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Commentary: Logging out, shutting down my computer for the final time

Steve Kohls Brainerd Dispatch Mike Bialka, shown covering a recent Brainerd Warrior hockey game, retired Tuesday, Jan. 1.

I believe it was Kansas City Royals Hall of Fame third baseman George Brett who, when asked why he was retiring, said: "Because I can still hit .300."

In no way am I implying I can hit .300. But I believe I can still write. I still love this profession. So that's why I'm retiring after 41 years in journalism, 40 at the Brainerd Dispatch.

Tuesday, Jan. 1, was my last official day. I wanted to go out, when I believe, I'm still at the top of my game, which has made this decision most difficult and extremely emotional.

It truly has been a tremendous run, 40 years at the same newspaper, the last 33 as sports editor. I leave with my chin up and on my own terms. I'm not angry at anyone or at anything. It just seems like the right time to pull the pin.

I'm proud to say I never missed a deadline. And, I don't believe I ever missed a day of work.

Part of my decision rests with my wife, Judy, who's entering her sixth year of retirement. While, as far as we know, we still have our health, it's time to experience some different things although I'm not sure what those are. The other part of the decision is because our son, Troy, has graduated from college and now is on his own and has his own health insurance.

My journey to The Dispatch started thanks to then editor Les Sellnow. I was a one-man sports operation at the Crookston Times when Sellnow called one day in August of 1978. He asked if I had any interest in returning to Brainerd. Being a 1973 Brainerd High School graduate, I said I did.

Sellnow said he would get back to me in a few days or weeks. But I believe it was the next day he called and asked if I could interview for the job the next weekend. I told him I was scheduled to play in the state amateur baseball tournament that weekend in Faribault. Then he said something like "Well, if you want the job, it's yours."

So I took it.

At that time, Jim Wallace was sports editor of the Dispatch. His son, Alan, was one of my best friends and a baseball teammate. We tagged along with Jim to many Brainerd sporting events as well Twins, Vikings and Gopher games. Going to events with Jim piqued my interest in thinking sports writing might be a pretty good gig.

Cool stuff to cover

This occupation has given me the opportunity to write about countless athletes and coaches and attend numerous cool events. I covered the Twins in two World Series, an NCAA men's basketball regional and a Final Four at the Metrodome.

One of my all-time favorites was covering the Timberwolves' first regular-season home game in November 1989 which happened to be against Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bulls. After the game, I was in the Bulls' locker room standing about a foot away from "His Airness" with the lights from TV cameras giving my neck a sunburn. It was weeks after Jacob Wetterling had been kidnapped.

Wetterling's family was honored before the game and I asked Michael about the incident. His reply was:

"It's a sad situation. You wish you could do something about it. All we can do is sit back and hope the situation solves itself and the kid is back with his family.

"It's sad to see situations like that but it happens. It brings you back to reality. To see a family out there that came to a game like tonight, which is supposed to be enjoyment with the family, and yet they're trying to do it without one member of their family which is tough. You have to feel for them."

That was big stuff for a sports writer from the hinterlands.

I got to write about Rohn Stark of Pine River punting in the NFL and then Brainerd resident Jim Langer who won two Super Bowls and played in three as the Miami Dolphins center.

After having few pro athletes from the lakes area to cover during my first 35-plus years at the Dispatch, the area currently has two—Josh Archibald of the Arizona Coyotes and Joe Haeg of the Indianapolis Colts. Having the opportunity to write about those two gentlemen has been a treat.

It also has been a treat to write about Dave Joerger of Staples, who rapidly rose through the minor league ranks to become head coach of the Memphis Grizzlies and now the Sacramento Kings of the NBA.

And it was a thrill to write about Brainerd pitcher Todd Revenig's brief stint with the Oakland Athletics in 1992.

I covered state team wrestling championships won by Staples and Brainerd in 1982 which I thought was unique and significant that two cities 30 miles apart in our coverage area were state champions.

I covered two state baseball titles won by Brainerd High School. And I covered countless individual and team section and state champions in various sports.

In December of 1985, the Dispatch started writing feature stories on the Brainerd Warrior Athlete of the Week which was initiated by Greg Larson Sports as Warrior Player of the Week. That story has morphed from a head shot and feature to a full-page story, photo and video that's supported by advertising. Basketball player Bill Breen was the first Warrior to be so honored. Nordic skier Evan Storbakken will be the last I feature in the Thursday, Jan. 2, Dispatch. I estimate more than 1,000 young Warriors have been featured.

Thank you

There are countless individuals to thank. They know who they are but I can't name them individually for fear that I will overlook someone.

I must say thanks to all area athletic directors, coaches, activities secretaries and athletes who treated me with the utmost respect and trusted me. There isn't much more a sports writer can ask for than respect and trust.

Thanks to the publishers and editors who I've worked for. They let me do my thing.

Thanks to my newsroom pals—You are the greatest. I will miss all of you terribly. I put the integrity and quality of the content generated by this newspaper up against that generated by any other outstate paper. We don't write fake news. We get fired if we do. Our country needs community journalism.

Thank you Judy and Troy. I've missed countless nights and weekends with you and I've missed family functions because of this occupation. I never once heard either of you complain. How lucky can a guy be? I hope to make up for some of that lost time with you and with my parents, both of whom are now in their 80s.

Thank you Jeremy Millsop, Tony Sailer and Pete Mohs, the three individuals who worked with me about a combined 45 years. This sports department was never about me. It was about us trying to be the best possible sports section.

It's incredible to think that Mr. Millsop, who's succeeding me, will be only the third Dispatch sports editor since 1951. That's almost unheard of at a newspaper of this size in the 21st century.

Thank you Mike Aulie, Joe Lindholm, Maren Goff and Taylor Snow, our part-time sports writers who are vital to what we produce. We couldn't do this without you. You are four talented writers and even better human beings.

Epilogue

When David Letterman retired, he said something to the effect of: "When you retire to spend more time with your family, be sure it's OK with your family." Judy and Troy, and my parents, assure me it's OK to take a shot at retirement.

Thank you all of my readers the last 40 years. And thank you to all of my Tweeters who have seen or followed @bertsballpark since 2012.

At a recent event someone said to me: "You've had a tremendous run."

Yes I have.

I close by borrowing Lou Gehrig's famous quote: "Today I consider myself the luckiest man on the face of the earth." I do because my passion was my occupation.

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