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WENZEL: A new challenge awaits

On a summer day 23 years ago, a letter appeared on the desks of the editors at two regional newspapers, The Daily Republic of Mitchell and the Huron Daily Plainsman.

It outlined the hopes and dreams and outright pleas of a 22-year-old with a full head of hair who only wanted to work at a daily newspaper. Surprisingly, both editors bought the pitch, and the kid couldn't believe his luck: He had his choice of sports-writing jobs in Mitchell or Huron.

At that time, those newspapers were roughly the same size in staff and subscribers. The kid had to make a tough decision, and he opted to write for The Daily Republic.

Why? Simple economics. The Mitchell paper paid $500 more per year, or about $9.62 more per week. Again, what luck.

He figured he'd spend a year or two at The Daily Republic, and then parlay that experience into a sports position at a bigger newspaper. He dreamed that someday, he'd write about Major League Baseball.

But on his first day on the job, a pretty girl in the advertising department caught his eye. She turned him down when he first asked for a date, but they eventually married, built a house on the south edge of town and were blessed with two sons.

That young sports reporter was me, and that is the story of what I will always consider the most important years of my life.

Friday is my last day at The Daily Republic, and I'll most likely spend it remembering those early times here. I'll take a moment to wonder how the stars mysteriously aligned into some unique cosmic position and allowed a kid with no journalism degree or experience to snag a job as a sports reporter and two decades later end up as a publisher with a wonderful wife, two great kids and an incredible opportunity before him.

Around 4 or 5 p.m. on Friday, I'll pack up the final mementoes of my time here and begin a new adventure as the 10th publisher in the history of the Grand Forks (N.D.) Herald and its two subsidiary publications, Agweek and Prairie Business magazine. I'll move there in the coming days, and the family will leave for Grand Forks in May.

There's a rumor that a cake may be arriving Friday. If so, I will enjoy that treat and some fellowship with my co-workers, many of whom I have worked with for years. But believe me, today is the most bittersweet day of my life.

I am fortunate to be a member of the generation that bridged journalism's most notable gap. When I arrived here in 1991, we still produced photographs in the darkroom — on deadline — and pasted up our pages by hand. Our pages were exclusively black-and-white. The fax machine was new and innovative.

Today, we ease along with digital color photos, full pagination by computer and, of course, the Internet. Smart phones take great photos and deliver stories instantaneously.

By my rough calculation, I've been involved with the production of some 6,900 editions of The Daily Republic, and I wrote a least something — a story, a column, a headline or an editorial — in just about all of them. That's approximately 17 percent of all Daily Republics ever produced over the course of 135 years.

I have worked with some great people and learned a few hard lessons. I've been inspired by a few of my many bosses. I've made some great friends and, unfortunately, a few enemies.

Newspapering really isn't a tough profession, and a good rule to follow is this: Work hard, and when you hear news or have an opinion for the editorial page, just put it in the paper. Follow that rule and you never really have to make difficult decisions based on friendships or business. The real friends will stick around no matter what and the advertisers hopefully will, too. It all pans out in the end.

There were long hours involved — not necessarily as publisher, but sports reporters and editors often have terrible, grueling schedules. The payoff is the joy of seeing the finished product each morning and knowing you had a role in it. It's quite a thrill.

One of my first nights on the job here, an old hand in the paste-up room watched me struggle as I tragically missed deadline. He looked up from his work and said, to my face, "I've seen a lot of guys come and go, and I just don't think you're going to make it in this business."

That hurt. But it also drove me to prove him wrong, and maybe someday I'll actually feel that I have. I sure don't yet.

Farewell, Mitchell. You have been so good to the Wenzels. We will be forever appreciative and will be great ambassadors for this city and region.

But a new challenge awaits.

Today, I will walk out of this building's doors as a bald, middle-aged married man with two teenage sons. But really, I feel I'm leaving just as I arrived — the luckiest darn kid around.