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Remembering Denise: one smart cookie who was 'caught up' from the start

Bill Harlan, Denise Ross and Kevin Woster.
Jeremiah Murphy
Bill Harlan, Denise Ross and Kevin Woster.

The interview posted above is from SDPB's daily public affairs show, In the Moment with Lori Walsh.

Bill Harlan and I were all smiles last week when we met at a Rapid City bagel shop to relive old times and consider current events.

Our mood was much different the last time we saw each other, four years earlier, standing outside the Monument Health Hospice House after seeing our good friend and former newspaper colleague Denise Ross.

Kevin Woster and Bill Harlan.
Kevin Woster
Kevin Woster and Bill Harlan.

“That’s probably the last time I’ll see Denise,” Bill said, his eyes glistening with tears.

It was.

Bill flew back to Columbus, Georgia, where he and his wife, Ellen, have moved for their retirement years. And a few days after Bill left, Denise finally succumbed to the cancer she had fought so courageously for 6 1/2 years.

She died on July 20, 2018, at the sorrowfully young age of 48. She left two sons, David and Jerryd, her husband, David Larson, parents Jerry and Linda Ross of Rapid City, and two brothers and their families, along with many other relatives and friends.

And she left uncountable colleagues and others who knew her through her journalism work in South Dakota.

Bill and I were lucky enough to be both Denise’s friends and her journalism colleagues. We were grateful for that. We are grateful for that.

I think Denise might also say that we were among her mentors on newspaper work and news coverage as well. That was especially true of Bill, who worked more directly with Denise when she was in the early, formative years of her journalism career.

By the time I got to know her well, we were both working in the Journal newsroom here in Rapid City. And she was already pretty darn good at what she did.

Living her life, doing her journalism despite the cancer

That good work continued in creative ways even after her cancer diagnosis in 2011. Denise did a lot of living between that diagnosis and her final days in hospice.

Living here in Rapid City, I was able to see her after Bill flew back to Georgia. I was at her bedside a few hours before she died, when she could communicate only through the occasional squeeze of my hand.

But she still seemed as sharp as ever a few days earlier when Bill and I were in the room with her and members of her family. She was talking about news events and suggesting that the three of us should consider reviving the blog — Mount Blogmore — we moderated together years earlier on the Rapid City Journal website.

Lee Strubinger
Denise Ross.

Bill and Denise were the visionaries on that project back in 2004. At the time, I didn’t quite understand what a blog was. Nor did I think it would have any great or lasting value.

Anything that didn’t involve putting a story in the print version of the newspaper was a bit beyond my interest and understanding. But I got interested in a hurry with Mount Blogmore, which was one of the earliest public-issue blogs in South Dakota to capture broad readership and commentary from a pretty large group of regular readers.

It turned out that blog thing was fun. And challenging. Sometimes frustrating. Often informative.

Back about that time, Denise introduced me to something else that I dismissed out of hand and presumed wouldn’t last: a podcast.

When she first brought up podcasts, I thought maybe she was talking about fishing. But no, it was something else, something about interviews or conversations captured on audio that could be loaded onto the internet and downloaded by people on their home computer or even cell phones.

Yeah, she was right about podcasts, too

“Trust me, Woster, podcasts are going to be a big deal some day,” she said.

She tried to explain them in more detail. I didn’t buy it. Who would listen to recorded sessions of people blabbing about one thing or another?

Well, millions of people, as it turned out. Tens of millions, actually, just here in the United States. And a bit more.

Last year, 41 percent of people in this nation 12 and older listened to a podcast in the previous month. At least 160 million had listened to one in the past.

And guess what: those listeners included me.

So, it turns out Bill and Denise knew what they were talking about with that blog thing. They usually did. And Denise knew what she was talking about with that podcast thing. She usually did.

I can’t remember if I ever told Denise that she was right and my skepticism was wrong about podcasts. But then, there were so many times I was in that position with her concerning one innovation or another that it was hard to keep track.

I had a hint of what was to come the first time I “met” her, which was a meeting over the telephone only. I was living in Pierre and working as the Journal’s full-time capital reporter, at a time when the Journal, the Argus Leader and the Aberdeen American News all had capital bureaus.

Now none of them do, of course. But that’s another story, one about the steep decline of news resources and its effect on news coverage.

