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Epilogue: Still in the creative world of Kjell Cronn
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Epilogue: Still in the creative world of Kjell Cronn

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Kjell Cronn

Inspired by freight trains when he was growing up in Cozad, Kjell Cronn graduated from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln with its top visual arts prize and headed to San Francisco's art scene. Today, the sculptor and singer-songwriter has survived brain surgery and is living in Lincoln. "I wouldn't trade having had a brain tumor for anything. I'm much more able to relate to everyone now. We're all chips of marble off of the same block." (ROBERT BECKER / Lincoln Journal Star)

Seventeen years ago, a young Nebraska artist set off for the West Coast to push the limits of his magical adventure. His path took unexpected turns, including a return to his home state for a job in journalism and a life-changing encounter with a cancerous brain tumor, but his spirit of adventure continues moving forward. 

Did he remember? The magic carpet? A mystical adventure?

It sounded familiar, says fellow reporter Don Walton, who sifted through his clips for a story on Kjell Cronn, a landmark that long ago slipped into the rear horizon.

In 1994, the University of Nebraska-Lincoln artist and musician heading to San Francisco would have been an unexpected feast for any idea-starved columnist.

Cronn, then 24, was a lyrical spokesman for youthful self-discovery beyond Nebraska's borders. He'd grown up imagining freight trains rolling through Cozad as magic carpets he'd one day grab.

His descriptions of Nebraska's beauty seemed already tinged with nostalgia.

"I was traveling between Lincoln and Omaha the other day, and the clouds were piling up like massive dumplings on the edge of the sky."

Then four years ago, surgeons sliced into a massive cancerous dumpling on Cronn's right parietal, temporal and frontal brain lobes.

Now back in Lincoln, he called the newspaper to share his changed vista, connecting with a medical reporter.

* * *

Cronn, 41, answered his cell phone from beneath a tree in his father's Cozad backyard last week, two days after the funeral. He stayed to help his stepmother sort his father's things.

Not just a stepmother, really. An art teacher with a guitar, she had introduced Cronn to the two things that inspired his youth.

"In high school, my best friend and I would wander around the rail yards, picking from the legends of Jack Kerouac, Woody Guthrie," Cronn said.

In 1990, after a year of art classes at the University of Kansas, Cronn distributed his guitars and made plans to grab a flying carpet. He caught hell the morning his stepmother found a map of U.S. rail routes spread over her kitchen table.

"Are you still fascinated by the trains? Somebody's going to whack you over the head for a dollar."

Cindy Cronn drove him to the NAPA parts store that doubled as Cozad's Greyhound station and presented him with a ticket and $150 in traveler's checks.

"It was pretty humiliating for an aspiring hobo," he said.

* * *

Cronn spent nights in a friend's Tacoma dorm room and afternoons loitering in college libraries, studying the art of Marc Chagall and Paul Klee "and exploring the West Coast vibe."

He never crossed paths with a Guthrie or Kerouac, instead meeting released prisoners hauling bitterness and clothes in plastic bags.

In a Seattle bus station, while rolling quarters into a pay TV to watch "Jeopardy," he was approached by a scrawny white guy asking to watch, too. The guy didn't ask before sharing Cronn's French fries.

"He started talking like a wild animal, all this racist, gang stuff," Cronn says. "It offended me."

The road, it turns out, isn't the place for a Nebraska boy raised with a guitar by an art teacher.

* * *

At UNL, Cronn got busy in art classes, converting his road experiences into subject matter. He excelled at ceramic sculpture, "once we got the gas kiln."

He led the sit-in protest demanding it.

He earned a Vreeland Award, the university's most prestigious prize for visual arts. That's probably what drew Don Walton's notice when Cronn set off for a San Francisco graduate school.

* * *

The Bay Area fit with Cronn's artistic and musical spirit.

"I liked it so well I invited my girlfriend from Nebraska," he said.

They married in Omaha in 1999.

The tumor precipitated the end of the marriage.

"It puts a tremendous amount of stress on the spouse, the caregiver," Cronn said.

