You've got a friend--you just don't know how good until you meet up again

Gene Mueller's Blog

It's taken more than a week for me to get my head around what happened last weekend.

I told regular readers about a special Christmas gift I'd received from my niece, Jenny Heinzen. A Stevens Point resident, she knew I'd gone to school at UWSP and worked at the campus radio station, WWSP/90FM back in the mid-70's. Jenny wanted to find old photos she could re-purpose for under the tree, shots of her uncle when his hair was long/black and his waist thin. The station had none (at least, not at the spur of the moment but as you can see above, said photos exist) but management offered something else--air time during the upcoming summer's alumni weekend. She bought me two hours worth (the cash helps keep the station going) and a great idea became a a few days I'll never forget last weekend.

Fellow 90FM alum and lifelong bud Jerry Gavin bought in--he went on to program several stations after graduation including Milwaukee's 93QFM before going into Milwaukee real estate. A surprise attendee was Chris Shebel who, along with Gavin, helped turn the campus station into what it is today: a Central Wisconsin music alternative, as well as the home of the world's largest trivia contest each April. Chris and Jerry both stood up in my wedding. I see Jerry almost weekly but hadn't been face to face with Chris in decades as he moved around the country, living the life of a radio programmer for a major national concern.

My family was all too eager to join in the hijinx--I guess they wanted to hear if all those old college stories I'd bored them to tears with were actually true--and we arrived Friday. Dinner was had, and then it was time for Mom (a UWSP grad) and dad (who went two years before quitting) to walk our crew down memory lane. Or, more appropriately, around Stevens Points' famed Square: by day, a public parking lot and sometimes farmer's market and by night, a place where college kids went to drink a lot on the cheap. We showed them old watering holes and Jenny turned us on to her favorite hang-out, the Elbow Room, which featured something I'd never, in all my years of tavern-going, had ever encountered: a shot-ski, a slat that hung from the ceiling into which were carved oh, maybe a dozen one-ounce glasses. The whole family lined up and took part in the ritualistic downing of schnapps in front of cheering onlookers. 

Here's to higher education!

Late in the night, it was just Jerry and I at a joint awaiting Chris's arrival from Portland. When he walked in the door and ordered a beer, it was 1977 all over again. We picked up in mid-sentence as if nothing had changed, even though oh-so-much had. We called it a night early, knowing our air shift beckoned the next morning at 10.

The campus studio looked unchanged--a new wall here, a different door there--and the alumni organizers made us feel like returning heroes. Chris held court behind the console as the three of us spun tunes, told stories and gave on-air and overdue thanks to mentors and friends who'd helped us along the way. For that alone, it was the among the best Christmas gifts I'd ever received. Other alum came by, as did longtime Stevens Point co-horts I hadn't seen since leaving town in 1981. 

It was sonic sensory overload.

The three hours flew. There were more post-show reunion festivities that night where current station staffers mingled with us geezers. My faith in campus radio is restored, knowing that there's still interest in the medium from a generation we don't always think of as avid radio users. An ill-conceived push a few years ago to convert the station to a public radio network affiliate got beaten back amid local hue and cry--thank heavens--and 90FM is thriving, thanks to the likes of guys like Jim Oliva and Fred Brennan, another alum who did great things in Milwaukee radio at the former WZTR among other places. 

Thriving, too, are a ton of atrophied relationships, the kind we all have in which you never really said goodbye to a that friend who was the center of your world for so long.  The ties that bound just kinda went away amid job moves, marriage, kids, and the other things that get in the way of making that re-connective phone call or social media reach. And then, when you DO meet up, it's like nothing every changed and you wonder why you didn't make the effort sooner. 

Who is a friend? There are the easy definitions: the one who's there no matter what to help celebrate the good and take the sting out of the bad, that sounding board who speaks truths you may not want to hear. After that incredible weekend another definition is re-enforced: a friend is that person who, no matter how long it's been since you last spoke, picks up with you in mid-thought, with no awkward pauses or forced questions. The conversation flows no matter the subject and all those traits that made that person such a part of your life oh-so-long ago are there again, just coming out of an older, perhaps grayer head. 

And bonds are restored.

I don't know if there's another campus radio alumni weekend in my future--it would be hard to top this past one, and it would be unfair to put such expectations on future events. A return after 40 years can't be replicated, and I hope others who've stayed away for whatever reason head back to sample some of what my buds and I were able to enjoy. Chris, Jerry and others before me left a lasting Stevens Point legacy. Me? I did news there for two years, and spun records for a few air shifts. Off-air is where the magic happened, where upper-classmen taught a freshman the wonders of music, the nuances of campus politics. They stuck with me when I left without a diploma. And, as we find ourselves on the shorter end of our professional lives, we had that rare chance to go back to school, to reconnect and to promise never to let those bonds sit fallow for so long again. 

Shame on us if we don't stay in touch. Shame on me for not making the reach before my niece came through with one of the most thoughtful, one-of-a-kind presents ever. You can't put a bow on a memory, and you can't gift-wrap those special relationships that burn on despite years apart, the ones that pick up right where they left off.

Thanks, Jenny. Thanks Fred, Oz and WWSP staff, past and present (you really didn't have to find those pictures, by the way, but thanks). Thanks Elbow Room for the shot-ski. Thank you Stevens Point for being, well, oh-so-Pointy. It's why I'll always think of you as home.

And keep rockin', 90FM.

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