Randy Dockendorf

When Randy Dockendorf was in fifth grade, he and his classmates were asked to write the ‘class news’ for two weeks in the local weekly newspaper.

It was tidbits about people and what they were doing, as well as local sports or band results.

It provided Dockendorf an opportunity to break the mold.

He chose to use more of a storytelling approach than a straightforward news approach.

“But people seemed to like it and I enjoyed it, so I kept on writing the column through eighth grade,” Dockendorf said.

And ever since, he’s maintained that passion for storytelling.

Dockendorf, who grew up in Corsica (40 miles southwest of Mitchell) and graduated from Corsica High School, has served as Regional Editor of the Yankton Daily Press & Dakotan since 1993.

It was that elementary school experience — and additional writing while in high school — that catapulted Dockendorf into a career as a reporter, but as he pointed out, he very nearly went a different direction while in college.

“I took an unusual route into journalism, but I think it served me well,” Dockendorf said.

He attended Augustana College (now Augustana University) in Sioux Falls for its health care administration and journalism programs, but in time, those plans changed.

“I decided not to enter health administration, so I shifted gears during my final two years,” Dockendorf said.

He eventually graduated from Augustana with a business administration degree and a minor in communications, but very nearly earned a minor in journalism, history and religion.

While a student at Augustana, Dockendorf served three years as a staff writer for the campus newspaper, the Mirror, and also worked for the campus yearbook and campus radio station. Early in his career, he freelanced as a reporter for the Sioux Falls Argus Leader, the Mitchell Daily Republic and the Hansen-Anderson basketball magazine.

It was all valuable experience for an aspiring professional reporter, but Dockendorf said his religion courses at Augustana were especially crucial for him.

During one January interim period, he took a course in Judaism which included a week in the Twin Cities, complete with a Sabbath dinner and a bar mitzvah. His other January interim courses included a month in England and two other courses with a week each in the Twin Cities.

“Those experiences really broadened my horizons and helped me understand others,” Dockendorf said, “particularly for me coming from a small rural South Dakota community.”

After college graduation, Dockendorf was offered the opportunity to work on a special anniversary edition for his hometown newspaper, the Corsica Globe. The temporary assignment led to a permanent offer, which developed into a sharing arrangement among three publisher with five weekly newspapers (Corsica, Armour, Delmont, Parkston and Tripp).

“I learned a great deal during those early years,” said Dockendorf, who eventually became managing editor of the Parkston and Tripp newspapers.

“I covered a wide variety of assignments and learned many skills,” he added. “I also learned from my mistakes, which was valuable.”

By the time Dockendorf moved to Yankton in 1993, he had already established himself as an experienced and trustworthy journalist in South Dakota, but his new home presented new challenges, he said.

Not only did he have to familiarize himself with a new community, he had to familiarize himself with neighboring Nebraska — a portion of the Press & Dakotan’s coverage area.

“I have also met great people both as friends and sources who share their stories with me,” Dockendorf said. “In addition, Yankton is located close to larger cities, which provides some awesome opportunities.”

His career at the Press & Dakotan has allowed Dockendorf to cover political stories from every avenue — from local issues to statewide issues and to national issues.

He specifically remembers the chance to interview presidential candidates during a week-long Washington, D.C., summit that was sponsored by Morris Communications, which owned the Press & Dakotan at the time. Dockendorf said he asked a question of GOP candidate Pat Buchanan, and Buchanan then followed it up with a later phone call during his campaign.

On the other side of the political aisle, Dockendorf covered then-First Lady Hillary Clinton during her health care summit in Lennox, and he later covered the Clintons in Brandon and Sioux Falls.

Other experiences are truly South Dakotan, Dockendorf said, such as the access to the governor and lieutenant governor and the congressional delegation. Then-Gov. Bill Janklow provided Dockendorf and his mother with a tour of the Capitol rotunda, including the colored tiles embedded in the floor. Dockendorf also joked that current Lt. Gov. Matt Michels (a Yankton native) once initiated him into the ‘Brotherhood of the Moustache’ — Dockendorf was presented with a fake moustache for a photo.

In his line of work, Dockendorf said he also reports on tragic moments, such as covering people whose lives ended too young because of accidents or other circumstances.

“I often found their families and friends wanting to talk about their loved ones and their special qualities,” Dockendorf said. “Those experiences continue to the present day.”

Natural disasters have also played a key role in his coverage over the years, Dockendorf added. Those have ranged from the 1998 Spencer tornado that claimed six lives and decimated the town of 320 residents, to the 2011 Missouri River flooding that wreaked billions of dollars of damages.

“The Missouri River flooding coverage lasted months, and the aftermath continues to this day,” Dockendorf said.

The Global War on Terror has also become a regular ‘beat’ for Dockendorf, he said.

That coverage has featured the return of soldiers from deployment, but he has also covered the tragedy of fallen soldiers who didn’t return home — including Rich Schild, Dan Cuka, Allen Kokesh Jr. and Greg Wagner. The four men died during an Iraqi mission with the Yankton-based Charlie Battery (now Bravo Battery).

Dockendorf has also covered other casualties of war, such as the traumatic brain injuries and other challenges facing Sgt. Corey Briest of Yankton. Briest’s wife, Jenny, fought for him to reach his needed treatment.

“Their situation also gave rise to a local and nationwide campaign that raised $250,000 to build a new handicapped-accessible home for him and his family,” Dockendorf said.

It’s those experiences with people that Dockendorf said is the most enjoyable aspect of his job.

“I love the variety of stories and getting out on the road to see what awaits you,” Dockendorf said. “You never know what to expect, and no two days are exactly the same.”

While there are certainly stressful days for him, Dockendorf said the adrenaline rush and the rewards in “getting to share history in the making” are what make his job enjoyable.

“Everyone has a story to tell, and the story is there if you just look for it,” he said.

Throughout his career, Dockendorf has been able to work with many “outstanding” colleagues on the Press & Dakotan staff and across South Dakota and the nation, he said.

Bob Karolevitz and Hod Nielsen were both great journalists and mentors, according to Dockendorf.

“They truly were members of the Greatest Generation and were extremely gifted writers,” he said.

Dockendorf also revered Dick Anderson, the former Yankton High School journalism advisor who also worked part-time at the Press & Dakotan, he said.

“There have been many others; too many to name,” Dockendorf said.

While the storytelling aspect of his job hasn’t changed throughout his career, other aspects have changed for Dockendorf.

The use of technology — from typewriters to now computers, and dark rooms to now digital cameras — has certainly changed the ways journalists can tell a story, but the basic factors remain the same, Dockendorf said.

“But in the end, it’s all about keeping the human aspect of journalism and never losing that personal touch,” he said. “You can’t replace those qualities with all the technology in the world.”

As fast as information can be disseminated these days with the Internet and social media (such as Facebook and Twitter), Dockendorf said its puts even more pressure on the journalist to get the news out instantaneously.

“But you still need to guard for accuracy, or your credibility is destroyed,” he added.

His passion for telling people’s stories hasn’t changed at all from those early days writing ‘class news’ while in the fifth grade, according to Dockendorf.

“God has truly blessed me,” he said. “It’s been an awesome ride bringing me into contact with wonderful people from all walks of life that I would never otherwise have met or known.”

It’s a journey he hopes continues for many years to come, Dockendorf added.

“I can’t wait to see what else God and life has planned for me,” he said. “And thank you to all those who make me part of their lives! I truly appreciate it!”