My Little Book of Life: Montevideo letterpress artist shares narratives of life's journeys, including his own
Andy Kahmann keeps the art of letterpress printing alive in a shop in downtown Montevideo. Ever since he began producing "My Little Book of Life" editions, he has inspired many by providing a unique way for people to tell of their life journeys. He never expected to tell of his journey at the Mayo Clinic.
MONTEVIDEO — It was an early morning in October 2017 when Luanne Fondell heard the whir of the printer in the next room and knew.
Her husband, Dan, had finished the final draft of “My Little Book of Life.”
That night, they left their Dawson home in an ambulance on their way to the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, where the next day they learned Dan was out of treatment options for the cancer he had long battled.
Once back home, he proclaimed: “‘I need a plan and I need a project,’” Luanne said.
Little book of life's lessons
That project — Dan's Little Book of Life — became a family project. The Fondells turned the narrative Dan had authored into a pocket-sized booklet, with the help of Andy Kahmann of A to Z Letterpress Printing in Montevideo.
Luanne and Dan, and their children, went to work to produce hundreds of copies of Dan Fondell's Little Book of Life. The narrative Dan authored contained hardly more than 125 words, just right for the single piece of paper that would be hand-folded into a small, pocket-sized booklet of eight pages.
Kahmann prints the Little Book of Life editions on an antique, hand-fed letterpress in his shop in Montevideo.
This is old-school letterpress printing all the way. Tiny pieces of lead type must be placed together in reverse order to make the words that are then stamped on paper. Hand-cut, engraved blocks are needed for the press to stamp images on the pages.
Luanne and her adult children set the type together, and even took turns on the press.
The short statements that he had authored for his Little Book of Life represent the very spirit of Dan Fondell. It’s what some might call an ethical will.
“People worry about finances and things,” said Luanne Fondell, “and fail to tell their children what is most important in life to live by.”
Oldest son Nathan learned the art of making block prints because he wanted to provide images for the book. The images symbolize his father’s life. An image of books is on the cover, and inside are a gold dredge from Dan’s three decades in Alaska, the barn that became his silversmithing studio, and the silver necklace that Dan created for Luanne.
“She holds my heart,” he wrote in the book.
Dan Fondell died at age 64 on Nov. 27, 2017, or 30 days after that last trip to Mayo, and just one day after he had hand-folded the last of the hundreds of books.
Speaking to the things that matter
Kahmann created the first of the Little Book of Life editions in 2016 for his friend, Gene Sando of Madison, after Sando had received a diagnosis of terminal cancer.
The idea of creating a small, letterpress book belongs to Dawson area artist Lucy Tokheim. She approached Kahmann to print the very first in 2010. It features her blue-colored drawings of the former Milan Bridge. Its narrative is the Robert Bly poem, “Driving toward Lac qui Parle River.”
Kahmann took the idea to the next step, printing separate Little Books of Life for people ready to tell their stories. They are not meant to be a final statement or obituary-style narrative. Kahmann said the idea is to speak to those things that matter to you, the values you hold.
It’s why he crafted his own “Little Book of Life,” complete with the engraved image of his letterpress on the cover. The ink was dry for no more than one month when he made his own trip to the Mayo Clinic. He was worried about a lump growing on his neck, and sudden issues with the vision in his left eye and strength in his left arm.
High-risk, diffuse large B cell lymphoma was the diagnosis. “The same thing Louie Anderson just died of,” said Kahmann. Anderson was a famous comedian with Minnesota roots.
Scans of Kahmann’s body showed white spots throughout his body, lit up “like a Christmas tree,” he said.
He had noticed the lump on his neck July 25, 2021. He counted 175 days after to hear his doctor at the Mayo tell him he could find no signs of the cancer, and that he was very likely cured, and certainly in full remission.
He underwent 125 days of chemotherapy infusions in Rochester to reach this point.
In the process, he developed a whole new twist on the Little Book of Life. Every caregiver he met at the famous clinic began by asking him his name and birth date. Kahmann replied in kind, asking for the same from them and typing the answers into a laptop computer.
Now, he has printed a booklet of the names of the 188 people who helped him on his journey to recovery. Every caregiver he met at the Mayo followed the mandate that Kahmann posted in the hospital rooms during his stays: “You have to laugh before you leave.”
The laughter came easily. Kahmann peppered his room with the hand-printed, humorous sayings his Montevideo shop is known for, as well as an ample supply of his printed “Bad Andy Cards.” The cards can’t be quoted in a family newspaper, but Kahmann can say that the doctors favored the card titled “Minnesota Nice” most of all.
Minnesota Nice does not begin to describe what Kahmann experienced in Rochester. He asked every one of his caregivers if they liked their jobs. Everyone told him they loved them. Kahmann said the way they cared for him proved it.
It got to the point he told one doctor that “Mayo is like Disney World for sick people.”
He explained it this way to a doctor who laughed at the depiction: “I said 'you guys don’t understand. It’s not like this out in the real world. People don’t like their jobs, but they go to work. It reflects how they deal with customers.'”
Tracking those who make a difference
Kahmann told those he met at Mayo that they ought to set up something for all of their patients who would like to keep track of their journeys and those who helped them, and make it possible to print a small booklet like The Little Book of Life.
Kahmann, 68, has had very few health issues through his life, but had made a trip to the Mayo Clinic as a youth in either sixth or seventh grade. His right arm had been almost entirely severed. Doctors at the Mayo were able to successfully reattach it, one of the first such procedures on a child ever at the time.
His records from that visit nearly 60 years ago were still in the system when he checked in last year. It showed him with a Bird Island address. That’s where he grew up, and began printing at the local newspaper when he was 15 years old.
His professional career since, first at Western Printers in Montevideo and later the West Central Tribune in Willmar, has been with modern, offset presses.
But he never lost his love for old-fashioned letterpress printing. In April 2000 he purchased the small Montevideo shop that he equipped with a letterpress. Now retired from full-time employment, he continues to work in his shop, often producing works with local and regional artists.
There is a now a list of 88 people who want to publish their own Little Book of Life. Kahmann asks only a minimal charge, but after an early suggestion, tells everyone that he will charge $1 more for each account after the first.
Luanne Fondell said her children had purchased spots number 12 and 13 for her and Dan. She believes it was before there was even an inkling of the cancer that would take Dan’s life.
She had distributed her late husband’s book to many people, and still today hears amazing stories from people who tell her how moved they are by what he wrote.
She appreciates most how her late husband made every word count, and produced a complete story of his being. He did so without saying he was dying of cancer or letting the illness in any way define his life, as seen in his final missive:
“History and design now shape
my art and inspire my work
My family surrounds me.
I have more designs than time.”
Now, Luanne is thinking that she should start putting down her thoughts for her book. “I was lucky to have Dan be the author of his own book,” she said, but added: “Makes me feel the bar is really high for my book.”