Decker speaks to time with Free Press

After reading the Free Press editorial last week, I sat back and thought about how two local guys took a huge chance almost 20 years ago by starting a free newspaper that would go to every home in Marion County.

The logistics of such an undertaking boggles my mind. It just couldn’t have been that easy.

But Joel Klaassen, former publisher, and Don Ratzlaff, former editor, made it work.

Although it’s the end of the Klaassen/Ratzlaff era, two young people, Joey and Lindsey Young, are up for the challenge and the staff is fired up and excited about the change.

Like Joel, I am also in the retired category, but both of us just can’t quite let go.

In thinking about newspapers, and in particular the Free Press, it’s mind-boggling to think that besides Joel and Don, only one other person was involved in the beginning.

Joel told me there were no carriers, and in the beginning, and with a lot of blood, sweat and tears, the fledgling little free paper kept getting stronger.

When my husband, Randy, moved back to his roots, I stayed behind at the Colby Free Press, which at that time was a daily newspaper.

I wasn’t even sure if I could find a job writing in Hillsboro or Marion, but one day, Randy called to say that the Hillsboro Free Press needed a reporter.

At that time, I didn’t know there were two newspapers—one of the publications had been around for decades, and the other was about 10 years old.

Holding my breath, I asked Randy which one was the Free Press.

He said they are the newer publication.

It was concerning to me, because having just come from the Colby Free Press, where I served as both the publisher and editor for seven years and the editor for about 13 years, I watched time and again how the newer paper couldn’t survive.

But when I interviewed for this job the weekend before Labor Day in 2008, I immediately felt at home.

It was a Saturday, and both Joel and Don were already in the office waiting for me.

We talked about my credentials, and I felt comfortable. In my mind, I knew this would be the place I wanted to retire, because I knew it would be on a high note, and it was.

I didn’t know Don and Joel before the interview, but the more we talked, the more familiar they looked.

After the interview was over and late the following week, Don called me and offered me the job.

No sooner did he hang up and it dawned on me why they looked so familiar.

It was sometime between 2003-2007 that I was at a Kansas Press Association annual meeting, and I kept watching these two guys seated in the back of the room who were jumping out of their seats to pick up yet another first place plaque.

Most of the time people don’t make any big impression at these conventions, but Joel and Don did.

Looking at the two of them smiling, it was contagious. I had no idea what newspaper they were with, but they took first place for story after story—sports photo and feature photos, and with every award, they just kept smiling.

As I drove back to Colby, I did think about those two guys, but once back in town, the race was on again for me to put out a daily.

Talk about a small world! Who would have ever guessed that I would end up working for these two people, who maybe three or four years earlier didn’t realize there was one person at the KPA conference enjoying their enthusiasm.

Now in the past, I couldn’t believe my eyes when a young man in his early 20s reminded me of Joel and Don, yet again at a KPA conference.

This time it was the editor of Newton Now, but at that time, he was editor of The Clarion, which is located in Andale and covers the towns along Kansas Highway 96.

What are the chances of a similar situation happening again with a person showing the same kind of enthusiasm as Joel and Don did and who was jumping up for first place award after award?

The reason for bringing up these two incidents is because, as fate would have it, I ended up working for Joey and Lindsey Young, who bought the Free Press here in Hillsboro and also own Newton Now and The Clarion, and the editor, Adam Strunk, was the person collecting those first place awards the way Don and Joel did about a decade before.

I will miss Don. He has been good to me and really everyone in this office during our ups and downs.

This same compassion remains with the Youngs, and I am glad they are here.

Patty Decker has written news and features for the Free Press for several years. You can reach her via email: