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Locals face life without Oprah: Talk-show queen has held great sway over past 25 years

Amy Kobrinsky makes a point of tuning in daily to see Oprah. She says she will miss the show when it goes off the air. Michael Vosburg / Forum Photo Editor

FARGO - After 25 years of delivering unfiltered, unapologetic snapshots of true life, Oprah Winfrey's remarkable talk show will come to an end with a final episode airing Wednesday.

But while the program that shaped her into a true cultural icon is ending, Oprah's influence on America isn't leaving any time soon. And if you need proof of that, just listen to some of the people in our part of the world who were touched by Oprah's wisdom, generosity and inspiration.

From one of the fortunate few to receive a new car from Oprah to a mother-daughter pair who were given $2,000 for charitable work to a woman who accepted her body image thanks to Oprah's frank admission of her own faults, the affects of this TV talk show host's influence have touched the Red River Valley more than some of us might have realized.

Oprah inspired many

When Marie Beckerleg was in grade school, some of her classmates taunted her with names like "whale."

But the little girl with a little bit of extra weight found solace in the unlikeliest of places. She would turn on her TV after school and watch a woman named Oprah, who was admired, successful and unlike the stick-thin celebrities who dominated 1980s television.

"Oprah inspired me," says Beckerleg, now a 30-year-old married mom and blogger. "She just was who she was. She's so OK with being overweight. She's been up and down. She's just very real."

For a generation of women who grew up with the Queen of Talk, Oprah Winfrey was like a light of positivity and hope. She enlightened them, entertained them and made it OK for them to be themselves.

Consequently, there are many who - even after they graduated from college and landed jobs - still record and watch the talk show every day.

Amy Kobrinsky is 27, married and works as an administrative assistant and marketing specialist at Lillestol Research.

But her workday is over at 4 p.m., which allows her to still catch most of "Oprah."

"She's the kind of person who makes you feel good when you watch her show," Kobrinsky says. "You hear about the mean-world syndrome, and you get so scared by what you watch on TV, but it's so different when you watch her shows. She inspires change."

Others are so influenced by Winfrey that they will gladly buy whatever she recommends. Kate Pfau says she subscribes to Winfrey's magazine, has read some selections from Oprah's book club and "has been on every single one of her diets for a day."

Pfau says she's also ­visited Oprah's Harpo studios, parked in the parking lot and "paid way too much for an Oprah monogrammed bathrobe."

The fans cite Winfrey's honesty, integrity and trustworthiness as reasons why they're willing to try whatever Winfrey endorses.

They also like seeing Winfrey use some of her enormous fortune for philanthropic deeds.

"I love what she does with her money. She's not just spending it on luxuries, although she does that, too. She does so much good with her money and her travels and her fame," Beckerleg says. "It's hard to have her not be my hero."

But with an Oprah-less future ahead, many will find themselves scrambling to find a suitable replacement.

All say they'll continue to subscribe to her magazine and will try to catch her online. Pfau will continue to watch Oprah's new network, OWN, which features Winfrey-made celebrities like Dr. Phil and other woman-centric programming.

Beckerleg and Kobrinsky, however, don't get OWN. They say they'll have to rely on popular comedian Ellen DeGeneres' daytime talk show to get their feel-good fix.

"I'm going to have to get cable now, or dish," Beckerleg says. "It's really going to be sad. I guess I'll muddle through."

- Tammy Swift, The Forum

Oprah's giving heart

Char Solberg is an avid watcher of "The Oprah Winfrey Show," taping the episodes to watch while she works out.

Several years ago, she saw an episode recapping the October 2006 "Pay It Forward" program, where Winfrey gave 300-plus audience members $1,000 each to donate to a charitable cause.

Solberg was touched by the individual audience members' stories, which they had recorded.

"Everybody had their own ideas to where the money would best fit," she said. "When I saw that, I was moved to tears."

Later, she mentioned the episode to her husband, Michael, president of State Bank and Trust in Fargo, as he brainstormed something to do for the bank's 2007 Christmas party. He said they wanted something that would be more outwardly focused than previous years, when they gave away cars, trips and cash prizes.

"What a perfect concept for what we were trying to do," Mike Solberg said.

