Huppert made the decision to go public with his diagnosis.
"I felt like I would be a hypocrite not to share," he said. "For 37 years, I've made that ask of so many people, to share their stories at difficult times in their lives. If I made that ask, I should also make that ask of myself. And I did feel a responsibility to educate people about this. I didn't know anything about this disease before I found out I had it."
In October, he sat down for an on-air segment with Shaver, who himself has beat cancer twice and runs a cancer research foundation with his wife Roseann. After revealing his diagnosis to the public, Huppert got a taste of just how many people he has reached over the years.
"The response was … overwhelming, I guess is the word that comes to mind. On all levels. Wonderful, heartfelt and humbling notes, emails, cards, messages that have brought me to tears. KARE just dropped off a stack of cards and letters. I'm still working my way through them. I've still got hundreds of emails I haven't gone through yet. My intention is to answer them all. People say you shouldn't feel obligated, but gosh, they are so meaningful, they at least deserve some sort of a response."
Work: Wonderful therapy
Huppert is still working full time, remotely writing and producing "Land of 10,000 Stories."
Once he settles on a story — the vast majority of which come from viewers' tips — Huppert talks to the subjects and sets up the story. He sends photographer Devin Krinke out into the field with extensive notes. Krinke then drops off a hard drive with footage at Huppert's home, where he writes the final segment.
"I'm working with a really good photographer," he said. "Devin is a really skilled interviewer. It's kind of Devin's show."
Krinke said that, so far, it's been working out pretty well. "I've worked with him enough to know what he expects and what he needs to make the story the best it can be," Krinke said. "He cares a great deal about the people he does stories on and the work he does.
He legitimately enjoys it when he sits down and the creative juices start to flow."
Viewers, meanwhile, probably don't realize Huppert isn't on site. "I've never been a huge presence on camera in my stories. That's kind of by design. The story is not about me."
There's also an advantage to working 30 feet from his bed. If Huppert finds himself yawning, he takes a nap. His sleep patterns have been disrupted, so sometimes he finds himself once again working into the wee hours.
"Working has been wonderful therapy. I don't know what I would do with myself otherwise. The whole thing can seem overwhelming, but I forget all that when I'm writing and working. That's a couple hours every week where I don't have to think about the cancer at all."
Shaver said there's no auto pilot when it comes to Huppert.
"He's a Wisconsin farm kid," Shaver said. "He loves to work. He values what he does and he values quality. That shows in every single story he does, whether it's spot news or a long, planned-out segment. He takes no shortcuts. He's a true craftsman in what he does."
Coming to terms with gut punch
Huppert said he's come to terms with what he called a "punch in the gut."
"At first, you wake up in the morning and hope it was a bad dream. By this point, I know it's not. It's something I'm going to have to deal with," he said. "They're saying it'll be five or six rounds of chemo. If everything goes well, at some time early next year they will have me in a place where I can get a bone marrow transplant, which gives me the best chance of having a successful outcome. Multiple myeloma isn't curable, but it is treatable. And it's a life-changing diagnosis. I will be closely monitored and on some sort of maintenance chemo for the rest of my life."
Shaver said he realizes Huppert won't be returning to the newsroom any time soon and that he's sorely missed by the staff.
"You will never find a nicer man in this business, which can be so cutthroat and heartless," Shaver said. "There are egos involved and he has every right to be egotistical because of the success he's had. But he is so far from that. He's just a really good person, and it sucks that a really good person like him has to go through what he's going through now."
Said Krinke: "A lot of the people Boyd does stories on are good, kind people. And that's exactly what Boyd is."
While Huppert said he realizes there are no guarantees in life, he's trying to remain positive.
"I want to get to the other side of this. I'm not done telling stories and I have a lot more work to do at KARE. My wife and I have a granddaughter on the way and I want to be a grandpa and experience that. I'm just concentrating on the things I need to do and work as hard as I can on this. I owe that to my family and friends."