By ZACH MCNULTY
If you’ve ever taken up a new hobby, you know how exciting it is to think of getting started and, at the same time, having no idea where to start.
I can remember my dad showing me the ropes on guitar as a teenager, then struggling in my room to contort my fingers into the shape of an E chord, struggling to press my fingers into the strings, struggling to strum the thing. All I wanted was to play, but I had a lot to learn.
It was much the same when I started at the Globe in 2014.
My first day on the job, then-publisher Joe Warren showed me around town. His tour ended with a round of introductions at City Hall, my new beat for the paper, about which I knew next to nothing.
That was the day I first met City Manager Trey Cocking, who’s leaving the city of Atchison after eight years for a job with the League of Kansas Municipalities in Topeka. Today is his last day with the city.
Over the past three years, I’ve learned a lot from Trey about government. I’d be embarrassed to go back and recount the number of times my face slacked into a dumb expression as he explained the specifics of a contract or bond issuance or budgeting decision.
Over the years, though, my interest in government elicited Trey’s patience, and he’s imparted a lot of knowledge to me on the topic. It’s been of great benefit to me, and, by extension, to you, the reader.
Early on in time here, though, it was almost all for naught with Trey.
I wrote a story in November 2014, my third month with the Globe, about the city taking control of the Atchison Event Center. The transfer was necessary for the city to protect the tax-exempt status of the bonds it had issued to renovate the facility.
Looking back, it was an alright story for a reporter with just a few weeks of experience. But I’d written that the city was “seizing control” of the facility as a fancy way of saying they were going to be taking over. What should have read like an “under new management” story looked to Trey like a story about tax evasion and government intervention.
It was naiveté on my part, but Trey saw it as sensationalism, as fake news before fake news.
When I went to City Hall on my regular rounds the day that story printed, I sat down with Trey as usual, and we had a conversation for 30 minutes before he cracked. He suddenly slammed his hands on the table and began at me with an angry tone.
The paper in front of him on the desk, he screamed about how wrong my story was, about how he didn’t have to offer me his time, about how he’d shut the Globe out of his office if this was the kind of reporting I’d be doing. His voice was raised, and his face was red with rage.
I was taken off guard. When I got the chance to speak, I explained like a horror movie victim backing away from the killer that I had no ill-intent, that “seize” has several meanings and that I’d used the word with another meaning in mind.
Trey stood up from behind his desk and stormed toward me, then past me, to a bookshelf. He pulled down a dictionary and opened it up. He found the S’s. He ran a finger down the page and declared, “Seize! Take hold of suddenly and forcibly.”
The definition confirmed Trey’s argument and validated his anger. He read seize to mean that the city was forcibly taking over at the event center like the state comes to take away the assets of businesses that don’t pay their taxes.
In a bit of a jam, I asked Trey to keep reading.
The second definition, “Become stuck or jammed,” was totally inapplicable. It didn’t help my case, but two definitions down, a sense of vindication washed away Trey’s anger, and I was facing being wrong and looking like I’d used “seize” spitefully. Keep reading, I asked
Definition 3 read, simply, “Be in legal possession of.”
It was a miracle. That’s all I meant in my story. No malice. No mean intent. The city was coming into legal possession of, AKA “seizing,” the conference center, just like I wrote, sir, I said, thankful in my mind that the definition was actually there in print.
It was a beautiful moment, really. The book that had just validated and washed away Trey’s anger snatched the sense of redemption back and gave it to me, and the lowly reporter was in the right after all.
I grinned. Trey slammed the book shut and threw it down on the desk, where it sat for weeks afterward, and it’s all been history from there.
Best of luck in Topeka, Trey, and thanks for the memories.