Reporting from Sedalia, Mo., a quarter-century later

After journalism school, I worked for the Democrat newspaper in 1990-91.
A record player
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South Ohio Street, looking toward the historic Bothwell Hotel.

I was scrambling to find a job in late 1989, in advance of graduating from the University of Missouri School of Journalism.

I had sent my resume to the Berkshire Eagle, a daily newspaper in western Massachusetts, and followed up with an editor by phone.

“You’ve heard of the ‘Massachusetts Miracle,’?” he asked rhetorically, referencing the economic success that former Gov. Michael Dukakis had run on in his failed bid for the White House in 1988.

“The Massachusetts Miracle is over.”

In other words, I wouldn’t be landing at the Eagle. Fortunately, a visit to the Missouri Press Association office in Columbia, Mo., up the street from the j-school, alerted me to an opening at the Sedalia Democrat, about one hour southwest of Columbia.

Late-morning deadlines

The Sedalia Democrat, just as it looked when I left it in 1991.

The Sedalia Democrat, just as it looked when I left it in 1991.

I became the business and education reporter, earning $15,000 per year. I felt fortunate to have a job, and I called Sedalia home from January 1990 to June 1991. Having struggled with the laboratory setting that was journalism school, I made up for lost time at the Democrat.

We had a four-person full-time reporting staff (plus lifestyle and sports sections) in a dynamic community, Sedalia being the seat of Pettis County government and home to the Missouri State Fair. We published weekday afternoons and Sunday mornings (today, the Democrat is a morning newspaper).

Bars stayed open until 2 a.m., which too often made for short rest before I had to be at the newspaper for an 8 a.m. staff meeting and then several fleeting hours of feverish reporting and writing for the late-morning deadline. It wasn’t unusual to have two or more bylines in a given paper.

I had been back to Sedalia only once in the intervening years, and then only for a quick stop in 1998 on the way to a friend’s wedding in Springfield, Mo. That is until April, when I returned to Sedalia as part of a larger road trip across 2,300 miles in six days.

I had reached out to several former Democrat colleagues via LinkedIn, asking whether any of them (they all left the Democrat years ago) wanted to get together. Larry and Kathy Archer, who already were married by the time I joined the Democrat, came in from Jefferson City. Lisa Church had stayed in Sedalia, but she announced to us that she is moving back to her hometown in Cape Girardeau, Mo.

Turkey shooting with the Beaver

I distinctly remember the feeling I had that first day at the Democrat, Christmas decorations still adorning light poles in early January, Larry taking me around to help me get familiar with my new surroundings. For my first story, I had to write about a high school student who had just committed suicide.

I saved clippings of most of the stories I wrote, filling three folders that I hadn’t looked at in many years until I sat down to write this.

I was in Sedalia for the departure of Greyhound bus service and for the first cell phone call. I traveled to nearby Warsaw when Jerry Mathers and Ken Osmond of “Leave It to Beaver” fame visited for a celebrity turkey hunt. Our staff rallied the morning of a major chemical leak at a local factory.

I wrote about “financially troubled” Sears Roebuck and Co. transferring its Sedalia catalog store to local ownership. (Sears today is barely hanging on; I suspect it will go away altogether after the holidays.)

Harry Truman learned in the lobby of the Bothwell Hotel that he would be a U.S. senate candidate.

In the era of machine politics, Harry Truman learned in the lobby of the Bothwell Hotel that he would be a U.S. Senate candidate.

Likewise, downtown Sedalia struggled in the early 1990s. In May 1991, I wrote about a jewelry store leaving, joining other businesses that already had headed to the west side of town, including Sears, JC Penney, another jewelry store and a menswear shop.

That march only accelerated after I left, leaving most of west Sedalia unrecognizable to me this time. And downtown was noticeably quieter than I remembered. I parked on the street, between the courthouse and the Bothwell Hotel, which had been converted back to its original purpose after operating as senior housing when I lived in Sedalia.

I met Larry and Kathy a block from the hotel at Fitters 5th Street Pub. Lisa joined us later. It’s incredible to me how old friends so readily can pick up where they left off, even more than a quarter-century later.

We talked about former colleagues, including 35-year Democrat reporter Ron Jennings, a local legend whose 2012 death was honored with a memorial parade. Ron is enshrined in the Missouri Press Hall of Fame.

Diminished Democrat

I stopped by the Democrat on Friday morning to purchase a copy of the paper and just to look around. Like all newspapers, the Democrat has incurred its share of staff cuts. Maybe more.

From my desk at one corner of the building, I used to look out at the rest of the editorial, advertising and circulation departments. In a morning back then, people abounded, but now I saw maybe 10 employees, only two in the newsroom.

The Sunday paper I purchased had two sections of six pages each and only five stories carrying staff bylines. It was three inches narrower than the Democrat was in 1990.

I love downtowns and newspapers, and it’s sad to see them diminished as they are in Sedalia. South Ohio, downtown’s main street, has a graceful curve that makes it unique. Many buildings along it are underused if not abandoned, but at least they have survived.

I don’t know about economic miracles, whether in Massachusetts or Missouri, but downtown Sedalia needs more than a little TLC.

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The Trust Co. building, which dates to 1886.

Across South Ohio Street from the Bothwell Hotel is the architecturally significant Trust Building, vacant for many years now and in search of a developer. Signs beseech: “This place matters.”

Sedalia, where I started, still matters to me.

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