Kansas Snapshots by Gloria Freeland - May 6, 2022

Making magic happen

When journalism department pals Deb Skidmore, Linda Puntney, Lou Benjamin and I learned that Steve Smethers, a past colleague and current department head, was retiring at the end of the semester, the wheels began to turn. As the self-proclaimed "fun" committee of the department, who better to host a retirement bash? Kansas State University's Dole Hall lobby was the perfect size for the 75-100 people we expected would attend.

But with the typical extroverted nature a person might expect of a one-time radio personality, combined with a number of unusual interests, we wanted to make it a special event.

We settled on several themes - Steve's passion for all things K-State, his students, his broadcasting career, and all things related to trains.

We ordered some of the usual - a vase of flowers, fruit and veggie trays, nuts, coffee and water - but the dessert had to include "Purple Pride" ice cream - given its name by the late football coach Vince Gibson, whose mantra was "We got Pride!" Another nod to the school's purple-and-white colors was a Wildcat "head" made of chocolate and white cupcakes with purple frosting.

Decorations included 1970s Royal Purple yearbooks with photos of Steve from his undergraduate days, and articles about his induction into the Kansas Association of Broadcasting Hall of Fame, his upcoming retirement, and his love of decorating for the holidays.

Ian Punnett, a broadcasting professor and adviser to student radio station Wildcat 91.9, provided a background play list of railroad-themed music. Vern Wirka, another old radio guy and retired colleague, quickly accepted the role of master of ceremonies to keep us on track - pun intended.

The program included remarks from friend and professional colleague Jeff Morris, long-time friend Doug Yost, friend and county commissioner Kathryn Focke, current student Noah Ochsner, former student Rafael Garcia, and director of the Huck Boyd National Institute for Rural Development Ron Wilson.

One of Ron's outside interests is writing cowboy poetry - he calls himself a "poet lariat." He wrote a poem for the occasion, a sample of which is below:

Steve Smethers loves K-State, loves journalism, loves trains,
And he's enhanced each of these, as his record explains.
Now we�re sad Doctor Smethers is going to retire.
He has many qualities we value and admire.
He came from small town Kansas, and at an early age,
Became interested in journalism and the printed page. ...

He's earned honors and awards too numerous to name,
Including the Kansas Association of Broadcasters Hall of Fame.
He's an excellent leader, a highly regarded teacher,
A published scholar and many other facts to feature.
He knows community journalism's value is long lasting,
While pioneering new classes in social media and podcasting. ...

This is also the guy who loves his cats and trains,
And decorates for Christmas at high levels he attains.
Now he's going to retire as this academic year ends,
With a record of service which history commends.
So we thank Dr. Smethers for his great service here,
And wish him the very best in his retirement years.

Gifts included a book about trains, a conductor's hat, watch and whistle, and a T-shirt with �Still Plays with Trains� on it. There was a framed photo taken by Linda of the "Big Boy" steam engine that came through Manhattan a few years ago. The accompanying plaque acknowledged Steve as "The Engine That Could." Linda and members of the Abilene and Smoky Valley Railroad, a volunteer organization Steve helps with, presented Steve a certificate dedicating two of their track's ties in his honor.

Steve appreciated the gifts, but he was really excited when Willie the Wildcat, the K-State pep band and the Classy Cats ambassadors appeared. Band members marched in, filling the perimeter of the room. They played the "K-State Fight Song," �Wabash Cannonball", and "K-State�s Alma Mater," and other numbers, bringing those attending to their feet.

We were pleased with the turnout, the gifts and Steve�s obvious enjoyment of all the goings-on. Ron commented, "You folks in JMC sure know how to put on a good party!"

But while the fun committee was happy with everything we had planned and how it unfolded, there was an important element we had no control over. Steve has labored long and hard, not just for the department, but for the university and others know and appreciate it. It could be felt in how quickly and enthusiastically invitations were accepted. It was more than the usual, "Thank you, job well done" end-of-career party.

While it had been our goal to give him something to remember, the following day Steve sent an email that contained a gift for all the faculty.


Sometimes in life we can feel so humbled that words escape us. Last night was one of those times. Friends, former students, current students, faculty colleagues, and professional associates came together to spend what has to be the most memorable moment of my young (!) life as we observed my approaching retirement. ... Right now, life is surreal. The clock ticks down on the time I have left in working for, as the song says, "a spot that I love full well," and as I look back on 40 years of college teaching and a companion career in radio broadcasting, there have indeed been some wonderful moments. But I have never experienced anything like last night�s event. Ever. This was truly one of those Frank Capra moments. ... This morning, I send thanks to all of you for reminding me that life is about so much more than meetings, busy schedules, budget cuts and striving to make ends meet financially. Last night served as a reminder of what really matters in this world: the joy we can have when we let others into our lives and work for the common good. I owe you all so much. Thanks for making magic happen.

Clockwise from the top-left: K-State mascot Willie-the-Wildcat peruses some of the items on display from Steve's life; Steve and Willie pose for a photo; (l-r) Ross Boelling, president of the Abilene & Smoky Valley Railroad, "conductor" Steve, Gloria, Deb, Willie, Lou and Linda; a K-State "power cat" made from individual cupcakes; Master of Ceremonies Vern Wirka shares a moment with Steve; members of the university pep band entertain the guests; former colleagues Paul Parsons and Bill Adams get in the spirit by trying on railroaders' hats.

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