I teach young men and women how to be journalists.
It’s a strange thing for me to think about because it’s not something I ever wanted to do.
I just wanted to report and write.
But things change. And here I am, telling young men and women to snap out of this inverted pyramid sleepwalk.
But let me back up a minute. A speaker at a recent Associated Press conference addressed a room full of pros about how to write enterprise stories.
Jack Lessenberry admonished us to put people first.
“Unless you want to start working for a living,” he said.
Indeed. People first.
You hear that? Unless you want to start working for a living, how about we look at the world like a person?
It’s funny how we have to constantly remind ourselves about this simple fact.
The stories we write, the tales we tell, each one touches a person in some fashion. So, how about this? Instead of running the news release and moving on, let’s take a closer look.
Last April, for example, our student publication received a news release from the police that officers shot and killed a man named Beau Appleton as they served a search warrant on his home.
There were few details because the investigation was ongoing, both regarding the original case and into the shooting.
Months passed, but I refused to allow our student reporters to let the story die.
What happened? What did the police find?
Today, the efforts of our Sunshine Law requests for reports paid off and we published more details about the raid.
Police kicked in his door, tossed flashbang grenades inside and entered. Beau shot at the police with a double-barreled shotgun and the police shot him dead. His wife was on a bed between him and the police. His two teenaged daughters were in adjacent rooms.
Apparently they found a little baggie of pot.
There are still plenty of unanswered questions. Will our readers ever get to know who this guy was as a person? Or will they only know him as the guy on the east side of town where the houses are small and unadorned as the person who shot at police after they broke down his front door?
Will we ever know why the police chose this tactic while the man’s family was home? Can a person hear someone yelling at them to put their gun down after experiencing a flashbang grenade?
It begs the question, wouldn’t it seem probable that a suspected drug dealer who is known to have guns would shoot at someone who breaks down his front door?
Drug dealers tend to deal with scallywags who are known to break into places to steal things like other people’s drugs, money and guns.
How and why the police decided to do what they did is irrelevant now. Obviously they had their reasons.
We should trust the police. We should be able to trust people in authority.
But journalists must hold them accountable. It’s a harrowing task to question authority, but it’s an important job.
Believe it or not, it takes hard work and persistence to find the truth or at least a clearer picture that lurks behind a sterile, impersonal news release.
Put people first.
The president’s team shook the trees and Warrensburg plopped to the ground.
“I’ve asked my team to shake the trees all across the country for some of the best ideas out there for keeping college costs down, so that as students prepare to go back to school I’m in a position to lay out what is going to be an aggressive strategy to shake up the system to make sure that middle class students, working class students, poor kids who have the drive and wherewithal and want to get a good college education, they can get it without basically mortgaging their entire future,” Mr. Obama said Wednesday to a crowd of – well I understand 1,400 tickets were given away – people in a UCM gymnasium where the mercury must have topped 90 degrees.
And so, after all the shaking came the planning as White House staffers called newsrooms with a detailed agenda:
“Hey, the president wants to visit the university in Warrensburg.”
“OK, how come?” says the editor.
“Something about the economy.”
“Sounds good. Hey, Sally, go cover the president at the university in Warrensburg.”
“Warrensburg. You know, they got that dog on the courthouse lawn.”
“Oh, sure, sure. What’s the topic?”
“Something about the economy.”
The patriotic bunting was unfurled on porch railings. Flags and flag-decorated balloons lined Holden and Pine streets. The Highway Patrol locked down DD Highway, and just about every piece of heavy machinery from Warrensburg public works blocked the sidewalks into the campus quad.
A voracious line of nine, wait, 16…hang on, someone said more showed up later…protestors queued up along the “free speech zone” by the amphitheater along Holden Street.
A man dressed in a black T-shirt with the word “Infidel” below some Arabic writing walked around carrying a sign that said “Illegal Prez,” or was it the sign that said “Egypt Got it Right.” No, I think it was the sign that said “Impeach Obama.”
I asked the guy who held aloft the “Egypt Got it Right” sign how Egypt got it right. He said they overthrew the Muslim Brotherhood-backed government.
“So, you think we should resort to violence?” I asked.
But he insisted that we must overthrow our elected leader.
I asked him how it’s going in Egypt.