Art and music never did pay their bills.

"How you made a living at this never really came clear to me," he said, "but I was never into it for success. In the '90s, everyone was hyper aware the art object was dead. I just wanted to learn for learning's sake."

Frustrated by eight years of poor pay and construction jobs in San Francisco, his tracks veered toward journalism.

A friend at the Telegram newspaper in Columbus told him of a copy desk opening. He had some skill as a writer. The interviews went well, so in 2002 he came back to Nebraska.

"It was the best job I've ever had," he said.

It was a paycheck and benefits without creative compromise: His mind roamed a changing news landscape in the company of other curious souls.

In 2004, family connections helped him move to the Omaha World-Herald, in what's now known as "the old building."

"I liked the World-Herald fine," he said.

* * *

The tumor, growing slowly since the mid-1990s, had reached the size of two tennis balls by 2006.

It breached tissues separating reality from wakeful dreaming and kicked off petit mall seizures, easily mistaken for staring out the windows. Headaches were inescapable.

Cronn spent afternoons teaching art at the University of Nebraska at Omaha and nights at the World-Herald.

A doctor medicated him for migraines believed related to stress. Pain sent him home early from work nearly every other day.

The copy desk would gear up for the bulldog edition and then turn to the Lincoln and Iowa editions, he said, and by then, he'd be leaving.

"It was a drag."

On Aug. 6, 2006, as Cronn and his wife ate at Fernando's, an iron hand crept up the back of his neck to grip his skull -- "a real table pounder of a headache."

His wife, frightened, later called a nurse, who advised: Get him to an ER.

She phoned him at the newspaper: You can't get out of this. Meet me at the dock.

Nobody was allowed to park at the dock, Cronn said.

A scan showed "a really large right-side mass."

"Pretty grim."

It ended his work.

Emergency surgery reduced the tumor's bulk, easing the pressure. The remainder was removed at the Mayo Clinic.

A surgeon, looking like a guy pulled off the streets, examined his scans and said, yeah, I can get all of that, Cronn recalls.

Ten weeks of radiation and seven months of chemotherapy followed the surgery.

Bald, he lay in hospital beds for interminable periods, recovering from complications like bilateral pulmonary blood clots.

Plucked from his career, separated from a Boston terrier, blue jeans and guitars, his frustration grew.

He would sometimes imagine resetting his password at the newspaper in Omaha, but eventually gave up on going back.

"I decided to go ahead and quit," he said.

"When I told somebody I was tendering my resignation, they said, 'Oh, we've already done that for you.'"

* * *

The collapse of his marriage in June coincided with Cronn's return to Lincoln, where occasional house-painting jobs supplement Social Security disability checks. He's looking for creative work.

Surprisingly little of his mental abilities were removed along with the tumor, though he does have some trouble recognizing faces.

"And when I need a word, and I know I want it, that can take me a long time."

August will mark five years since the diagnosis, and that could bring a cancer-free declaration. He's optimistic.

"With Dad's passing ... I'm very glad to be here," he said, "And glad this tree is still here in our backyard. ... A landmark ... a constant."

On the bus to Tacoma, he wrote these lyrics about Cozad:

"There's a hole this town leaves in you.

"And it's so god damn easy just to stick your fingers through.

"You've got to learn to smile like a billboard,

"And you've got learn to think just like a motel, too."

 * * *

At night, sometimes, he still notes the moans of trains and the chords of truck tires strummed by interstate grooves, but he no longer imagines himself caught in their magic.

"I'm so constantly reminded how fortunate I am to have grown up in Nebraska," Cronn said. "Just being a Nebraskan and being an artist, they seem to go together so beautifully.

"There's something about this state, a doorstep to the hugeness that life can be."

Reach Mark Andersen at 402-473-7238 or mandersen@journalstar.com.

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Kjell Cronn will perform at Lincoln's Meadowlark Coffee & Espresso from 8 to 10 p.m. March 12. Free admission but donations accepted.

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Every Monday, Epilogue follows up on stories published in the Journal Star a month ago, a year ago, 100 years ago.

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