Long ago I worked for an editor in Hutchinson who often began department head meetings with a pop quiz. The test was to see what we knew, or didn’t know, about the town.
Name three of Hutchinson’s city parks. Who’s the postmaster? Mayor? City manager? How did Gowans Stadium get its name? Who runs the hospital? Name the superintendant of schools. Where do the Broncs play ball? How many school districts in Reno County? (Names?)
And other darts. For diversion, he might throw one about state and federal matters, or queries about our congressional delegation, or nearby reservoirs. The idea, a good one, was that people who write and edit a newspaper should get to know their town, its movers and shakers, and what makes the place tick. In the beginning the test results were just above dismal. But in revealing our ignorance we learned a few things about ourselves, starting with knowing what we didn’t know, as Donald Rumsfeld might have said.
We began to get the idea. Some of us even started poking around, an exercise that occasionally led to some lively and informative stories – the appalling number of stop signs, for instance, obscured by overgrown trees and shrubs, a brief history of the soldier’s monument in front of the post office; the story of Cow Creek’s meandering beneath a good part of the downtown; Gowans Stadium, we learned, was named for J.W. Gowans, the Hutchinson schools superintendent who led a campaign to establish “Hutchinson Junior College,” in 1928; its Juco Athletic Field, built in 1938-39, was re-named for Gowans in 1943, the year he retired.
There is a lesson in learning from what we don’t know. It starts with a reporter’s fundamental rule: Don’t ignore the body in the street on your way to the council meeting.
KNOWING WHAT we don’t know helps us to be better reporters, and it would help us all to be better citizens. How many of us can name the mayor, or at least two city council members, our legislators, or at least two of Lindsborg’s parks? How many have read the markers along Välkommen Trail or, even, walked the Trail?
Several years ago, a popular barber hung up his clippers (sort of) after 40 years, and during a thank-you reception at his shop, one that lasted a week, a good number of well-wishers mentioned that they had lived in Lindsborg for many years, and this was their first, or second, trip downtown. One of them had lived in Lindsborg eight years and this was his first time downtown.
You can’t know much about a place if you don’t go there. And it happens, a lot. I suspect that absentee citizenship has much to do with a public’s lack of engagement in a town or, even, in a state, one that has stalled, or is headed backward. Any newspaper edited by people who know little about their town or who runs it is a newspaper losing its grip, its credibility, its circulation. And we have seen how a lack of basic knowledge about our surroundings and how they are managed makes us easy prey for demagogues, first in line to buy the snake oil, eager to beat the carney at his shell game, a good mark for the candidate with an easy plan, the surefire cliché, a foolproof cure.
When someone or something seems good enough to be true, find out if it is. The more we know, the better citizens we can be, the kind who make good choices, not just easy ones.