By Dave Simpson, Cowboy State Daily columnist
My, how things have changed at the Wyoming State Capitol over the 38 years since I spent time there.
For four years in the early 1980s, I was part of the Casper Star-Tribune team that helped our Cheyenne bureau chief (the truly amazing Joan Barron) cover the bases during legislative sessions. It was a fun opportunity for editors to be reporters again.
These days, reporters are covering the news from up in the balconies surrounding the House and Senate. Back in the old days, we got to sit down on the floor, close to the lawmakers. In the House, there was a table to the left of the Speaker’s desk. In the Senate, our table was to the right of the Senate President’s desk.
There we were, right in the thick of things. (Lawmakers got a little ringy toward the end of sessions, and one year a senator from Casper hit me with a piece of Jolly Rancher candy as I sat at the reporter’s table on the final evening. Funny stuff. Everyone was tired and ready to go home.)
The great access began to unravel while I was there. A radio reporter from Cheyenne insisted on filling his coffee mug – about the size of a Big Gulp – from the urns in the doughnut room, draining them dry. Some reporters may have been chowing down on too many doughnuts. (Not me.) We were summarily banned from the doughnut room, and reimbursed for the money we had paid into the doughnut fund.
I also heard that the Cheyenne radio reporter was ambushing lawmakers as they came out of the bathrooms off the House and Senate floors, sticking a microphone in their faces for surprise interviews. Not good.
Not long after that, our access to the floor was limited to the press tables, and we had to be invited to visit lawmakers at their desks. Today, I noticed a couple of young reporters doing their work right beside me in the House gallery. No more press tables on the floor.
Another big difference today is that everyone, EVERYONE, has a computer.
Lawmakers all have laptop computers, which they peruse as the process of introducing, amending and deciding the fate of bills drones on. Up in the gallery, the reporters sitting next to me took their notes on laptops as well. And folks in the gallery could be seen peering into their cell phones every few minutes.
It wasn’t that way in the ’80s. For the first couple years, it was all taking notes in reporter’s notebooks, then scurrying up to the third-floor press room to write our stories on clunky, unreliable desk-top terminals.
When you finished a story, you took your life in your hands and hit the “send” button to send your work to the office in Casper. One Saturday I wrote four stories, and every one of them was lost in transmission. (I think they disappeared somewhere between Wheatland and Glendo.) An entire day’s work, gone, and I was wastebasket-kicking mad.
In 1983, however, along came the Radio Shack TRS-80 Model 100. The paper equipped us with the $1,000 early laptops, and suddenly we were able to listen to the debates in the House and Senate, and write our stories right at the press table. And you still had a copy of your story if something went haywire in the transmission process.
The TRS-80, while revolutionary, was primitive. It had 8 kilobytes of memory. (My computer-savvy son laughs at the notion of 8 kilobytes.)
Our “Trash-80s,” as we called them, were so primitive that much of the software was written by a guy named Bill Gates.
“Part of my nostalgia about this machine,” Gates said in an article I Googled, “is this was the last machine where I wrote most of the percentage of the code.”
When we started using our TRS-80s, suddenly the lawmakers were coming up to our press table to see what we were doing. (They didn’t need an invitation to visit our desk.) Our equipment was that new, and ground-breaking.
Today, all that has changed, and everyone has at least one computer on their desk, and a cell phone in their pocket. And I’m guessing that news stories don’t disappear between Wheatland and Glendo anymore.
They say that if you get an old reporter talking, he or she will talk longer than you want to listen. So, I’ll end with this.
In an age when national politicians call folks “lying, dog-faced pony soldiers,” a visit to the Wyoming Legislature will lift your spirits. I highly recommend it. All the lawmakers seemed to be at their desks and paying attention to the process. Good humor was evident, as even the opposing parties seemed to be getting along, at least for the moment.
And there’s this. The newly-renovated Wyoming State Capitol building is, in a word, spectacular. The old Supreme Court Chambers are fully restored. The House and Senate chambers are stunning, faithfully brought back to their original grandeur.
The entire renovation process was first class in every way. (I think Esther Hobart Morris belongs out front, where she used to be, but the statue still looks great in the lower-level concourse.)
You hear a lot of talk in legislative sessions about living up to the ideals and virtues of our forefathers. Wyoming’s restored Capitol building is a true testament to our state’s amazing brick-and-mortar commitment to our roots.
Every Wyoming resident can be proud of our beautifully-restored Capitol.
Dave Simpson began his journalism career at the Laramie Boomerang in
1973. He has worked as a reporter, editor, publisher and columnist at
newspapers in Wyoming, Colorado, Illinois and Nebraska. He lives in