“It’s unstable,” he said.
But Egypt got it right.
Who wants a president who can fly into town, complain about an obstructionist Congress and then lay out a nebulous plan that targets our children?
He actually thinks it’s OK that the university allows a public school district to train youngsters in high-tech gadgetry, get an internship at a high-tech firm and use that money to pay for a bachelor’s degree in two years.
Health insurance! Whatever Obama! I eat dirt like all good Americans. It’s full of minerals and that healthy bacteria stuff.
“But we have to get back our focus on what’s important,” Mr. Obama said. “An endless parade of distractions, political posturing and phony scandals can’t get in the way of what we need to do.”
Nothing phony about that IRS scandal. Some guy in a trucker hat with a deer inside crosshairs that says “The buck stops here” told me you ordered that scandal.
And you think helping kids get a high-tech education is what’s important? Hey, we got the vo-tech. Leave that electronic wizardry to the Yu-Gi-Oh losers at the comic book shop.
“I’m not going to allow gridlock, inaction or willful indifference to get in this country’s way,” he said. “Where I can act on my own, I’m going to. I’m not going to wait for Congress.”
Whoa there! You mean as hard as the Republicans try to block, you think you can still do stuff?
Invest in education. Invest in manufacturing. Invest in science and research. Invest in transportation. Invest in information systems.
Great, more spending.
Let the bridges fall. That creates jobs right there.
You just wait, buster. Pretty soon I’m going to coin another catchy slogan to snub you but good.
“If you think education is expensive, you should see how much ignorance is going to cost in the 21st century.”
Hey, what? Wait a second.
It’s not the sexiest display, and it has little direct relation to the museum’s namesake, Dwight D. Eisenhower. But Ernie Pyle, the Soldiers’ Reporter, has his own place inside the Eisenhower Presidential Library and Museum in Abilene, Kan.
I once had a crusty editor at the newspaper where I worked who bristled at stories filled with “the usual suspects.” It was infuriating for him to read the stilted government-speak of these talking heads.
“Goddammit, talk to some real people,” he’d say.
That’s a lesson I carry over to my students – tell readers what regular people are doing. Tell us how they feel and how they are affected.
That’s what Ernie Pyle did. He cared little for the generals, the officers, the diplomats, the presidents and the prime ministers.
He traveled with the soldiers, dodged the same bullets and told their stories. So, maybe that’s where he fits into this museum dedicated to one of the world’s greatest talking heads.
Ernie Pyle was there to experience the decisions made by generals and presidents and prime ministers.
One of the two panels reprinted a column that Pyle wrote about soldiers mourning the loss of an officer while fighting in Italy. He won a Pulitzer Prize for these columns.
This is a well-known column about the death of Captain Waskow, which the Ernie Pyle World War II Museum in Dana, Ind., and the Scripps Howard Foundation make available for reprinting from time to time. It’s plainly written and stark, yet there’s this sensitivity that permeates the whole column.
“Then a soldier came and stood beside the officer, and bent over, and he too spoke to his dead captain, not in a whisper but awfully tenderly, and he said:
“I sure am sorry, sir.”
We didn’t plan this trip to the Eisenhower library and museum on Sunday. It just sort of happened. And I’m glad we went. Experiencing a piece of Ernie Pyle outside of a textbook and classroom was quite thrilling.
And experiencing Eisenhower in the same fashion was just as exciting. As we made our way into a modest theater to view a historical film about Ike, I couldn’t help but reflect how fitting our visit was on the eve of Memorial Day.
What an excellent way to honor the day.
We all need these historical reminders. Ike was an interesting man – the kind of Republican anyone could get behind. He was truly a forward thinker, a global leader and a remarkable ambassador for peace.
Ike may have ripped off R. Buckminster Fuller in his April 16, 1953 address to the American Society of Newspaper Editors when he said:
“Every gun that is made, every warship launched, every rocket fired signifies, in the final sense, a theft from those who hunger and are not fed, those who are cold and are not clothed.
