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WOSTER: My big break... if I could stay at the meeting

Terry Woster

The first time I covered a legislative meeting, I was asked to leave the room just when things were getting good.

My boss with the wire service, Jim Wilson, had warned me that might happen when he assigned me to attend the meeting, take notes and write a news story for the wire.

The committee was meeting during the interim -- the time between legislative sessions -- and the topic was a master plan for public higher education in South Dakota.

Dr. Richard Gibb had been hired to write the plan. He went at it with passion, paying not too much regard to the politics or turf or alumni ties. He and several committees looked at admissions, enrollment projections, buildings and building needs in the future, academic programs, faculty and salaries and -- as if those weren't sticky wickets enough -- the role of each institution in the public higher education system in South Dakota.

The recommendations in the master plan included closing a couple of campuses or making them junior colleges, reducing the number of low-enrollment courses, requiring all graduate programs to be re-justified and a number of other such ideas. Oh, yes. The plan also recommended closing one of the two engineering programs in the state.

That was a more than mildly controversial suggestion. When the Board of Regents followed through and voted to close an engineering school (at South Dakota State University -- although the original proposal had been to end engineering at the School of Mines and make that campus part of a general West River university), the issue wound up in the Legislature.

A bill passed to require engineering at SDSU and that was that. Oh, well, sure, there was a tiny snag for a bit because the wrong version of the bill got signed and so on, but that's a footnote these days. It was, I'll admit, a one- or two-day news story at the time.

So, a legislative committee meeting to discuss a major-league master plan for public higher education was something Jim Wilson thought should be covered and reported for the people of South Dakota.

He was committed elsewhere, and besides, I'd been on the job almost a month. Why not give me a shot at the big time? He sent me into the battle, treating me as if I were a grizzled veteran of 30 or 40 sessions.

OK, he didn't exactly just scoot me out the door in the general direction of the Legislative Research Council meeting room and forget me. He sat me down and explained the issue in some details. (Hey, I'd been a sportswriter for the previous two years. The things on campus that earned most of my attention in that role happened on the football fields or in the fieldhouses of the area colleges and universities. What I knew about the master plan for public higher education, you could pile on top of my career grade-point average and still be a ways short of a four-point)

After explaining the issue and identifying some of the players I could expect to be hearing at the meeting, he then scooted me out the door toward LRC. About halfway down the stairs to third floor, I realized he was walking beside me.

He walked with me to the LRC, opened the main door and pointed to the committee room. Then he told me if the committee succeeded in booting me from the meeting, I should tell the person at the front desk and she would track down Jim to, uh, come to my rescue, I guess.

You could say I was less than completely comfortable as I walked into the committee room, but my legs held up.

I was starting to feel like I belonged when someone suggested an executive session. The point of that suggestion was to shoo from the room anyone who wasn't wanted there, mostly me. I made a speech about the public's right to know. (Who knew that one "Law of the Press'' course would ever come in handy?)

They booted me, anyway, but they let me back in after bit. Maybe they got to thinking about my speech. Or maybe they were done with the good stuff.