Column: Reflections on The Mirror
Only 10 years ago, I was a graduate student majoring in journalism at Kansas University. I needed six more hours to graduate and had enrolled for the fall semester. A professor learned that the World Company planned to start a newspaper in Tonganoxie, where I lived. He made a phone call. Within days, I had a job interview and an offer to be news editor. I happily accepted, knowing I could pick up the college hours later.
It wasn’t your typical land-a-job and go-to-the-office gig. Negotiations to purchase the existing Tonganoxie Mirror newspaper were still in the works. The Mirror’s future office next to the post office was being remodeled. For the first month, I worked out of my home and from the Journal-World at Lawrence — gathering story ideas, calling sources and learning how to build pages on the computer.
On Sept. 7, 1999, the new Mirror rolled off the presses and into Tonganoxie. Its new design took readers by surprise. Subscribers who picked up their newspapers at the post office paused to turn the pages, checking out the 117-year-old newspaper’s crisp new look.
It was an exciting time to work at The Mirror. The city was on the cusp of change. Just the year before, U.S. Highway 24-40 had been widened from two to four lanes. Down the road, heavy equipment rumbled along, preparing ground for construction of Kansas Speedway. The site of today’s Legends retail and entertainment district was an unbroken pasture.
The new Mirror came about when Tonganoxie itself was getting a facelift. During our first weeks at the new office, heavy equipment tore out the downtown sidewalks, shaking buildings and rattling windows. The following spring, just as downtown renovation, complete with trees and new lampposts, was wrapping up, another kind of commotion took place.
At 9:30 p.m. May 11, 2000, tornado sirens sounded. The twister tore in from the west, shredding buildings on Hubbel Hill before slamming into Tonganoxie. The storm demolished the county fairgrounds, shifted houses on foundations, sent roofs spiraling, splintered trees and overturned vehicles. Tragically, the storm claimed the life of a 4-year-old girl when a porch roof collapsed during cleanup. Despite the chaos, The Mirror staff regrouped early the next day to publish a special free edition.
Through the past decade, many of The Mirror’s stories focused on growth. In 1999, Tonganoxie’s population was 2,700. It’s now more than 4,300, a 58 percent increase. In one of those years, Tonganoxie was the fastest growing city in Kansas.
In 1999, school leaders were pleased when enrollment increased by even half a dozen new students. They had no idea that enrollment would grow so quickly in the coming years that a new middle school would be built and that now, in 2009, the grade school again would be overcrowded.
Housing played a role in the growth. In 1999, you were lucky if you could find a house for sale in Tonganoxie. That changed as the city annexed land. Developers and builders went to work, and soon there were plenty of new houses on the market.
Today, though growth has stalled with the economy, Tonganoxie will continue to expand. Within a few months, Leavenworth County will have an access to Interstate 70. Eventually, Tonganoxie may well become the most convenient commuter town in the Kansas City-Lawrence area.
Writing about growth doesn’t mean I’m in favor of it. I grew up here and moved back in the late 1990s. I liked Tonganoxie when it had a grocery store, hardware store and dry-goods store on Fourth Street. It’s ludicrous that the post office is moving to the highway, further decimating the downtown business district. I have no comprehension how that can possibly be termed progress. I was not in favor of the turnpike interchange; I liked the rural landscape just the way it was. As a news editor, I could not express my opinions. Now, as a private citizen, I can.
All these stories, and hundreds more, have been covered in The Mirror these past 10 years. We wrote happy stories; we covered tough stories. Some of these stories drew praise from readers, others drew sharp criticism. But The Mirror’s goal isn’t to gain kudos. It’s to report the news and reflect the life and times of a community. That’s what we did. That’s what The Mirror’s staff continues to do today.
Ironically, none of The Mirror’s original staff works there today. Journalism is an interesting profession. You attend so many events, report on so many stories, and stay late at work so many nights that sometimes you begin to wonder, “Am I living life, or am I just sitting here at a desk writing about life?” The job takes over your life, but you joyfully accept it because every day is fascinating. Every week there are new stories to cover, new photos to take. However, after seven and a half years working in a job I loved at The Mirror, even I knew it was time for a change and turned my career to media relations.
Since 1999, The Mirror has told the Tonganoxie story. It’s a story of a small town that has undergone vast change in a mere decade. It’s a story of a town that will continue to grow. It’s the story of the people who live here. And, thanks to the dedicated staff, it’s a story The Mirror will continue to tell.