Grateful for opportunity to return to Rio Blanco County

Jeff Burkhead, former editor of the Rio Blanco Herald Times.
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Jeff Burkhead, former editor of the Rio Blanco Herald Times.
Jeff Burkhead, former editor of the Rio Blanco Herald Times.
It was hard enough to leave the last time.
It won’t be any easier the second time around.

Thanks to my friend, Mitch Bettis, the publisher of the Herald Times, I was able to do what most of us don’t ever get the chance to do—step back in time.
I loved every second.
When Mitch asked me if I would want to be the guest editor for a week when Sean was on vacation, I think Mitch had a pretty good idea what my answer would be. I jumped at the chance.
For three years, I lived and breathed the Herald Times and what was happening in Rio Blanco County. Those were three of the best years of my life, professionally and personally. If I could do it all over again, I would do it in a heartbeat.
In fact, I almost did.
After leaving the Herald Times in November 2010, I followed Mitch—he can’t get rid of me—to the Lake of the Ozarks in Missouri, where he was general manager for a group of newspapers at the time. I had much the same job I had here. Editor of a weekly newspaper covering two communities, about the same size as Meeker and Rangely. But in October 2012, the paper I was editor of was closed because of the economy. So I returned to my hometown of Lawrence, Kan., to figure out what to do next.
Which is how I almost ended up back in Rio Blanco County.
Mitch and I talked seriously about my return to the Herald Times. Bobby Gutierrez, who has been as loyal a staff member of the Herald Times as you could ask for, was looking to step out of the editor’s job. So Mitch and I began discussing plans for my possible return to the paper. The discussions got to the point where I was looking into housing and considering a possible start date.
Then I saw an ad in my hometown paper for a communications director at a community mental health center in Lawrence. As much as I was intrigued by the idea of returning to the Herald Times, the idea of staying in Lawrence had a strong emotional pull since two of my four kids live there as well as my parents. It was home.
I applied for the communications director’s position, and, lo and behold, I ended up getting the job. One of my biggest supporters, like he has always been, was Mitch. While we both would have welcomed the chance to work together again, Mitch knew how much it would mean for me to stay in Lawrence.
A part of me was sad, though. In my mind, I had already begun preparing to return to the Herald Times and after that didn’t happen, I wondered if I would ever make it back to this area.
I did make it back. In May 2013, I returned to Meeker for my friend Jane Clugston’s 90th birthday. I was only in town for a long weekend, but it was great to be back. And I wouldn’t have missed Jane’s birthday for the world. After I left Rio Blanco County in 2010, Jane sort of adopted me. She would call me every week or every other week, usually on a Sunday, just to talk. We talked about all kinds of things. She would ask me about my kids, whether I was dating anyone at the time, how work was going, and she would fill me in on the scuttlebutt back in Meeker. It helped me feel connected to this place I loved. Five months later, in October 2013, Jane passed away. More than ever, I was glad that I made it back to see her for her 90th. I still miss our conversations.

It has been so much fun to be back a second time.
I arrived in Meeker around dinnertime last Wednesday and settled into my room. I had a dinner invite from Michele Morgan and Regas Halandras, my unofficial — and extremely gracious — hosts for the week, so I walked the few blocks from the motel to Regas and Michele’s house. Along the way, I ran into Dale Hallebach and Meredith Deming. Both of them did a double take and gave me a, “What are you doing here?” look.
I got a lot of those looks this last week.
Everywhere I went, I saw people I knew. And most of them weren’t expecting to see me. After a few days, word started getting around that I was in town, so I didn’t get quite as many surprised looks.
I ran into Margie Joy every day for the first three days I was back. She accused me of being a stalker — not the first time I’ve heard that, mind you. Dessa Watson, Mary Cunningham Gillespie and Scott Isenhour pulled over to say hi. Mandi Etheridge graciously took time out of her day to meet me. I had breakfast with Mike Joos, coffee with Suzan Dole Pelloni and dinner at Melinda Parker’s.
Julie Noyes told me the paper still runs a picture I took of her son during Septemberfest, which made me feel good. Teri Wilczek told me to check out W. C. Striegel’s new building, which I did; it’s beautiful. Teri’s father, Bud — one of my favorite people — gave me a tour of his new antique car museum. Nick Goshe gave me a tour of the new Rangely Hospital; very impressive facility.
I had a great visit with Tim Webber, who reminded me if I locked my keys in my car he still had the tool he used the last time I was locked out of my car. I had the most delightful conversation with Rod Harris and Norma Hood at Giovanni’s Italian Grill— John and Sandy Payne, thank you for always treating me so well — about their series of books based on Rod’s police career in Las Vegas (by the way, thank you, Rod, for picking up the dinner tab and, mostly, thank you for the autographed book).
I saw the new Rangely hospital and toured the new Meeker hospital, which is under construction. I had people call me Mitch, which used to happen when I lived here and never bothered me; I took it as a compliment. I even received a subscription complaint. And I got kisses and hugs. Lots of hugs.
Being back in my old stomping grounds for an extended time and doing my old job, was surreal. Everywhere I turned, something or someone brought back a memory. I experienced a wide range of emotions. Joy, nostalgia, sentimentality, even melancholy. Kids who were in elementary school when I was here before are now in middle school, and so on. I visited former neighbors and walked familiar streets. Of course, it was impossible to see everybody I wanted to see. Time wouldn’t allow it. But I tried to cram as much in as I could while I was here. There were countless chance meetings that I will forever be grateful for. Those were priceless.

What’s the saying: The more things change, the more they stay the same? That’s true. And it isn’t.
There are some things in Meeker and Rangely that are the same as when I lived here, which was comforting. You want things to be the way you remember them. But other things have changed. Businesses have closed. Some have moved. Some have different owners. Couples that were divorced. Others that have married. Babies that have been born. Some people looked a bit older. Some exactly the same. There have been tragedies and celebrations. I wished I had been here for all of them. But the best thing about my visit was seeing so many familiar faces. Though, sadly, some, like my friend Jane Clugston, are gone.
Life marches on.

By the time you read this column, I will already be back in Kansas.
One of my favorite things when I was editor of the Herald Times was going around town on a Thursday and seeing people reading the paper.
Hopefully, you will take a few moments to look through this edition. I wish I could say it was one of my better efforts, but it’s been almost two years since I was responsible for putting out a newspaper. I’m sort of out of practice. Plus I am out of the loop as far as what’s been happening.
The first day or so after I arrived back in Rio Blanco County, I felt out of touch with what was going on, what the issues of the day were. But after spending a few days circulating around Meeker and Rangely and talking to people, I started getting a feel for the “stories” that are affecting the residents of Rio Blanco County. Again, I wished I could be part of telling those stories. But that’s someone else’s job now.
I was also reminded that the newspaper business is not an easy line of work. You get tugged in lots of different directions. And you can never make everybody happy. By about Friday, I was already starting to feel that familiar pressure about what I am going to put in the paper.
While here, I went back and reread my farewell column — boy, was I longwinded. But now, with the perspective of three years having passed, I feel like I said what I wanted to say in expressing how I felt about my time as editor of the Herald Times and being a part of these two wonderful communities. And my feelings haven’t changed. I love this place — and especially the people — as much now as I did then.
I am grateful for this opportunity to come back and play editor. Hopefully, if I didn’t screw things up too bad, maybe I’ll even get asked to do it again someday.
They say you can’t go home again.
But you sure can visit.
Thanks, Meeker and Rangely. It’s been nice to catch up.
~Jeff Burkhead