This world in arms is not spending money alone. It is spending the sweat of its laborers, the genius of its scientists, the hopes of its children. The cost of one modern heavy bomber is this: a modern brick school in more than 30 cities. It is two electric power plants, each serving a town of 60,000 population. It is two fine, fully equipped hospitals. It is some fifty miles of concrete pavement. We pay for a single fighter with a half-million bushels of wheat. We pay for a single destroyer with new homes that could have housed more than 8,000 people. . . . This is not a way of life at all, in any true sense. Under the cloud of threatening war, it is humanity hanging from a cross of iron.”
“It is now highly feasible to take care of everybody on Earth at a higher standard of living than any have ever known. It no longer has to be you or me. Selfishness is unnecessary. War is obsolete. It is a matter of converting the high technology from weaponry to livingry.” – R. Buckminster Fuller
He leaned into the engine compartment, the rain misting and blowing like a giant, continuous raspberry from the sky, and he checked the oil as a perfectly round, woven ball of hay sat fixed to the roof of his Toyota Yaris.
“Excuse me, sir. What’s the story with the hay,” I asked, ranging over from my gas pump at the Expressways at 13 Highway and Business 50.
“It’s an art project but also a roadside attraction that travels,” said Michael Shaughnessy, throwing away the oily paper towel and returning to graciously talk about his adventure.
I thought maybe he was on his way to feed some spoiled heifers or maybe he was delivering yard art to a friend out in the country.
No, turns out Mr. Shaughnessy is a serious artist from Portland, Maine. And he’s driving his woven hay ball across the country. He made a brief stop in Warrensburg Friday on his way to Kansas City. And he’s headed to Portland, Ore., documenting his encounters and trading photos with curious people like myself.
“OK, look at the hay ball…smile!”
Mr. Shaughnessy is quite pleasant and our brief visit was nice. But it wasn’t until I lurked on his website when I felt the gravity of this guy. And that’s when I recalled seeing one of his installations at the Kemper Museum in Kansas City years ago – some massive woven hay installation.
“We don’t have enough wonders in the world and things that just make people smile,” Mr. Shaughnessy said.
He’s shown his work all over the place, from the Lehman Art Gallery in the Bronx, New York, and the Portland Museum of Art in Maine to the Kemper Museum of Contemporary Art and Design in Kansas City and the University of Missouri in Columbia.
“For many years my work has involved the sculptural use of hay. As a grass it is a material that is familiar and accessible. It is used across cultures and it carries a depth of history and associations. It is seasonally based and regenerative, according to the artist’s statement on his website.
“Formally, my works embrace multiple aesthetic sensibilities ranging from minimalism to intuitive abstraction. It is highly social with a strong populist concern. It values artisanship and common and collaborative labor. By virtue of its material, its handling and forms it resonates with social/political and environmental associations and concerns.”
So, yes, his excursion across America is part traveling art exhibit and part social experiment. And it worked. On me at least.
That ball of hay pulled me from the daze of a long day staring at a screen, meetings and all-pervasive thoughts of “What next.” And, yeah, I may have smiled, too.
Go lurk for yourself: www.thehayball.com.
The soldier lay dying. He clutched at his canteen for a drink and the water spilled down his chin. He let it go and tried pushing himself up but slumped back down. He reached up, his hand clenching into a claw and it began to twitch.
“Hey Mark, are you dead or wounded?”
My son looked up at me as soon as he heard the question, and we both laughed as the guns exploded and men in impeccable period costume reenacted the Battle of Lone Jack.
Smoke from canons and black powder guns wafted over the battlefield Sunday as hundreds of people in colorful and comfortable summer clothes safely watched from behind a roped-off perimeter as men in drab gray and blue wool uniforms blasted one another.
August 16 marked the 150th anniversary of this terrible battle, and the Lone Jack Historical Society put together an unbelievable weekend to commemorate the event. There were reenactments on Saturday and Sunday, along with a candlelight tour of the old farmhouse near where Confederates conspired to take on the Missouri militia men who just rode into town from Lexington.
The battle actually took place in the middle of town. The reenactment was moved to the old farmhouse a bus ride away down U.S. 50. The owner of the house, Steve Brown, told multiple groups of people who filed into the house after the reenactment that it was built in 1882 by James Washington Noel, whose grandson lives at John Knox Village.
The house was temporarily named “Cave House” for the hotel where Union Major Emory S. Foster set up his headquarters. A yellow flag was hung outside, as it was Sunday, to designate the hotel as a field hospital.
