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WOSTER: W. Springs a stop always anticipated on trips

I haven’t been to Wessington Springs since the tornado hit the town on June 18, but I grew up knowing the place and I’m terribly saddened at the suffering and destruction.

The Spartans, the athletic teams of the Wessington Springs High School, were formidable foes for me and the other Chamberlain High School kids who competed in the late 1950s and early 1960s. That’s how I first came to know Wessington Springs.

Actually, I suppose I first came to know it as the place on Highway 34 that was about an hour from Chamberlain. Topping the hill to the west of town and rolling down toward the turn meant we were about one-third of the way to Brookings for Hobo Day or whatever event was happening.

Wessington Springs nestled in the shade of that western ridge like a modest oasis. If you’ve traveled the 60 or so miles between Fort Thompson and Springs, you know what I mean. Don’t get me wrong. I love the country that flattens out and dries out just to the west of Springs. The whole region is hauntingly beautiful, and more people from the east and west borders of the state should get a chance to see it. But it’s a little empty, I suppose you could say. So when you pop over the hill and see the town — or at least when you did that in my younger days — you were seeing the first place in a while where you could get a meal, something to drink and some fuel.

Coming from the east, Springs was the last chance for those things before Chamberlain, if you took the turn south at Lee’s Corner. Which a journalism-major buddy of mine and I did once on a lightning-quick trip home from college. The buddy had a ’56 Thunderbird, a two-seat sportster with a convertible hard-top. We did the Brookings to Chamberlain trip too fast, even though we stopped for gas and a game of pool in Springs on the way.

What I’m saying is, Wessington Springs is one of the prominent landmarks on that road. It was a place people anticipated for many minutes as they drove east.

It was also a tough sports town when I was young. Still is, I’d say. I followed the Chamberlain granddaughters in basketball and track, and the Springs kids still hold their own in most contests. That’s how it was when I competed for Chamberlain.

That was a time, it seems to me, when not so many parents and fans made road trips to sporting events the way they do these days. Maybe it was just that my folks didn’t often travel with the team, but for whatever reason, when we walked onto the basketball floor in Springs, the Chamberlain rooters were hard to spot amid a packed gymnasium of enthusiastic Spartan supporters.

I recall guarding Gary Schwartz my senior year. He was a state champion in the discus and shot put, a decent hurdler and not a bad basketball player. I don’t know if he outweighed me all that much, but when we faced each other, all I could see was muscle. I don’t remember what some of the other players looked like, but when I think of the games so long ago, I picture a fl oor filled with muscle.

Gary Schwartz came to mind the other evening when I first heard the news of the tornado. I got the call from the Office of Emergency Management director, and I headed to the state’s Emergency Operation Center. On the way, I thought of the town where I’d played basketball and the sidehill track where I ran in a quadrangular meet that included — besides Springs and Chamberlain — Gann Valley and Alpena. I thought of the overlook where I photographed a couple of town leaders for a story, and the Shakespeare Garden where I interviewed a guy who was re-thatching the roof on the cottage.

And I thought of Gary Schwartz and his hometown. Schwartz was a really good guy, when I got to know him. He was decent and strong and determined. He was successful. He came from a town that’s the same way. I’m sure of it.