In one of the rooms downstairs at our corporate headquarters on the western edge of Jefferson City are boxes filled with ghosts.
Listeners of radio stations and readers of newspapers probably give little thought to how obituaries of notable people can be written so completely and so quickly upon their deaths. There’s a sorrowful secret about that. Newspapers often have pre-written obituaries of notable people and need only to put a top on the story before publishing it. In our case, we have boxes of recordings that we have made during the almost forty years of Missourinet history.
We do a lot of interviews or record a lot of events knowing that the hale and hearty person we’re talking to or covering will someday stop making history and become it. We keep those recordings in boxes labeled “Death Box.” The rise of the internet has helped us with people like John Hartford, a former Fulton radio station disk jockey, or Jack St. Clair Kilby, who won the Nobel Prize for inventing the integrated circuit, and others. But our Death Boxes have helped us provide context to the stories we run when someone prominent in Missouri politics dies. Sometimes, it’s a recording of someone famous who came to Missouri for an event.
Such was the case this week when Dr. C. Everett Koop died at the age of 96 in New Hampshire. He was an outspoken Surgeon General under Presidents Reagan and Busch I. Koop was the first major health figure to call the nation’s attention to a mysterious killer disease called AIDS. But he’s best remembered for waging war on tobacco.
He was in Jefferson City in March, 1986, working with medical groups hoping to persuade the legislature to pass anti-smoking legislation. We reached deep into our death box for the cassette containing Dr. Koop’s remarks and most of the press conference he held afterwards. We were surprised to hear a familiar voice asking a question—a young first-year University of Missouri School of Journalism student named Rudi Keller. Rudi is now one of our colleagues in the Capitol Press Corps, a veteran political reporter and fellow historian whose first book is imminent. It’s about living in Missouri during the first year of the Civil War. Rudi writes for the Columbia Daily Tribune. And there he was asking a question of Dr. Koop.
Listening back to that tape not only brought back a memory of a man who led the first solidly aggressive and ultimately successful attack on tobacco as a major health menace, but also took us back to a time when our society was much different. Athletes and movie stars still told us smoking was okay, even good for us. Any kid with a quarter could get a pack of cigarettes out of a vending machine. And public places were always hazy with smoke.
But Dr. Koop was saying in Jefferson City in 1986 that Missouri and the nation needed to change. Listen to this ghost who was lifted out of one of those boxes this week.
It took six years after Dr. Koop’s visit to Jefferson City for the legislature to pass the state’s Indoor Clean Air Act (1992). That same year, the legisalture made it illegal to sell tobacco products to people younger than 18 and made it illegal for youngsters to even posses cigarettes. Not until fifteen years (2001) after Dr. Koop urged young people be denied easy access to tobacoo products did the legislature pass a law saying those products had to be kept behind counters or in locked cases so minors wouldn’t be able to get them.
But Missouri has maintained a cozy relationship with tobacco in the 27 years since the former Surgeon General came to Jefferosn City. The Centers for Disease Control said in 2008 that Missouri had the fourth highest percentage of adult smokers in the nation–more than 24%. That same year the Surgeon General rated Missouri number three and noted eighty percent of adults started smoking before they were 18 and about one-third of high school students smoked.
And 27 years after C. Edward Koop told Missourians they had many challenges to overcome when it came to smoking and health, Missouri is charging the same tax for a package of cigarettes that was charged when he was here. It’s the lowest tobacco tax in the nation and we’re apparently proud of it. Missourians have rejected tobacco tax increases three times in recent years.
Ghosts in boxes give us a context for our times. Sometimes that context is