Foster, you see, arrived in town the previous night, blasting away at a Confederate camp and inspiring Col. Vard Cockrell and his rebel buddies to take it to the militia early the next morning. Well, both sides tore each other apart – literally. After the ammo was gone, they used their hands to kill one another.
My boys and I arrived just in time to catch the next-to-last bus to the reenactment. I hustled to find the ticket table and immediately recognized the lady making announcements over a PA system. It was my old friend from Lee’s Summit, Kathy Smith. Kathy is one of the coolest people on the planet. And I realized as soon as I saw her that I missed her terribly. We only chatted briefly, but as my sons and I walked away she made an announcement that Matt Bird-Meyer, former Lee’s Summit Tribune editor, was there. Then she announced a Lee’s Summit councilman was also there.
Kathy is so cool.
Anyway, we made it to the reenactment site and watched the action with the mayor of Lee’s Summit, Mayor Randy Rhoads. I know, probably the coolest name for a mayor ever.
The battle was good, but the Confederates chased the state militia away, again. It was impressive to see the amount of detail that went into the battle, from the uniforms to the bits of action. The only thing missing was the hand-to-hand combat.
They dropped the ropes after the battle and allowed the spectators onto the battlefield, the ground littered with spent black powder paper packages. We mingled with the troops, gawked at the guns and artillery. I jumped in line to go into the old farmhouse. Meanwhile, my boys scoured the grounds and came back with handfuls of caps and even a paper package still full of black powder.
It was a fantastic way to spend a Sunday. The sky was brilliant blue with big, puffy clouds. The action was exciting and the occasion was historic. I was happy to reflect on its significance with my boys, even if they were more interested in the guns and the old stuff.
He casually removes his ball cap, revealing dirty blond hair tied back in a ponytail, and fishes a pack of cigarettes from his front shirt pocket while discussing the finer points of futility.
“What I like to do is invest a huge amount of time in something that doesn’t make a difference,” said Tommy Thompson, lighting his cigarette.
Tommy and I sit in the shade of a large bald cypress tree, surrounded by several empty, comfortable chairs and dead butts, clearly indicating a popular gathering place for friends and neighbors.
Tommy points to a small windmill standing next to a huge white barn between his old 1913 farmhouse and the rough red barn that used to be the Hazel Hill Mercantile.
“Look at that, look at that,” Tommy says. “That’s a wind generator. I have 13 of ‘em. This is my second restoration.”
The wind machine he so fondly indicated is a Parris-Dunn. It doesn’t look like much, but to Tommy it is a useless something to master for its technical, Zen-like coolness. You see, when the wind is too strong the propeller automatically tips back to dump out the excess breeze.
“It is so hip,” Tommy says, his deep voice softening. “Put one of ‘em out there and watch it turn.”
Tommy sits relaxed in his dirty blue jeans, his face framed by a white beard. His loose demeanor indicative of a hardworking farmer who, just the other day in 90-plus degrees, was digging fencepost holes, some by hand when the auger couldn’t make it.
But he’s more than a farmer. Tommy’s a retired art teacher. He’s an avid birder, never going far without binoculars. He’s a tractor junkie, a voracious reader and a potter and watercolor painter. He restores furniture and old Jeeps. He’s also the co-founder of the Hazel Hill Mercantile.
He and his best friend Lou Atkinson, with whom he used to make Mission Style furniture, started the biannual sale some 12 years ago. They attracted vendors and shoppers from a wide area who sold and bought all kinds of stuff – pottery, furniture, jewelry, melted bottles, paintings, etched glass, cool felt hats.
It was a real destination shop in the middle of nowhere – 14 miles northwest of Warrensburg. People came from all over and I’ve heard it described more than once as a sort of picnic atmosphere. Strangers became friends, old friends became reacquainted and time just sort of slowed down to a country pace.
The two friends met while teaching at Odessa Middle School. Tommy retired in 2001 after 26 years. Lou is going on 34 years and teaches industrial arts technology.
Tommy sent a note to their vendors in August 2011 to break the news he was closing Hazel Hill. His insurance company demanded a separate commercial policy, but Tommy didn’t see the point in raising prices on the vendors just to make the same amount of money. So he closed. Lou has since reopened in a converted gas station just east of Sedalia in Smithton.
