This article was originally posted in the September 16, 2021 issue of the Custer County Chief.
CALLAWAY – On Sept 8, Sept. 30 was but three weeks away. As of that date, editor Mike Wendorff, co-owner of the Callaway Courier, hadn’t yet decided what the last issue of the Callaway newspaper would be.
“I haven’t decided,” Wendorff told the Custer County Chief. “I don’t know what it will feel like to write that last column.”
The Sept. 30, 2021 issue will be the last issue of the Courier. After 32 years, Mike and Suzanne Wendorff are stepping away. He said there was some interest expressed by potential buyers but nothing serious.
The current incarnation of the Courier started in 1968 with Rhoda and Dr. Mike Chaloupka. The Loup Valley Queen newspaper had just gone out of business and it was decided Callaway still needed a newspaper. Over the years, the paper changed hands several times. Wendorff and his wife, Suzanne, bought it from Bob and Penni Jensen in 1989.
“I was out of college for a year and a half and I had worked at the Wisner News-Chronicle and was ready to move on,” he said.
It was a homecoming for Wendorff though he’s originally from Fresno, Calif. He had lived in Callaway before, joined the Army, had worked at Sperry-New Holland after his discharge, and went back to college when the economy foundered. He found journalism, he said, by “stumbling into a class for Intro to Mass Communication.” Suzanne was from Eddyville where her family had remained at their family farm.
In the beginning, they both worked on the paper. Ask anyone in the professional media and communication business and they will tell you the hours are crazy. Wendorff remembers a Christmas Day, getting to work at 5 a.m., taking a break during the day to unwrap presents with their two children, then returning to work on the paper until 3 a.m. Add to that to the Fridays and weekends needed to cover sports and the evenings needed to cover board meetings and other events, “It’s a commitment,” he said. “The hours are wacky.”
Wendorff said now is the right time for him to make the change. A new opportunity presented itself in the form a job as the Transit Coordinator and driver for the new Callaway Hospital Public Transit System. “It looked like the job for me,” he said.
At 66, he says he’s not ready to sit in a recliner all day but he is ready to have his evenings and weekends for himself and his family. He and Suzanne have two grown children and four grandchildren. One grandchild recently graduated from UNL and will be married in the near future.
He commented he could be a great-granddad in the not-too-distant future. He said people have expressed sadness and disappointment mixed with understanding. “Now that we’ve come to the end,” he said.
Looking back, most of what he covered for the past three decades, Wendorff says, was pretty much small town news in its purest form.
“I never had to cover a story about a murder or big crime,” he said. “There was the renovation of the hospital. Sports were the big thing.” The times that South Loup made it to state playoffs in volleyball, basketball and football were “huge,” he said.
Asked how he writes his columns, for which he has received several Nebraska Press Association awards, Wendorff said, “I’m a stream-of-consciousness guy. I start writing and sometimes I keep it and sometimes I throw it away. I’m good at that, putting scattered thoughts on paper and having a good time.” He said unless he was angry or upset about something, he usually had no agenda for his columns.
Wendorff loves to write and he expects he’ll start writing again in about six months. It will be different, though. “I’ll write for me,” he said. Asked if he has a novel to write, he quoted E.W. Scripps, of the publishing giant Scripps-Howard, “Inside every reporter, there is book. And that is where is should stay.”
Like most industries, technology has made sweeping changes in the newspaper world. Twenty to 30 years ago the method of laying out the paper was wax and paste – that is, producing columns of text, then waxing the columns and cutting them to fit the layout (Therein lies the history of the “cut” and “paste” commands we have with today’s computer programs.) As to the wax and paste method, Wendorff said, “Never was anybody so happy as I was when that went away.”
Digital technology has also replaced the dark room where film was developed and prints were made and hung up to dry. Until digital came along, Wendorff said he spent a lot of time in the darkroom.
As for regrets, Wendorff says he really has none about the work he and his wife have done at the Courier. “We printed the truth as we saw it,” he said. “We chose to make Callaway our home and the newspaper was a vital part of that.”
As for media overall, however, he says, “If I regret anything, it’s the loss of the truth. We were always trying to provide the truth. Now people throw up whatever they want and believe whatever they want whether it’s true or not.” He says, however, some people still seek the truth and he has no regrets over owning a small-town newspaper for 32 years.
He recalled Sept. 11, 2001. At the time he was working at both the Courier and the Gothenburg Times. “I was driving, crying, all the way to work,” he said. “I had no idea that people were capable of such acts. It was very quiet, very solemn at the Gothenburg Times.”
He gives a lot of the credit to Suzanne for working with him and supporting him at the Courier. “She put her heart and soul in this,” he said. “She was always stepping up. She came up with good ideas and she had her own career. For that I’ll be forever grateful.”