I had a word processor in the basement of my home in Pierre for writing and sending news stories and columns to the Journal. But that was the pre-laptop era. So when I was not in my home, I dictated stories on telephones, often pay phones.

Those of you unfamiliar with pay phones should ask your parents, or grandparents.

Taking dictation without having to catch up

Taking dictation was a chore for people in the newsroom who had lots of other things going on. It was also something that some staffers did better than others.

So, already stretching my story deadline as I was inclined to do, I was apprehensive when I heard an unfamiliar voice on the phone in the Journal newsroom. I think she said her name, but I wasn’t paying attention. I was focused on dictating my story, which had most likely been scribbled in my reporter’s notebook.

Based on years of experience, I was accustomed to a dictation pace that would allow the person taking dictation plenty of time to punch in the words. And I would pause after a sentence or two for that purpose.

But early on in taking my story dictation, Denise asked why I was pausing all the time.

“To let you catch up,” I said.

Without a pause, she said, “I’m caught up.”

Indeed, she was. That was one of the smoothest dictation sessions I’d ever had. It prompted me to ask: “What is your name again?”

“Denise,” she said.

Then she sent me back over to the night editor, Ron Bender, and I asked him who Denise was.

“Oh, she’s an intern,” Bender said. “She’s good.”

Good, indeed. Very good. And always looking for the next challenge.

Moving on to Hoghouse Blog, Dakota Midday and more

A couple of years after we started Mount Blogmore, Denise moved on from the Journal to start her own blog, the Hoghouse Blog, named after a legislative move where the language of a bill is replaced by new language entirely. She also started to join in live public radio conversations as one of the Political Junkies on SDPB’s "Dakota Midday."

Denise produced a documentary on the 2006 statewide campaign and vote on whether to ban abortion in the state. Voters rejected the ban in 2006 and again in 2008.

All that wasn’t enough, though. Denise also worked for a time as reporter and web editor for the Mitchell Daily Republic, and later as editor for South Dakota Dash Board, a highly informative product of the Black Hills Knowledge Network.

Speaking of the Black Hills Knowledge Network, Denise brought my brother, Terry, and me to the Journey Museum here in Rapid City for an evening discussion on news events we had covered over our decades of reporting in South Dakota. The program raised funds to help the network digitize historic documents and photos so they could be available online.

Denise moderated the discussion at the Journey. And a few days before that, she and I joined Lori Walsh to discuss the event on SDPB Radio.

On a bulletin board in the den I call an office, in-between a card with the Celtic Benediction and a sticker reading “Vote Like Democracy Depends On It," I have a card from Denise. She wrote it after the Journey event, thanking me for participating and also for being a “journalist I have been able to look up to and learn from” and also “a steadfast friend, always positive and supportive. I also want to thank you for using your powers for good in an age when it’s often easier to take another path.”

That note means a lot to me. And what she wrote to me I could also say about her.

The perfect place to remember a friend

Sometime a few years prior to that, Denise talked me into doing a few of the Political Junkies segments on public radio. That began a working relationship with South Dakota Public Broadcasting that I continue to enjoy today.

When "Dakota Midday" evolved into "In the Moment," Denise was a regular guest on that, too, providing comfortable, informative exchanges with host Lori Walsh. Denise was a guest on "In the Moment" up until a few weeks before her death.

She was one smart cookie, that kid. (She liked it when I called her kid.) And she was a tough one, too. She showed that throughout her cancer fight, studying cancer-related medical literature and seeking innovative treatment options for a cancer that always seemed to be evading the latest that modern medicine could offer.

I spoke of her smarts and her courage during a celebration of her life the night before her funeral four years ago. And the next day, after that funeral in Sturgis, I hiked to the top of nearby Bear Butte, a holy place to Indigenous people that seemed the perfect location to say goodbye to my friend.

I believe in “thin spots,” where this corporeal world is closer to the mystical world of the great beyond. And I believe Bear Butte is one of those spots. When I got to the top, I spent some time in prayer and felt closer to the essence of Denise.

I thought about making the hike up again this year, on the anniversary of her passing. But I don’t handle heat like I used to. And when I saw the forecast for temperatures in the 90s yesterday, I decided against it.

I’ll get back up there again, though. And maybe sometime in the future Bill Harlan can hike up with me.

I like the thought of the two of us spending time together on that sacred summit, sharing some smiles, some tears and some memories of our friend, Denise.

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