GRAVES: Happy Birthday MTI; and thank you to its forefathers

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Over the Labor Day weekend, I traveled to visit family and to take in the musical, Hamilton, in Minneapolis. Well, at least, most of us took in the performance. Some of us, the two granddaughters, ages 4 and 1, stayed home, played with plastic Disney castles, dressed in princess dresses (them, not me), and ate ice cream for supper, a bit of candy corn on the side (them and me). As good as Hamilton is purported to be, I'm pretty sure who had the better time.

Still, I was a bit sorry I had missed the musical because it has a historical basis and I am a history guy. To partially compensate for my theatrical AWOL, I listened to the soundtrack on the drive back and I was impressed with the thoughtful, highly accurate treatment the songs gave to the issues of the day including such things as the Washington/Adams transition, the Election of 1800, and even Hamilton's scandal. While I'm certain a better history student than I could pick at certain imprecisions or over- and under-emphases, the content seemed to mirror quite well those historical events of more than two centuries ago.

As I said, I am a history guy, someone who feels a proper understanding of the past is both important and something to be, well, cherished. I despise it when Hollywood, a frequent purveyor of misinterpreted or even completely invented events from antiquity, gives birth to a film that sends masses of viewers off on a historical wild-goose chase. I happen to believe, and certain studies support this belief, that even when we are presented with accounts of past events or non-events that are admitted to be fictitious, they have a way of working their way into our memory and cognitive understanding of reality such that we accept them as truth. (To say nothing of those occasions when bad history is presented as good.)

This is one of the reasons I almost never read what is known as 'alternative history,' a literary genre which provides accounts of what might have happened if certain events in history had gone differently — if the South had won the Civil War, if Nazi Germany had not declared war on the United States, etc. This shelf at the bookstore can create long-lasting cognitive confusion.

Which is not to say that the question of how might things have been different is not worth asking, especially to oneself. I sometimes like to consider what decision I would have likely made in the midst of past controversies and opportunities. Would I have been among the teeny-tiny minority of people who supported Christ during his historical ministry or one among the shrieking crowd chanting, to Pilate's queries, "Crucify him!"? In 1850's America, an abolitionist, a fire-eater defending slavery, or one of the many apathetic lumps who just wished the whole issue would go away? Had I met a young Steve Jobs or Bill Gates, would I have invested? It's hard to say. You hope you would have made the right call but it seems a bit self-serving to say you know you would have.

Here's another, and one on a more local level. In the mid-1960s, the state of South Dakota issued an invitation to school districts to host something new; post-secondary vocational-technical schools. Not many schools jumped at the chance but among those who did, Watertown, Sioux Falls, Rapid City, and Mitchell were awarded the task of founding these new educational innovations. It was a historic decision for each of these districts and communities. Had you been a decision-maker back then, would you have seized upon this wonderful opportunity?

I have been the Mitchell superintendent of schools now for a bit short of two decades and one of the truly wonderful, rewarding parts of my job is my work with MTI. But would I have made the right call and urged the school board like my predecessor, Dr. Robert McCardle, to jump at the chance to open a 'vo-tech' in the Corn Palace City? Might I not have instead decided that doing so would be an awful lot of extra work, that it would violate the age-old school administrator principle of 'sticking to your knitting,' of taking our eyes off the ball?

It's a bit scary to think of all the possible reasons not to pursue the Mitchell Area Vocational Technical School in 1968. Scary because that failure to carpe diem, would have meant never bringing the pantheon of Directors/Presidents — Albert Vander Linde, Roy Ziegler, Chris Paustian, Greg VonWald, and Mark Wilson — to our school. It would have meant never being involved in the lives of thousands of our graduates who have first studied here then went on to fulfilling, well-paying careers in the local, state, national, and international economies. It would have meant never building the glorious new campus, this 'shining city on a hill' (OK, more of a prairie), that now gleams forth and greets the hundreds of thousands who travel down I-90 each year. It would have meant not being an integral and critical part of solving the technical employee shortage in South Dakota and the nation. It would have meant never hitting numbers so high in retention, graduation, and placement rates that they threaten nosebleeds. It would have meant not being named to the Aspen Top 10 in 2018. It would have meant, in other words, a dimmer experience and future for students, faculty members, employers, community, state and nation.

Because the right decision was made that resulted in the opening of our technical school one-half century ago, those past 50 years have been so much brighter. But not nearly as bright, I have confidently decided, as the next 50 ... here at MTI.