Webb: Home is where the heart was and is

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The vintage arcade 1984 was one of the main reasons we made the trip to Springfield, Missouri, a few weeks ago. The arcade has an array of old-school games like Track & Field.

A few weeks ago, my wife and I went on a mini-vacation – more of a trip, really – to Springfield, Missouri. Though we’d been planning the trip for several months, it ended being squeezed between two life-changing events: My departure from Metropolitan Community College and beginning a new job at my alma mater, Washburn University.

We’ve had some memorable vacations, most notably more than a week off to visit San Diego in 2015. The 2017 version of a vacation was as much about taking a break from the grind as it was anything.

I recommended Springfield several months ago for a couple of reasons: 1. To satisfy the nerd in me with a trip to the vintage arcade 1984. 2. To revisit where I grew up: southwest Missouri.

I’ve mentioned a few times that I grew up a borderline hillbilly. Let’s just say one of my parents refers to me as “Ernie Bill” to this day. It was the best way the family came up with to differentiate between three people with the same name: Grandpa, dad and myself (Grandpa, at 6-foot-2, was Big Ernie, dad was Little Ernie and I was Ernie Bill, or E.B.).

Much of my brother and I’s upbringing was in the country. We rarely lived in town until high school. In between periods of living several miles outside of Neosho, Anderson and Lebanon, Missouri, we had a small house in the center of Joplin, on the edge of the large swath the F5 tornado left in 2011.

Though we often lived in the middle of nowhere, we were never bored. When we weren’t traveling across the Heartland with our parents on business trips, we were hunting, fishing and playing any sport we could on large, open pastures. I have fond memories of playing catch with my father, the hours of practice resulting in a pretty good Little League career.

I also remember growing up with good, old-fashioned country folks. These were people who worked hard and played hard. Virtually every weekend, there was a large fish fry, followed by a dance featuring a plethora of beer (for the adults, of course).

That part of our life came to an end in 1989 when mom and dad moved us from Lebanon, where we’d been for five years, to tiny Burlingame, just outside of Topeka. Our parents told us about the move just a few weeks before the end of school. A seventh-grader who was finally comfortable at Lebanon Junior High, I was devastated.

In the years after, I often wondered what my former classmates were up to. Sometimes, I wondered how things would have worked out if we’d stayed. Fortunately, social media has connected most of those dots.

As for my wife and I’s trip back to the homeland, I wanted to see how much the towns have changed in the 20 years since I last visited. As we drove around Lebanon visiting the schools I attended through seventh grade, hundreds of memories crossed through my mind: Little League games at Jones Park, dances at the junior high and the first crush.

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Once a clean, well-manicured property, the land I grew up on resembles a junkyard in 2017.

We drove by both places where my childhood homes sat. Both are gone now, one replaced by a plush new home, the other burned to the ground. The latter plot of land now serves as a dumping ground for dilapidated trailer homes, junked out cars and other trash. Gone are the basketball goal I shot on daily and the tree house my dad spent days building while my mom, brother and I were on vacation in California.

 

The more we drove around, the more I thought, “Things seemed so much bigger then than they are now.” It’s a shame that happens.

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Why wife paying respect to a man she never met, unfortunately. My grandfather, Big Ernie, died in 1984.

My wife and I also visited Anderson, Missouri, where I attended kindergarten and first grade, followed by Joplin (second and third grade). We also visited my grandfather at the local cemetery. As my wife cleared off his headstone, I thought about the day he died in 1984. I was only seven, but I’ll never forget the devastation on my father’s face when he hung up the phone.

 

I realized as we were driving home that the trip was closure for me. In some ways, I never got over leaving Lebanon as a 13-year-old and losing several wonderful friends. But, as I looked over at my wife, I realized I never would have met her if we’d stayed. I wouldn’t have three great kids. I wouldn’t have the amazing best friend I’ve had since eighth grade, nor the hundreds of wonderful friends I met in Burlingame and in Topeka. I wouldn’t have attended Washburn University.

I finally came to the conclusion that going back it always good, but so is coming home.

Forever Ichabod: Washburn has always been home

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It’s true: Washburn does move me. Enough so that I’m going back next week.

I spent much of my childhood on the road with my parents, who ran a small leather crafts business. On most weekends, my brother and I would travel with our parents across the Heartland to craft shows throughout the region.

