Old School

The staircase steps were small and closely-spaced on purpose, designed for children. Taking them one at time felt like a lot of work without much visible progress. Two or more at a time was just as uncomfortable.

The building started life on the eve of the Great Depression as a school for orphans, on the grounds of the Menninger Clinic in northwest Topeka, high atop a hill, one forest south of the Kaw. By the time I was short-stepping its staircases, the old school was a radio/TV station and the actual orphanage (right across the parking lot) was a Menninger outpatient unit.   

By the late ‘90s, WIBW radio and TV had gone their separate ways and moved to shiny new digs. For the better part of a dozen years, the old school building-slash-radio and TV station sat vacant, visited only by vandals, ne’er-do-wells, and ghosts of broadcasts past.

(Aren’t vandals ne’er-do-wells by definition?)

Echoes of 13 News at Ten, farm reports, weather forecasts and radio newscast signoffs (“W-I-B-W radio newstime… is 12-oh-four…”) Fond memories of a compartment of the lives of those of us who worked there.          

A life compartment. Up in flames.

The television and radio station building is gone. The old school burned to the ground earlier this month.

My compartment began in the spring of ’85 and ended in the summer of ’94, toiling side-by-side with fellow broadcast professionals, each to their own talents and skill.

With apologies to Bryan Adams, we were young and wild and free. A time when life was lived between the blinders. All you see was all you saw.

In that compartment, the tendency was to get all wrapped up in what was right in front of you: malfunctioning equipment, underappreciated value, who’s doing whom in the edit bay, the ineptitude of management.

The heat of the moment.

At that stage of your career, it’s all gung-ho and rah-rah. Get the story. Beat the competition. And if you don’t beat ‘em, at least make fun of ‘em.  

These were the things that mattered. In the old school, your work was your life.

Only later, with the benefit of time, space and approaching precipices (precipici?), does it begin to dawn on you that maybe it was really the other way around.  

The product cranked out of that building was tangible. There were no manufactured goods or proffered services but the broadcast journalism added value to the lives of our viewers and listeners.

Yes, children, back in the Paleo-Internet Era, people actually got their news by turning on a TV or a radio.

It did not start life as a radio and television station. It was a place of learning for troubled orphans.

And now that it’s gone, you’ll have to forgive those of us privileged to have lived a compartment of our lives there, for feeling a little orphaned ourselves.