Sundog Productions built a replica of Winfrey's set, and State Bank flew in an Oprah impersonator from Las Vegas to announce its "Pay It Forward" project. Full-time employees were given $1,000 and part-time employees $500 to help others.

Now in its fourth year, the local project has invested $2,072,769 in the community, including $379,426 in matched funds and donations, and has affected more than 200 households.

"Culturally, I believe it's the most important thing our company has ever done," Mike Solberg said. "I think it's one of the reasons our turnover and our culture is so healthy. It's a huge sense of pride."

The State Bank program is a large-scale example of the inspiration Winfrey has offered through her media empire.

Her charitable works, struggles with her weight, and even the books on her nightstand have influenced people in Fargo-Moorhead.

The Oprah Book Club launched in 1996 and has made 65 recommendations, reports. Greg Danz, owner of Zandbroz in downtown Fargo, said people would come in looking for Winfrey's latest pick, especially three or four years ago.

"She would pick a book, and it would fly off the shelves," Danz said. "It did have a pretty huge influence on women readers, especially," he added, noting that his mother, who died four years ago, was a huge "Oprah" fan and would pick up anything Winfrey said to read.

"What I enjoyed the most about her picks was she got to the point where she picked some older books, what she thought of as classics," Danz says. "It did get people to go back and look at books maybe they had overlooked."

One of Winfrey's philanthropic causes has been to educate women in Africa by opening a school for girls in South Africa. This work has served as a touchstone for Deb Dawson, founder of the Fargo-based nonprofit African Soul, American Heart, which provides shelter for orphans in Southern Sudan.

Dawson is not a regular "Oprah" watcher but sees news coverage of the challenges the icon's efforts in Africa have faced. Dawson says seeing that "gives us a little heart when we run into challenges we face" helping in Sudan.

Oprah's influence on area people didn't have to be that grand to make a difference in people's lives.

Jodee Bock, owner of Bock Office Transformational Consulting, says Winfrey inspired her to get XM Satellite Radio, a Kindle e-book reader, and to read "A New Earth" by Eckhart Tolle.

But more importantly, Winfrey's example has opened her eyes to global issues and to living an authentic life.

"Her ability to be true to herself in spite of what other people might think has been very inspiring to me," Bock says. "Through her influence, I gave myself permission to be me."

- Sherri Richards, The Forum

In the presence of Oprah

"The Oprah Winfrey Show" may be filmed about 650 miles away in Chicago, but it's been the site of memorable visits for some area fans.

Heather Lundeen of Bismarck was one of the lucky 276 in attendance on a day in 2004 when Oprah gave a car to every audience member.

"I was completely shocked," Lundeen recalled about the moment she opened a box given to each person in attendance. Inside each of the boxes was a key to a Pontiac G-6.

At that Thursday taping, Lundeen was sworn to secrecy about the gift and couldn't even tell her husband, Chris, on their drive back to Bismarck that weekend. She did tell him, however, that he needed to watch the episode airing that next Monday.

"I don't think he quite got it," Heather said.

When she took possession of the car, Heather personalized the license plates, showing her gratitude with the message, "THX OPRA."

After the Lundeens had twins about a year ago, Heather was forced to trade in the car for a minivan, though she still sports the Oprah plates.

"It was a great experience," she said.

That sentiment is shared by Amy Holstad.

Nearly a year after Oprah gave cars to her crowd, she continued her philanthropic ways by giving $1,000 cash cards to an audience of more than 300. Among those in attendance were longtime Oprah fans Holstad and her mother, Jayne Petersen, both of West Fargo.

The debit cards came with one caveat - the recipients had to give the money away in one week.

The two took Oprah's charity to heart by treating Ivory Coast immigrant and West Fargo resident Victoria Gowah and her family on a $1,000 shopping spree to Walmart and lunch at Grazie's Italian Grill, with both businesses chipping in a bit more money for the family.

The remaining $1,000 was donated to programs to make sure West Fargo elementary school children could get milk, juice and lunches.

Holstad says she has lost touch with Gowah but hears the school programs helped out.

"It was a great life experience to do something like that with my mom," Holstad said. "I hope I have that opportunity with my own daughter."

For one last Oprah experience, Holstad said she might have a viewing party of the final show, Wednesday, with her mom.

- John Lamb, The Forum