One weekend, my dad and I would wake up at 4 a.m. and drive across Missouri to Hannibal, while mom and my brother would travel into Kansas for a show in Coffeyville. The next weekend, one set would trek to Bartlesville, Oklahoma, and the other to Hillsboro, Kansas.

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Both of my degrees, including a master’s, are from Washburn University.

Once in a while, my brother and I would go on a road trip with one parent, while the other worked the show alone. Topeka just happened to be one of the trips.

Every Fourth of July, my mom would drive from our home in Lebanon, Missouri, to Washburn University, where we set up a booth at Go Fourth. The idea, of course, was that the sons would help their mother. More often than not, we weren’t at the booth.

Instead, my brother and I would run around a campus that seemed gigantic to a couple of borderline hillbillies from southwest Missouri. We spent most of the show in the basement of the Memorial Union, which had a small arcade with about 15 games, a TV room and vending machines.

The Union also had an elevator, which we rode up to the top floor from the basement about 6,594 times. When we weren’t in the Union, we hung out around the fountains in front of Mulvane Art Museum or spent much of our time with the Scardinas, who also had a crafts business and lived in Topeka.

The Scardinas’ sons were amazing hosts, taking the hillbillies to the palace known as West Ridge Mall and letting us ignite half of the fireworks they purchased on the Fourth.

Other than growing up a University of Missouri fan, Washburn was my first experience on a college campus. Not in a million years, however, did I imagine how much an impact the school would have on my life.

Even after we moved 20 miles south of Topeka in 1989, Washburn wasn’t on the radar. When I realized that Mizzou and TCU were out of the price range, I ended up going to Kansas State for a year.

Academically, I did OK. Emotionally, I wasn’t ready. K-State was far too big and far too impersonal. It just didn’t feel like home.

After spending a year at Allen County Community College in Burlingame, where I also went to high school, I really had no idea where I was going to go. I did attend a Transfer Day at Washburn in 1996, expecting to enroll.

I didn’t listen well in 1996 (my wife might argue that I still don’t), so I “heard” that Washburn wasn’t going to take most of my credits during a session on transferring (that wasn’t the case). My dad and I left 45 minutes into the event.

Completely lost, I called several schools when we got home, asking primarily if they had a journalism program. After 30 minutes on the phone, I got a call that changed my life. The Admissions director at Washburn discovered we left early and spoke to me for 20 minutes about the Mass Media department and the University.

He asked if I’d come up for a one-on-one tour of the campus the next day. I came to campus early that next morning, met with the director and Mass Media chairperson and enrolled in classes that day.

Two years later, I was editor-in-chief of the campus newspaper, one of the youngest members of a school board in the state of Kansas and an assistant high school basketball coach. None of that happens if I don’t attend Washburn.

Years later, when I left the newspaper industry, I struggled mightily to find a full-time job. Being a genius, I picked the worst time to change careers: 2010, when the economy rode the struggle bus. After a year of surviving at a part-time job, the Washburn Alumni Association hired me as media relations specialist.

During the next four years, I wrote hundreds of stories about alumni, reconnected with professors I’d had in class and met some of the finest people you can imagine, most of whom shared the bond of graduating from Washburn.

In 2015, I knew if I wanted to climb the ladder, I needed to step out of my comfort zone and take a risk. After several agonizing days trying to make a decision, including a couple of tearful nights, I decided to leave my alma mater to become campus communications coordinator at Metropolitan Community College-Business & Technology.

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I worked with amazing people at MCC, including Je-Anne Rueckert, an instructor and lab technician in the HVAC department.

For nearly two years at MCC-BT, I tried to learn as much as I possibly could to become a better marketer and communicator. In the meantime, I continued to work toward a master’s degree, which I finally received in May.

Never in my wildest dreams did I imagine that opportunity would knock at Washburn within two years of leaving. But it has. To make a long story short, I’m returning to my alma mater next week as director of strategic marketing and communications.

To say I’m excited would be an understatement. I’m also humbled that a school I love so much would give me such a wonderful opportunity.

Before I go, I want to thank MCC, in particular the staff and faculty who work their tails off to make the college a high-quality academic experience in Kansas City. I can’t possibly name everybody, but folks like Mike, Dan, Steve, Shawn, Ryan, Tracy, Tatia, Dixie, Aaron, Matt, Jen, Star, Lisa, Jim, Robert, Je-Anne and dozens of others have made the experience a great one. Without the knowledge I gained at MCC, I would not be returning to Washburn.

As for my alma mater: Thank you. From Go Fourth to now, thank you for bringing me home.