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WOSTER: Gone but lessons learned in old gyms live on

Driving along Sioux Avenue in Pierre the other evening on my way to fill the pickup with gasoline, I paused at a red light, looked to my left and realized the old city auditorium is gone.

Don't go and alert the media. It's not a news flash. The old building has been gone for a while now, I think. I remember when city leaders talked about demolishing the place. I vaguely remember a story in the local paper about the start of the removal work. I've driven past the spot dozens of times, I'm sure, since the entire site has been nothing but a level square of dirt. I just didn't notice it until the other evening.

When I did, it set me to thinking about all the times I'd been in that drafty, poorly lit old barn. I think we played basketball there when I was in high school. It seems impossible, because I can't imagine it would have held the Pierre fan base. But I have a vague recollection of dressing in the damp basement, of being shoved around in the key by a giant of a post player from the Governors (I was almost as tall as he was, but he outweighed me by 50 pounds, and that was after I'd bulked up to 155 for the basketball season), and I remember how my teammates and I squinted in the dim light of the gymnasium.

The old city auditorium always seemed too small when my daughter's dance class held its spring recital on the stage at the north end, with the entire hardwood floor of the basketball court lined with squeaky, hard metal folding chairs. Nancy's dad and I sat in those uncomfortable chairs and waited through dance after dance for our girl's number, wishing the instructor could see how much talent our girl had, so that she'd be on the stage more than any of the other dancers — never mind that she was probably third or fourth grade at the time.

My father-in-law and I always got along (well, we did after he accepted the fact that I was way too much in love with his only daughter to be frightened off by his gruff manner), but we really bonded in the old city auditorium as we sat side by side, squirming on those awful chairs and whispering snarky asides about the length of the program and the lack of a showcase for the real talent in the dance class.

I suppose every town of any size in South Dakota had a similar auditorium or city hall at one time. At one time, it was an essential part of being a real community, like churches and schools and a grocery store and a place that sold shotgun shells, flashlights, assorted nuts and bolts from metal bins and Baby Ruth candy bars for a nickel.

The old city hall in Chamberlain was torn down not so long ago. I wrote a while back about attending a pow-wow in the new building there in my hometown. It's a great building, but I also liked the old one with the public restrooms and meeting room in the basement, the comfortable gymnasium up the stairs and the city library way, way at the top of the building.

I walked up that last flight of stairs like a man headed for the gallows the first time I had to return an overdue book and face the wrath of Miss Arp. She could be stern about late returns, but I learned that she had a soft spot in her heart for kids who wanted to read.

In the gym, I had a basketball bounced off the back of my skull by a seventh- or eighth-grade basketball coach who didn't like me goofing off while he was trying to teach a group of us the finer points of the game. After he bonked me in the head, he held up the practice for the whole team until I apologized. He didn't apologize for beaning me. I didn't expect him to.

The old city halls may be disappearing, but the lessons and the memories remain.