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Time — as in half a century — sure flies when you’re having fun and getting bylines

What’s in a byline? The reflection of a reporter’s life
Kevin Woster
What’s in a byline? The reflection of a reporter’s life

Timber Jack Joe.

Dubois, Wyoming.

And a dog named Tuffy. I think.

That’s about all I remember of the first story I wrote for a newspaper some years back.

And by some years, I mean 50, as in half a century. Time flies when you’re having fun.

And most of the time, covering the news has been fun. Oh, so much fun.

It has also been challenging and frustrating and tedious and elevating and educational. On that last point, the extraordinarily talented journalist and author David Halberstam once wrote that at its best a reporter’s life is an ongoing education.

And my life as a reporter has certainly been that, beginning with that simple interview with a stranger in a buckskin outfit and a handgun — a .45 if I remember right — on his hip strolling Main Street in Chamberlain back in the summer of 1973.

I snapped a picture of Timber Jack Joe and wrote a story for the weekly Chamberlain Register, where I earned my first newspaper byline.

It would not be much of an exaggeration to say those three words — By Kevin Woster — changed my life.

At the very least, they were a big part of the change that had begun a couple of years earlier, when I decided I wanted to attend South Dakota State University and major in journalism, following my older brother, Terry.

Heading off to college was an ordinary move for most. But I had some work to do to get there, including studying for a General Education Development certificate, which to this day is closest thing to a degree or diploma that I have. But it was enough to get me into SDSU and what was then called the Department of Printing & Journalism.

It might have been Printing and Rural Journalism. Or at least there was still a sign when you entered the building that said that. Either way, it’s now the SDSU School of Communication and Journalism.

“A replacement for many other things, not the least of them money”

Whatever it was called, it was a big step for an emotionally troubled kid who had dropped out of junior high school, struggled with a variety of psychological disorders and, for most of one year as a teenager, barely left the house or backyard.

But things were getting better. My sister, Mary Alice, was an English teacher who was resolute about getting me material to study for the GED test, then pushing me to study it. I did OK on the test and ended up in Brookings, where I stayed for my first semester with Mary Alice and her husband, Ken.

And I’d been at SDSU for a couple of semesters going into that summer of ’73 when I saw Timber Jack Joe in downtown Chamberlain.

The interview was fun. So was shooting and developing and printing the black-and-white photo. But the best part might have been that byline.

It was my first newspaper byline. And I have to tell you, reading it felt every bit as good as getting that GED certificate in the mail.

The comments from readers were even better. For that particular story, a light-but-interesting feature, they were all positive comments, of course. The byline can inspire other kinds of comments, too, including the not-so-positive.

The many bylines that would follow that first one would inspire all kinds of comments and reactions. Those bylines would also come to represent me and my professional life in ways that were defining beyond the workplace.

David Halberstam had this to say about that:

“The byline is a replacement for many other things, not the least of them money. If someone ever does a great psychological profile of journalism as a profession, what will be apparent is the need for gratification, if not instant then certainly relatively immediate. Reporters take sustenance from their byline. They are a a reflection of who you are, what you do, and why, to an uncommon degree, you exist.

“A journalist always wonders, If my byline disappears, have I disappeared as well?”

What a byline says about a messed-up kid who couldn’t go to school

That is a more pertinent and real question than it might appear to be to someone who hasn’t spent decades celebrating and suffering from the obligations that come with a byline. People come to know you personally, or feel like they do, because of your byline. Or at least they know a part of you, the working part.

And you come to know yourself through your byline, as a reporter, a journalist, a collector of facts which, if assembled properly and fairly, can lead to the truth, for both the reporter and the reader.

That’s an extraordinary responsibility, and a privilege. It can also be a sort of proclamation. To me, my byline said: “See, I’m not just that messed-up kid who couldn’t go to school. Yes, OK, I’m that, of course, and always will be. But I’m more than that. And my byline proves it.”

