Friday, January 28, 2011

Before the Flood

June 1991 I took my first news director's job at KSNT TV in Topeka, Kansas.  I had reached a career goal by becoming a news director before age 34.  Those close to me know how tumultuous my personal life was during this period but when I started particular job I was in a very good place indeed.

My first weekend in the position and historic Hoch Auditorium burned to the ground at K.U.  What a way to start the job.  Six weeks into the job I fired my first employee.  A young man who decided that a cut away of kids waving and smiling was appropriate footage at the scene of a car wreck.  Several years later I saw him on ABC in a story about high living in Las Vegas.  He was working as a butler, go figure.

Perry Chester was my first general manager and he did his best to teach me what it takes to run a television station.  I only had 18 months to learn from him because he took off for a better job in the Quad Cities.  We were on a belt tightening rampage and he forced me to lay off beloved anchor Ron Harbaugh.  I wanted to quit.  Harbaugh was a good anchor who was a real leader in the newsroom.  I decided that if Harbaugh was being jettison than the co-anchor should go too.  I don't think poor Chris Gallagher understood what was happening.  I also shuffled the weather department around until we hired Bill Spencer who was one of the great meteorologists I've ever worked with.

The anchor changes were tough and my first pairing of Art Navarro with Helen Neill never jelled.  Topeka wasn't ready for an Hispanic anchor.  Fortunately when Gary Sotir came aboard as GM the first thing he suggested was bringing back Harbaugh.  He took the words right out of my mouth. 

Gary was a very strange man who I never understood until the end of my tenure.  But he had scared me to the point that by the spring of 1993 I was frantically looking for another job.  Gary liked to come and sit on a stool in the newsroom and just watch what was going on.  I would be sitting in my office and wondering what in the hell is he doing?  It wasn't until the very end that he wasn't spying on us, Gary was just bored.  But by the time I had gotten used to his style I had a job offer from the NBC affiliate in Paducah, Kentucky.

It had come just after the most trying period in terms of work I probably ever experienced.  The summer of 1993 brought the greatest flooding in the modern history of the Midwest.  It was a Saturday morning in mid July and I had come in early to prepare a half hour special on the flooding threatening Manhattan.  Around noon my Chief Met Bill Spencer came in and said we were in for a major night of severe weather.  When the weekend weatherman came in at 2 p.m. and saw Bill in the weather office he came to me to complain about getting big footed.  I fired him on the spot. 

It only got crazier.  The storms began rolling in around 7 p.m., horrendous thunderstorms with tornadoes and torrential rains.  I called in a couple of extra bodies and we covered the heck out of this monster storm.  I remember making a beer run for the crew as a reward for a great 10 p.m. effort and reporter Rick Blum called from the Shawnee County Office of Emergency Management.  It wasn't good.  The sheriff was worried that a levee about five miles from the station was weakening and could collapse flooding a massive part of the valley.

Little did we know that already upstream between St. Mary and Wamego the Kansas River would flood massive sections of farm land.  Sheriff Dave Meneley came out to the station to show me the situation with maps in hand.  I called the chief engineer into work at 1 a.m.  Gary was in El Paso and out of reach.  We had to decided whether to sandbag the station in anticipation of a levee breach. 

At about 2 a.m. I decided to go forward with sandbagging operations.  I had to threaten the state emergency management officials within an inch of their lives for the much needed sand and sand bags.  My retort to their initial refusal was, who do I tell at the Associated Press made the decision to let our station flood during this time of great emergency. 

We called in all of our employees and our sports department called the local high school football coaches.  By 5 a.m. we had sand and sand bags along with plenty of football players and we were working like crazy to build a three foot high wall around the station and our transmitter building.  The work was finished by about two in the afternoon on a sweltering out July Sunday afternoon.  I had been awake for 36 hours and of course the levee never broke.  But our coverage through the rest of the month of the flooding that did hit much of the area was outstanding.

I hated leaving Topeka when I did, but some much needed lessons in life awaited me in Paducah.

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