‘What ever happened to...?’
In 1988, Motley High School freshman Alan Bjerga made Staples World headlines when his Knowledge Bowl team placed third in state. Recently, he’s made headlines again, this time in newspapers across the U.S., after being elected president of the National Press Club.
Alan (the club’s current vicepresident) will be officially sworn into office at a black-tie gala in the National Press Club’s ballroom on Jan. 30.
That’s big news.
Who would have known, looking at an archived Staples World photo of the Knowledge Bowl team, that the Lincoln area farm kid would go on to become an awardwinning journalist in Washington D.C. - covering the 9/11 attacks at the Pentagon and both presidential conventions in 2004, just for starters.
Not to mention that along the way Alan’s been a contestant in two television game-shows, taking second place on Jeopardy! and winning $50,000 in 2005 on “Who Wants to be a Millionaire.” (He knew that one million blue wristbands were distributed in the United Kingdom in 2004 to raise awareness against bullying).
It was fun; and a chance to put his trivia skills back to work, the former Knowledge Bowl whiz shared recently with the Staples World, along with an update on his life since graduating (in the top five) from Staples Motley High School in 1991.
Yes, a lot has transpired since he walked the halls at schools in both Motley and Staples; but Alan, 36, has not forgotten his former teachers and classmates and the influence they have had on his life.
Knowledge Bowl was a big deal in high school, Alan said. “That was one of the few extra-curriculars where Motley was stronger than Staples. Motley went to state my freshman year; and then Staples Motley went to state my sophomore through senior years as well. Dana Bacon and I were on all four teams.”
In Alan’s opinion, Dana (his best friend) was the star of the team. “He knew a little bit about everything and a lot about some things. I knew a lot about history and government and pop culture... but I wasn’t as strong all-around.”
Dana ended up getting on the Jeopardy! Teen Tournament their senior year, Alan recalled. “He took second and one of my favorite memories was watching the final round with him along with the whole school, when they turned all the TV sets onto the show and extended the school day to 3:30 p.m. so everyone could watch.”
Alan said that Becky Hasselberg and Pam Sachs, the Knowledge Bowl advisers, will always deserve a lot of gratitude. “They probably spent more time in a minivan with Dana and I than anyone else. How they lived through that, I’ll never be sure,” he added.
In addition to Knowledge Bowl, Alan has fond memories of his involvement in speech, A Cappella choir, Pop Group; and playing trumpet in the band. “I was a band geek,” Alan said of himself.
Alan remembers the year band teacher Jeff Iverson came on board. “He was a new teacher in SM the same year the schools combined; and he took over a band program that had a lot of problems and made it really solid. It was really fun to be part of the beginning of that.”
Other teachers that made an impression on the future journalist were Bob Paskewitz, a math teacher in Motley who (in addition to math) taught him persistence and discipline; and Russ Lee, in Staples. “Mr. Lee’s AP history class in 10th grade was probably the best class I ever took, high school or college,” Alan said.
It wasn’t until he attended Concordia College in Moorhead that Alan became interested in journalism. “I couldn’t be a band geek in college, because there were several trumpet players who were better than I was. So, I decided I should try to develop a skill in something more ‘practical,’” Alan shared.
After graduating from Concordia in 1995 (and spending the summer following the Grateful Dead on their last tour), Alan found that the job market wasn’t great for journalists; and decided to go to graduate school for an M.A. in Mass Communications at the University of Minnesota.
“But the job market for journalists wasn’t great in 1998 either (it took me awhile to realize: The job market is never great for journalists),” Alan shared via e-mail, “so I took a few months to backpack across Europe and run with the bulls in Pamplona, Spain, before I looked for a real job.”
Alan’s career began as a copy editor at the St. Paul Pioneer Press. He wanted to be a reporter, however; and in 1999, found a job at the Sioux Falls Argus Leader. Six months later, he landed a job as a reporter at the Wichita Eagle in Kansas.
“Wichita was a great place to work,” Alan shared. “I bought a ‘73 Volkswagen SuperBeetle and drove all over the city, covering everything from business mergers to murders to people stuck on top of a roller coaster unable to get down. I was completely ready to put down roots there when a job opened up at the Knight Ridder Washington bureau, covering the Kansas congressional delegation and Great Plains political issues for the Eagle. I was 28 and single, so I jumped at the chance to go to Washington.”