Together, the two friends thoroughly enjoy making projects that don’t make a difference. They spent a summer building a gypsy wagon, which was actually quite popular and a good marketing tool for Hazel Hill.
Walking through Tommy’s woodworking shop, he shows off the old cash register Lou converted into a rather bulky breadbox. Next to that is the wooden skeleton of a pump organ Tommy is restoring into a desk.
“We both enjoy trying to make something out of nothing,” Lou said during a telephone interview.
Hazel Hill Mercantile is done, but Tommy has plenty of things to keep him busy. He lives where the stars are unimpeded by city lights, where neighbors who might have broken down in the field readily come calling to borrow your truck. His morning ritual is coffee in a glass sunroom where the birds are easy to spot.
Then, it’s out to work the cows or fix something at one of his rental properties or help feed a neighbor’s herd or tinker with an ongoing project.
He used to paint with watercolors, but it’s been several years. And it’s been about nine months since he’s thrown any pottery. There’s simply not enough time. But that doesn’t mean he’s turned his back on the arts. Tommy is a member of the artists’ co-op at the Old Drum Trading Co. & Gallery in downtown Warrensburg where he has pottery for sale.
Time is precious when there’s a roof to fix, a building to demolish, additions to be built and cows to care for. But he finds time for other things. He said he was given the nickname Gonzo for his attraction to that “gonzo feeling.”
“Oh, we got us this old tractor and we’re going to take the whole day to drive somewhere and load up this old tractor that’ll maybe never run and bring it back,” Tommy said, his voice soft at first. “And when it fires up the first time and sets fire to the barn – that is quite a rush. And we did that. And all we had was snow and everybody’s grabbing handfuls of snow and throwing it on the tractor to put the fire out.”
He also has a keen eye for good stuff. His yard is a testament, not only to the hundreds of trees he’s planted, but to the perfectly salvageable items he’s accumulated. The mercantile itself is made of mostly salvaged materials, including cool rounded windows from an old building at the State Fair in Sedalia.
Three Jeeps languish behind his house, nearly obscured by the brush – more projects in the queue. And strapped to the cypress that so generously shaded us on a hot afternoon, is a massive, rusty posthole digger.
It’s a 420-pound Prewitt posthole digger Tommy salvaged from a fencerow. And he’s just as eager to describe its inner workings as he is the wind machines. The machine was manufactured in Pleasant Hill and bolts to the back of your tractor. The long Acme screw on top helps to slowly drive the augur into the ground.
“Think you’ll get it going?” I ask.
“Oh yeah! Just think about it,” Tommy says. “It’s a huge waste of time!”
Deep into a glass of Buffalo Sweat, I didn’t notice the music had stopped until the bar owner suddenly broke off our loud conversation.
“Wait, Pete’s trying to tell us a story,” said Andrea Valentine.
Then Pete Rodenberg did something he, and many other singer/songwriters, avoid – he explained the next song. He told us a story about Howdy Holmes.
It was funny at first, of course, like a couple of rural dudes greeting one another, “Howdy, Holmes!” But then it gradually became clear that the president of the Chelsea Milling Company, the makers of Jiffy cornbread mix, provided Pete a sort of epiphany.
I didn’t realize it at the time, but here we were at a small downtown Warrensburg bar, witnessing the tail end of Pete’s five-year adventure to meet the subject of a song he wrote. It is a 30-something coming of age story that began as a running joke in a restaurant kitchen and culminates in a touching and extremely catchy, lowdown twangy tune.
Five years ago, Pete worked as a manager at Stumpy’s House of Bar-B-Que in St. Peters, a suburb of St. Louis, where they made huge sheet pans of cornbread. Well, one day Pete looks at the back of a Jiffy box and reads the thank you note from the company president, Howdy Holmes.
“Well, we thought it was hilarious,” Pete said during an interview.
“Howdy, Holmes” turned into a running joke with a co-worker that quickly became well played out. But not played out enough for his buddy to eventually bring Pete some research he found on Mr. Holmes. Turns out he is a former open-wheeled race car champ who eventually became president of his family’s flour milling business that dates back to the early 1800s.
