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After COVID-caused hiatus, old news hounds get together again

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Twenty one months.

That’s how long it had been since Steve Miller and I saw each other, in person.

I clarify that because these days you can see a lot of people without actually seeing them in person. You know, Zoom, Facetime, stuff like that.

Steve and I didn’t Zoom or Facetime. And we didn’t see each other in person. Not for almost two years.

COVID got in the way.

He’s 75, after all, and I’m 70. And we both have some health complications in our lives. So to one degree or another, we have both been extra careful about avoiding the coronavirus.

Which doesn’t mean we’ve been out of touch. He’s an old friend, an old reporter and editor, and an old colleague from the Rapid City Journal. And he does some editing for me on the stories I write for this blog, cleaning up my copy for SDPB editor Cara Hetland, who has plenty to do besides wade through the swamps of Woster brain cramps and typos.

So Steve and I have emailed and exchanged texts and spoken by phone regularly during the last 21 months. But that’s not the same as sitting at a picnic table at Sioux Park on a sunny but breezy November day, chatting across a couple of fast-cooling burgers and fries.

That’s not the same as watching Steve’s eyes crinkle up over his gray beard when he finds something we say to be amusing. We have a good time, discussing the state of news today, how it has changed from yesterday, newsmakers and events from just about any day and episodes both humorous and not so much from our days back at the RCJ together.

That’s all best done in person. Which is why, pre-COVID, Steve and I had set dates the first Friday of every month for breakfast at a popular eatery here in Rapid. Popular, especially among the senior crowd, it seems. Our crowd, now.

When COVID came along, those monthly breakfasts stopped

We stopped those breakfasts about the time things started shutting down in early March of 2020. And recently, with both of us vaccinated, including boosters, we thought it was time to start them up again.

And it was a joy, even with the breeze that persuaded us to go back to Steve’s SUV before we had finished our burgers.

That was OK, too.

“Donna and I come down here pretty regularly,” Steve said, looking out the windshield and speaking of his wife, Donna, a retired school teacher. “We get a drive-through lunch and sit and watch the people. Especially the kids. It’s nice.”

That’s the kind of thing we old folks find fulfilling: sitting together, face to face, remembering some things, and watching the world go by.

It’s a different world these days, of course, and that’s especially true in the newspaper business we have known and loved for most of our adult lives, and maybe a little sooner than that, even.

Steve started out sweeping floors as a 14-year-old at the Hamlin County Republican newspaper, which then used a “hot-lead” printing process. Steve also tore down the metal frames that held the type from printing the last newspaper, tossing the type into buckets so it could be melted into “pigs” to be fed into the Linotype machine, which shaped them into letters again for printing the next newspaper.

The Linotype process has long since been replaced by offset lithography and computer typesetting. But in its day, it was the gold standard of the newspaper business.

Steve learned to operate that Linotype machine, which was quite a skill in those days. He also ran a couple of hand presses and a big flatbed cylinder press that produced the paper each week.

Picking journalism was the right choice

By his junior and senior year in high school, Steve could print the paper himself, when the boss was gone. I remain impressed by that. His experience at the Republican-led him into a printing and journalism major at SDSU, but he soon switched to journalism.

“Good choice,” he says. “It was the only thing I was good at.”

I’d contest that. He also did some high school teaching, including journalism. But the newspaper game was clearly in his blood. And he was good at it.

For me, the newspaper love was inspired during my adolescence by waiting for the Mitchell Daily Republic to hit the front step so I could check the box scores in sports and see how Henry Aaron did the day before. Things evolved from there into reading beyond sports in the Daily Republic, the Sioux Falls Argus Leader, and the Rapid City Journal.

And, of course, the Chamberlain Register, where I published my first news story and had my first newspaper job.

My dad, a farmer with a passion for reading, loved the part of his day after supper when he could get comfortable in the recliner in our living room and open a newspaper. My mom loved papers, too, and in the last twenty years of her life, subscribed to a half dozen or more, partly to keep track of what my brother, Terry, and I were writing for one paper or another.

She also read the ag publication that carried brother Jim’s regular column.

At 81, Jim still writes that column for the Tri-State Neighbor. And at 77, Terry still writes a weekly column for the Mitchell Daily Republic, along with other freelance work.

I gave up my regular column with the Rapid City Journal last spring because of health issues. I hope eventually to start writing it again. But, with gaps because of medical tests from Rapid City to the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn., I’ve continued to write this SDPB blog and regularly join Lori Walsh on her In the Moment public radio show.

Steve did some freelance writing after retiring from the Journal. But his health issues have limited that, too. He still provides valuable editing services for me, which remind us both of the days at the Journal when he was my editor.

We talked about that, too, over the burgers.

Steve and I are still pretty careful about COVID. I still wear a KN95 mask when I go inside public places and can’t stay separate from others. And I avoid public places entirely when possible. That just makes sense to me in these still-dangerous days of the pandemic.

It makes sense to Steve, too. But knowing we’re both vaccinated and both careful, we were comfortable sitting in his SUV chatting, without masks, something we wouldn’t do with just anybody.

I suppose there’s still some risk in that. But the risk-reward benefit of seeing and chatting with an old friend and colleague face to face seemed pretty good.

Especially when, without masks, we can actually see each other smile.

Click here to access the archive of Woster's past work for SDPB.