His new job started at the beginning of September, 2001.
“The 9/11 attacks happened my first week on the job,” Alan said. “I was sent to the hospital where the dead and wounded were being brought from the Pentagon and my first few months in Washington were chaotic. Frankly, I was in over my head, but I had to dig out quickly and I did.”
Alan said he ended up writing a lot about defense and intelligence issues because of the influence the Kansas delegation had in those areas. “So when the Iraq War, 9/11 and weapons of mass destruction investigations were going on, I was handling a lot of coverage.”
In 2005, Alan worked in China on a journalism fellowship; and in 2008, he worked on a famine project in Ethiopia, traveling to tribal villages in the southern part of the country. “That was really interesting,” he said.
Since 2006, Alan has been a correspondent for Bloomberg News in Washington D.C., covering agricultural policy and the U.S. Department of Agriculture full time.
This past year he has won awards from the Overseas
Press Club, the New York Press Club, the Society of American Business Editors and Writers; and the North American Agricultural Journalists for his work in Ethiopia on famine and U.S. food aid.
It’s no wonder that Alan has been elected the National Press Club’s 103rd president.
It’s also no wonder, after reading through his many accomplishments, that Alan hasn’t (as of yet) had time to tie the knot.
When asked if he was married, Alan answered, “Washington, D.C. has the highest percentage of unmarried adults of any city in the U.S. I am part of that percentage.”
His parents, Ron and Joan Bjerga of Brainerd, formerly of the rural Motley area, couldn’t be prouder of their son.
“We’ll be flying out to D.C. at the end of January for the big event,” Ron (a former state trooper) said recently. “Alan said I could just wear a suit if I wanted; he doesn’t expect me to rent a tux,” he added, with a slight sigh of relief.
Ron’s not surprised that his son became a journalist.
“Oh, I remember when he was just in the first grade...he’d be outside at the picnic table writing stories,” Ron recalled. “They were always about Mr. Stickman...that’s the only pictures he could draw at the time. Joan’s saved them all in a book somewhere.”
He always told his son he knew he could go on to be anything he wanted,
Ron shared, mentioning careers
like medicine or law. “Alan always said, ‘I know,
Dad...but I wouldn’t be happy at those other jobs. I’m happy doing what I do.’”
If their son is happy, then they’re happy, Ron said.
Alan is grateful for the support of his parents over the years; and has fond memories of growing up on the family farm outside of Lincoln, along with his older brother, Dean.
His father’s involvement with the Motley School Board is something Alan credits with playing a major role in not only his education, but that of everyone who has come through Staples Motley since the late ‘80’s.
“He was on the Motley School board during the controversy over combining the schools, which was very difficult for a lot of people,” Alan recalled. “My dad never took the easy way out on that issue. He did what he believed was best for the students, he fought for it with integrity; and in the end, thousands of children have received a better education because of the work he and others did for schools in Staples and Motley.”
Alan said that the Staples Motley pairing and his father’s role in it is something he thinks of often as he’s been involved in the National Press Club. “Any organization has its controversies and anything involving politics has its difficult moments. I grew up watching a person who handled a difficult situation with integrity and honesty. That’s the example I try to follow as a journalist in Washington and as the leader of a journalistic organization.”
Growing up on a farm helped prepare Alan for his job at Bloomberg News, he said. “Being from a small town is obviously a big help when you’re covering agriculture, because you better understand farming communities and concerns. Sometimes my job is that of a translator...helping a largely urban audience understand rural concerns. My background and my family have prepared me very well for that; and the best part of my job is applying a Staples Motley background to covering policy debates in Washington, D.C.”
Yes, his son is now a successful journalist; living in a city that is a world away from rural Minnesota.
Does that intimidate Ron? “Oh no. Alan’s worked very hard for everything he’s accomplished and we’re proud of him. He might live in Washington but down deep, he’s still the same down-to-earth country boy that we raised. That hasn’t changed one bit.”