“I’m looking at this and I say, ‘You know, I’m gonna write a song about this,” Pete said.
So, he wrote the progression and then wondered what to sing about. And from his co-worker’s research, he found the perfect hook from Howdy’s grandmother, “Now Miss Mabel, you tell your father them good hot biscuits will be ready in a jiffy.”
Apparently this was uttered by the family’s housekeeper. Later in life, the story goes, Mabel came to own the family business and saw two boys sitting and eating what appeared to be terrible sandwiches. She learned that their single father, who knew nothing about cooking, made those sandwiches.
That was inspiration enough for Mabel to create a product that was cheap and simple to make. They needed a name and Mabel remembered her housemaid’s words about the hot biscuits that would be ready in a jiffy.
Yes, so it all fit together perfectly. Pete basically put the history of Jiffy muffins to song. But he shelved the unfinished tune, and it wasn’t until he and his girlfriend split and Pete moved from St. Louis to Kansas City that the song became fully realized.
His roommate, Josh Bach, had a recording studio in his home. Pete pulled out the Jiffy tune, played the hook and Josh says, “Stop, get in the car.” They drive to a Guitar Center so Josh can buy a new Telecaster.
Pete is hesitant, but Josh insists it’s necessary. “Don’t worry about it. We need this.”
The next day, Pete returns from work and Josh had finished the song. There’s the Telecaster twang, organ, harmony, drums and Pete’s acoustic guitar and harmonica.
It’s brilliant. And it’s called, “(Now Miss Mabel) You Tell Your Father Them Good Hot Biscuits Will Be Ready in a Jiffy.”
The following year, Pete is teaching English as a second language at Western Illinois University in Macomb for the summer. He’s bored one day and thinking about a Howdy Holmes quote he remembered reading. So Pete looked up the Chelsea Milling Company address, wrote a note and sent the song in May 2009.
“I broke up from this long-term relationship, so I’m in disarray and I’m trying to figure out what I need to do,” Pete said. “I realize I made some poor decisions and I need to pick myself up and fix myself.”
The quote goes like this: “When I look back, I can’t believe I really did that,” Holmes said of his career as a racecar driver. “To be fortunate to be able to make a career out of what you love, very few people are able to do that.”
Soon Pete gets a call from Chelsea, Mich. The caller wants to verify that he is, indeed, the Peter Rodenberg who sent the company this song before Howdy Holmes calls. Sure enough, 15 minutes later, Mr. Holmes calls. The two share a long conversation and Howdy says how much they all love the song. Mr. Holmes sends Pete a package, including some witty T-shirts with sayings like, “If you don’t know Jiffy, you don’t know muffin.”
Pete eventually decided to get his master’s in ESL and, two years later, celebrated his degree by buying Phish tickets for Deer Creek, Ind. Four hours north is Chelsea, Mich., and Pete planned to visit the Jiffy factory before the two-night concert.
He makes it to the factory and he’s waiting for a tour. A lady tells him that, unfortunately, the tours for the day have ended. Pete then tells her why he’s really there.
“Oh my god, that’s you!” the lady exclaims.
It wasn’t long before Howdy walks in and they meet and share another long conversation. Howdy walks Pete through the plant, via the employee door.
“We started chatting, just like we did on the phone,” Pete said. “He wanted to know about me. I was, I don’t know. I wasn’t shocked. I was flattered, really.”
So, Pete gave him a condensed version of his life, including the job he has teaching ESL in China at the end of August. And Pete could tell Howdy was impressed that he has goals and he’s working toward them.
Pete hooks up with a company liaison who takes him out for lunch and, the next day, on a jaunt to The Henry Ford, the amazing museum of Americana and innovation in Dearborn.
Jiffy doesn’t advertise, so they really have no use for Pete’s song, other than to fully enjoy the cool tune. But Pete walked away with quite a story.
And it was that night, June 30 at the Neptune in downtown Warrensburg, when Pete was making his way back home from his jaunt to see Phish and meet Howdy Holmes.
“That meant a lot to me that you guys, the five people at the bar, were that interested in what I was saying, to be honest,” Pete said. “That’s what life is about – is to make these whole stories, is to do something, you know?”
You can hear the full version of the song here: http://www.reverbnation.com/peterrodenberg.