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Gray-Haired Techie

Matt Simon

Susan Wakefield is not the kind of senior citizen who has to ask her grandchildren for help running her VCR. In fact, she teaches people how to use far more sophisticated equipment.

Wakefield  first became interested in television production toward the end of her career as an elementary language arts teacher.

“I’d had some experience videotaping classroom lessons, and I learned that a local cable company could provide equipment and training so we could make and broadcast student productions,” says Wakefield.

She quickly caught the video bug. When she retired, she started videotaping weddings, and produced a professional video on warehouse safety. Three years ago, she got involved with the Iowa City/Johnson County Senior Center, which runs its own TV studio, known as Senior Center TV (SCTV).

Assisted by University of Iowa graduate students, SCTV volunteers learn to produce cable television shows.

Sometimes Wakefield does the teaching. “We have a great bunch of people,” says Wakefield. “At 65, I’m one of the youngsters. We have people in their mid-80s.” Shows range from studio interviews to performances by the Senior Center ’s band and choir.

One of Wakefield ’s favorite projects was a 2004 video on the 150th anniversary reenactment of the Grand Excursion of 1854, a VIP trip by railroad from New York to the Mississippi River, then by steamboat north to St. Paul, Minnesota.

“I love it,” says Wakefield. “Most of all, I love watching volunteers doing something that lets them age creatively.”

Remembering ‘Steam Donkeys’

Merv Johnson grew up in Oregon logging camps in the 1940s, when giant “steam donkeys” powered the winches that dragged huge felled timbers from the forest by steel cable.

Johnson, like his father, worked as a choker-setter, with the  hazardous task of cinching the end of a moving cable to a fallen tree.

“The old steam donkeys worked at only one speed, so when you set the choker on a tree, the donkey didn’t wait for you to get your hands free of the cinch,” says Johnson. “You worked on its schedule, so you worked fast.”

But just as he came of age, steam was being replaced by gas-powered equipment. “I was traumatized,” he says. “When steam went out, I had no more interest in working as a logger.”

Johnson became an industrial education teacher, but never lost his love for the steam era in logging. Even before he retired, he started tracking down Oregon  ’s remaining steam donkeys.

Today, preserving history is his full-time activity. He’s written a book, In Search of Steam Donkeys, and many magazine articles. He has located 45 antique steam donkeys in old lumber camps and compiled dozens of oral histories.    

“The old logging days were important,” says Johnson. “I want to see that history preserved.”

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