And not just once. Because once would fade. But my byline appeared again and again, over weeks, then months, then years, then decades. That kind of statement endures.

Journalism might not be unique among professions in the way it gives standing and affirmation to its practitioners. But I think it’s unusual. And it carries with it the danger of thinking too much of ourselves.

Some of us fall victim to that, sometimes. I know I have.

Mistakes and the mandatory corrections that follow can help deflate any expanded ego. And over the years, they certainly have helped deflate mine.

Getting married and, especially, having children really helped put the byline and its place in life in better perspective. And when my first marriage failed, I proved that while the byline speaks to your standing as a journalist it doesn’t matter much if you haven’t figured things out at home.

Even then, however, my byline mattered. During those grueling weeks and months leading up to the divorce and after, putting together the stories that earned me those bylines kept me centered, grounded and secure to at least some degree in the feeling that some things hadn’t changed and that I still mattered.

Being carried and calmed and affirmed by the work

The news work carried me, occupied me, calmed and affirmed me. It wasn’t as important or as rewarding as the work — the wonderful, challenging, magical work — of parenting my son and daughter during those most difficult times.

The kids mattered most, as did the love we gave each other. Healing love.

And not far behind that, continuing to care about my former wife mattered. Continuing to love her, even, if in a different way.

In After Love, the poet Sara Teasdale wrote:

“There is no magic any more,

We meet as other people do,

You work no miracles for me,

Nor I for you.”

The miracles do seem to disappear when romantic love dies, or is killed, in the breakup of a marriage. But a different miracle can be worked by the divorced, one that denies hate, fights resentment and inspires a new kind of love that saves the soul and nurtures the children.

So I was busy with those personal-life duties and the focus they required. But when my former wife had our kids in Sioux Falls and I was alone with my thoughts in Pierre, I drifted toward fear and despair. The work, though, of covering state government and the Capitol, was always there to help me. The work and the bylines demanded my focus and reminded me of who I was.

And, even more, of who I still could become.

I like to say that I fished and hunted through my divorce. And those outdoor loves were important to the rugged passage of pain. But even more important was the work, the journalism, pursuing the truth by collecting the facts.

That familiar process saved me from my melancholy on more days and, especially, more nights than I could count.

And through it all, the byline said: “I’m still here. I still matter. I still know who I am. I still have work to do.”

And I went on with that work, with bylines and column logos and, for a few years, even some TV stories, that served as signposts of the journey.

When I fell in love again, it was again with a journalist, a woman who shared my passion for reporting and writing and understood the elixir of the byline.

Pondering life without a byline 

And Mary and I both wondered, as we moved further and further along in the second half of our journalism careers, what it would be like to give up the work, and the bylines.

Would we know who we were then?

Of course, there would be family. We have six kids and 19 grandkids between us, along with 13 siblings and, well, I won’t stop to count nephews and nieces and cousins.

But whatever the total, we are abundantly blessed with family, and know that is most important.

And there is our faith lives and the rewards it offers to both of us.

Still, what about life without the work, and without the byline?

I’m seven years older than Mary. So I would face it first. And she thought it would be hardest for me.

“Your work is so much of who you are,” she said. “I don’t know how you could give that up.”

If my byline disappeared, would at least a part of me disappear as well? An important part?

I knew it would be a notable change in my life. Even when I was with KELO TV, the last full-time news work I did, I signed off my TV stories with “In Pine Ridge (or whatever other town), Kevin Woster, Keloland News.”

And I also wrote a blog, with a byline, for KELO’s website.

Then, on the first day of October, 2016, a month before I turned 65, I retired from KELO. I liked my time with the station. And I had the freedom to chase news across western South Dakota and beyond, with a videocamera, microphone, a KELO SUV and expense tab.

But I was feeling my age. And we were raising a grandson who took a lot of extra attention. It was time. I was ready to focus on nothing but family, fishing, hiking, hunting, gardening and whatever else happened to strike my fancy on a given day.

