When I was in high school, I had no idea what I wanted to do with my life.
I had one goal: escape Kansas City, Kan., and Wyandotte County.
My happiest times growing up were exploring new places. And that wasn’t going to happen, I feared, if I got stuck in KCK.
I suppose I fell in love with exploration on family vacations. Our family always seemed happiest when we were in Estes Park in our rented camper in the Paradise campground along the Big Thompson River just outside Rocky Mountain National Park.
Or when we were in Custer State Park in South Dakota, watching the bison, swimming, fishing, riding horses or visiting Mount Rushmore.
Or camping in Yellowstone National Park where we saw lots of wildlife including begging bears in our campground. (This was before they secured garbage dumps and learned to keep bears wild and away from humans.)
As I got older, exploring meant taking off on my burgundy Astra “Tour de France” 10-speed bicycle accompanied by my best friend, Joe Tomelleri, and brother Jimmy. We rode our bikes for miles all over KCK and beyond. This is Joe and me headed to our high school graduation.
Our biggest adventure came the summer of 1975, before my senior year in high school, when we bicycled 180 miles over three days to a cabin Joe’s grandpa owned on the Lake of the Ozarks. It’s a trip I’ll never forget. But that’s a whole different story.
One of the reasons I explored on my bike was to get out of the house. I was too young to drive so I’d unchain my bike from the front porch and take off when the fighting was too much to take.
My natural wanderlust, and that atmosphere also fueled my desire to escape. But I couldn’t figure out how to get away from home, and KCK, and make enough money so I could see the world.
I had no clue.
Although I always scored well on standardized tests, I wasn’t a motivated student. I enjoyed art, history and writing. Science, math and girls were a mystery to me. (Still are!) I was adrift, academically and personally.
Making things worse was my switch of high schools after my sophomore year. I had been attending Rockhurst High School in Kansas City, Mo., on a scholarship. (I aced the entrance exam.)
Rockhurst was an all-male, college preparatory school staffed by Jesuit priests who pushed their young students hard. Like my parents, they were strong believers in corporal punishment.
At Rockhurst, every student carried a demerit card. Get five demerits in a week and you earned JUG! It stood for Justice Under God. It was worse than its ominous name. Every guy who had JUG had a choice – spend your Saturday doing menial chores like scrubbing urinals with a toothbrush, cutting the grass on the football field on your hands and knees using scissors, or taking swats from 6-foot-2, 220-pound Brother Windmueller.
No one ever took swats more than once.
I did well enough at Rockhurst but it was a 40-minute commute each way from our home him KCK and I was surrounded by rich, Johnson County kids like Len Dawson Jr., son of the Kansas City Chiefs’ Super Bowl MVP quarterback! I didn’t fit in. Worse, my ride to school was with my older brother, Edward, who decided to bail on Rockhurst, leaving me with no ride. So, I transferred to Bishop Ward High in KCK, a few blocks from my home.
It was ugly at Ward, which was a bitter rival with Rockhurst. Ward was not populated by kids who drove expensive cars and lived in mini-mansions. They were working-class families like mine. And they resented the hell out of Rockhurst kids.
When I got to Ward, I was labeled by some as the “Rockhurst faggot” and bullied terribly by a few seniors. I got into several fistfights, as a result.
Luckily, a biology teacher, Dick Adams, befriended me. He must have seen my struggles and my unhappiness. He invited me into his classroom during lunch to avoid my tormenters and offered me encouragement that there was a big world beyond KCK and Wyandotte County.
And he offered me hope that I could escape by going to college.
College had never been on my radar. I had no idea what I wanted to study or how I would even pay for college.
Adams gave me brochures for his alma mater, Pittsburg State College, where he played football for the Gorillas and earned his teaching degree.
His positive influence ignited a fire in me to go to college. But I needed better grades than I had been earning. So I got serious, started working harder, and began studying for the ACT test.
Again, my ability to overachieve on tests paid off when I scored so high I was declared a State of Kansas Scholar, one of just three in our class, and earned a scholarship to any state college.
Of course, getting into college with a funding source was only half the battle. I still had no direction as to what I might want to study. For my freshman year I was a General Studies major. I took a variety of classes and stumbled into a photography class. It led me into a journalism class. In journalism, I was able to combine two of my passions: photography and writing.
It was a revelation. I discovered I had a bit of talent to go with my passions. I pursued both with a vengeance until I decided writing was my best chance for earning a living and maybe seeing the world as a journalist.
I also like that it allowed me to explore. But rather than visiting new places, I would be exploring people, learning about them and telling their stories.
The world travel was to follow.
Of course, when I decided I was serious about journalism, I wanted to get the best education possible and that meant leaving tiny Pitt State and transferring to the University of Kansas and its prestigious William Allen White School of Journalism.
My grades and portfolio of news stories and photos from my work at Pitt State’s Collegio newspaper convinced a J-School official, Suzanne Shaw, to offer me scholarships at KU. Off I went.
It was a transition I would make many times in my life: pick up and move somewhere new and have to prove myself all over again. I didn’t know anyone at Pitt State but went there with a few friends from Ward.
At KU, I knew a few people but the university was so large, I rarely saw them.
When I graduated, I walked into the Associated Press office in Kansas City, Mo., to an office full of strangers. The same thing happened when I transferred to Topeka-AP and to Peoria-AP and finally to Colorado Springs and The Gazette.
I remember being a bit nervous, but I always enjoyed exploring these new jobs, cities and meeting new colleagues. I learned to embrace the unknown and the challenge of proving myself in life. I kept it up later in life, buying two weekly newspapers after leaving The Gazette and, my final challenge, professionally, leaving journalism to become the public information officer at Colorado Parks and Wildlife.
I can thank people like Dick Adams, my high school teacher, for showing confidence in me. And Suzanne Shaw at KU, for recruiting me to Lawrence, investing scholarship money in me and then serving as a key reference when the AP was hiring.
And Lew Ferguson, my mentor at the AP in Topeka who always encouraged me to push and strive for excellence.
There are others who helped me along the way. Rarely do we get anywhere alone. And I’ve always tried to show gratitude to those who helped me. And to serve as a mentor to others and give them a hand in their own careers.