“Strange, isn’t it? Each man’s life touches so many other lives. When he isn’t around he leaves an awful hole, doesn’t he?” “It’s a Wonderful Life”, 1939
Last week, rummaging around my basement, it caught my eye. It was old and torn, and crammed full of something I probably didn’t need anymore, but it’s the only one I have left. Strange, when once I remember watching thousands of them coming off the assembly line at the North Sioux City plant, when they still manufactured them there.
In it’s time, and perhaps still, the boxes with the cow spots were one of the most recognizable brands in the world. The spots weren’t just on the boxes. They adorned what my friend and our colleague, film maker Henry Corra once called, “The Biggest Double Wide in the World”. The “biggest double wide in the world” was the ever growing expanse of metal buildings in the middle of a prairie in North Sioux City, South Dakota, and it is, or was, called Gateway.
The spots grew from the boxes and the “double wide” to just about everywhere. From California to New York to London, the familiar logo appeared, sometimes startling me, as it did when I stumbled on a “Gateway Country Store” in midtown Manhattan. But Gateway almost always startled me. The company “born in a barn” in 1985, didn’t just grow, it exploded, from a few gung ho young Sioux City folks to a multi-national billion dollar corporation. I watched it go from my father’s cattle farm to the Livestock Exchange Building to a location in Sergeant Bluff, Iowa to where it still stands, still cow spotted, in North Sioux City. It looks quieter there now, and and that always makes me feel a little sad. Not for me, but for what once was, on the way up.
I don’t even know if I could get inside these days, but I don’t think I want to. It would be a bit like going through your old high school hallways one more time before the building was demolished. But there are days as I look out over it, from my office, that I wish I could revisit the laughter and the energy of those days.
Gateway, in the early days, was like an enormous and ongoing rock concert and fraternity/sorority party, all wrapped into a place where people did do the work, and they worked hard. The staff profile was young, iconoclastic, irreverent, smart, and driven. Everyone knew everyone, everyone dated everyone, they fought together, played together and watched the spotted cow grow and grow and grow some more. I think that some status in those days was a low badge number, and that meant you were there in the days before Ted had a ponytail and a plane. It seemed to me, back then, that the ring leaders were all on a long, fun, but arduous bender with Ted at the head table ordering more rounds for everyone and ordering the band to play on. Not everyone’s experience was good there, particularly in the later days. It was still a business, people still got fired, and got hurt, but the fun was there, in the hallways, in the ads, and the image.
The original name of Gateway was Gateway 2000. And that’s the year when it started to stumble. I’ve wondered about the name Gateway, and whether Gateway was simply a doorway or “gateway” for some people to something else, something larger and more important than the company was. It was for me. But then, for many, the company was an enormous part of their life.
One of the saddest days I’ve had since my father died was actually the fourth anniversary of his death. It was August 27, 2007, and the headline was that Gateway was sold. I went to visit my father’s grave, which is on my way to work. Then when I got to my office, I decided to take a walk across a field or two and and just stood there looking at the very first building that was ever built, before it became practically its own cow spotted city. Ted said a strange thing to me later. He looked up the stock quote that day just…to look it up, and it said N/A.
In 2010, my brother Ted threw a 25 year reunion for as many of the old employees as he could. For a time, that night, I could still feel the energy. The faces were more lined, but the spirit was still there. I watched groups of them interact, and had a real moment of clarity. These people, mainly born in the Midwest, were the heart and soul of the company. Ted may have been the pied piper but it wasn’t just Ted or Norm or Mike Hammond. It took all of that merry band to drive that big bus. No wonder the place grew like it did, with people like that. Ted always said he couldn’t have done it anywhere else, and he’s right.
The nostalgia isn’t just mine. I think almost once a month, still, I run into people with Gateway stories. I still love hearing them.
The signs on the “biggest double wide in the world” are changed now, but it will always be Gateway to me. Gateway is the source of the money we are now charged with giving away to others. The cow spots mean much more to me than a scathingly brilliant marketing move. They mean a connection to the land, to the past, and to the people here who helped build that source. Gateway is now owned by a company called Acer. Whoever they are, and whoever owns Acer, I wish them well. If however, someone decides to paint out the cow spots, I’d like them to look me up first. My guess is that they’ll stay. As they should.