Mary was still working, but winding down her career as a grant writer rather than a news or column writer. And she was skeptical that I could give up journalism and just be a retired guy.

“It’s such a big part of who you are,” she said. “I can’t imagine you’d be happy without it.”

Just watch me, I said. And for the next three or four months, I was delighted to be outdoors almost every day I wanted to be there, and no longer caught in the crunch of time and obligations and expectations that come with daily news work.

After all that hunting and fishing and fooling around, free time seemed like a lot

But as winter settled in and the outdoors became less appealing (I’m not much of a snow-sport guy; and I don’t ice fish), I noticed all of my free time seemed like, well, a lot of free time. I also noticed a feeling that I was drifting out of the flow of current events.

At the risk, maybe, of becoming irrelevant.

Ouch. What a poke to the ego that would be.

It was about that time that I got a call from Larry Rohrer, the grand old voice of South Dakota Public Broadcasting, with an offer:

Rohrer said: “Come do some work for us.”

I said: “Thanks, but no thanks. I’m retired.”

He said: “You can stay retired and still do some work for us.”

I said: “How much do you want me to work?

He said; “Whatever fits into your lifestyle. We want it to be fun. We you to be happy working with us.”

I said: “What do you want me to do?”

He said: “How about you do some writing for us. And you do some things on the radio.”

I asked: “I can write. But what things on the radio?”

He said: “Something you’ll like. We’ll figure it out.”

I said: “What should I write about?

He said: “Whatever you feel like.”

I said: “But …

He said: “Listen, we’ll figure everything out so it works for you and you like it. We want to make the work so good it won’t feel like work, so you’ll want to stay with us for a long time.”

When you’re 65, you really like to hear a guy say “stay with us for a long time.”

Then came the real kicker.

Larry said: “How about we make you a regular with Lori Walsh?”

And he really did make me an offer I couldn’t refuse

I’d worked with Lori previously as a guest commentator on the Political Junkies radio show. I liked her. I was comfortable with her. She worked hard. She prepared well.

Then Rohrer told me my immediate supervisor would be Cara Hetland, who I’d known and respected for her news work for years. And Rohrer would be around for a few years before he retired.

He was making it pretty hard to turn down. So I didn’t.

That was 6 1/2 years ago. And Cara and I recently sat down over a couple of peach cobblers at Armadillos ice-cream shop here in Rapid City to discuss my next year’s contract.

Ah, peach cobbler: vanilla ice cream, caramel topping, crushed pecans and peaches. What a sweet way to close a contract deal, and also give me another year of bylines on this blog and weekly discussions with Lori on In the Moment.

And now I’m writing this bylined blog story, which happens to be about bylines, beginning with that first one in the Chamberlain Register 50 years ago.

Somewhere in a box in the basement, I think there might be an old black-and-white print of Timber Jack Joe. I looked but couldn’t find it. The copy I had of the Chamberlain Register story has long since been lost.

Also lost over the last 50 years in the hazy recesses of recollection were most of the details about Timber Jack Joe that I might have included in my story.

These days, however, there is the world-wide memory of the internet.

I’m a lousy web searcher. But even I could find quite a bit about Timber Jack Joe. There are pictures of the bearded, buckskinned man I remember. There are books about him. And a song. Even a brand of coffee.

Turns out Joseph Earnest Lynde, widely known across Wyoming and beyond as Timber Jack Joe, died on Aug. 20, 2002 in Lovell, Wyo. He was 91.

He had kids, grandkids and great-grandkids. His obituary also said he had a couple of English sheep dogs named Tuffy (which lived for 18 years) and Tuffy II.

There’s even a street in Dubois named after Timber Jack Joe and Tuffy.

Timber Jack Joe was a trapper and hunter, a miner and lumberjack, a construction man and an entertainer who appeared in parades and at rodeos, in paintings and sculptures, in magazines and on stage and in a few movies.

And once, half a century ago, he was featured in a little story in a little newspaper in central South Dakota.

For which I got my first byline.

The one that changed my life.

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