Power of Prose

Professor’s passion documented in writing


Merrie Sue Holtan is more than a professor in the School of Communication and Journalism. She’s a freelance writer, experienced baton-twirler and avid volunteer. Her vibrant personality is central in all she does, especially when it comes to the art of storytelling.

“I call myself a story catcher,” Holtan said. “It’s from a book I love about the ability of listening and finding people’s stories, then I get the privilege of telling those stories. As a result I have hundreds of stories wrapped up in who I am because of all these people.”

m.sue2[1]-2 copyFinding the elusive story

Always looking for an untold story, Holtan found inspiration in Nancy Burggraf, a Roseau, Minn., woman who greatly impacted the world of hockey. “Power and Stride: The Nancy Burggraf Story,” follows Burggraf’s life as she made a name for herself in the male-dominated sport.

“She worked with the Sioux, the Winnipeg Jets, the Blackhawks and vast amounts of hockey players as a power-skating coach,” Holtan said. “And people didn’t know about her. Something called to me and didn’t let me go, so I had to do it. The entire process of making the documentary and getting the book published in 2009 took 10 years.”

Burggraf lost her battle with Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) in 1999—just as Holtan began documenting her life. Holtan’s passion for Burgraff’s story has not faded. She is in the process of pitching “Power and Stride” to be produced as a made-for-TV movie. Though she has had limited success so far, doing so is the ultimate goal.

The ever-supportive coach

It is not mere chance that many of Holtan’s writings focus on the power of coaching. She considers her teaching style to be such, and her students agree they benefit all the more because of it.

“My only goal has always been to give students a voice, whether it be in the written or verbal form, so they cannot let everyone else talk for them; kind of help them find their vision,” Holtan said.

Students flourish in her guiding footsteps, learning much more than the art of public speaking. Interviewing, networking with peers and professionals, and developing professionally in and outside of the classroom are all important topics in Holtan’s curriculum.

“The classroom is kind of like a pilgrimage, or it should be,” Holtan said. “You enter in as who you are, you go through this transformative process together and you come out the other side. What are you going to do with that now that you have this? I think it’s kind of an interesting concept.”

Nationally recognized writer

Holtan’s writing journey began years ago when she was asked to write and design for a rural electric newsletter in Western North Dakota. Over 400 published articles, three books and a documentary later, Holtan is an award-winning journalist, collecting honors at state, regional and national competitions.

Most recently, Holtan won a second place award in home writing and an honorable mention in sports writing at the National Federation of Presswomen conference in Greenville, S.C. Holtan also accepted a 25-year membership recognition award at the conference.

She was named North Dakota Professional Communicator of Achievement in 2008, the highest honor given by the organization, which recognizes one member each year who has “distinguished him or herself within and beyond his or her profession.”

Holtan is more deserving of the award than any. She remains humble through it all, with the intention of carrying on the legacy of story catching through her students.