In Memory of Cheryl Pannier
Some thoughts about Cheryl
Cheryl Pannier was my boss in my first "adult" job. Fresh out of high school, I had talked my way into tagging around the WHO Radio newsroom as an intern, and after two weeks of my haunting the place, Cheryl asked if I would be interested in working as a board operator. The idea of running the controls for the most powerful and legendary radio station in Iowa was overwhelmingly enticing; I accepted on the spot.
That was in the early summer of 1997. During the succeeding eighteen and a half years, I saw Cheryl in every possible workplace mode: Harried supervisor trying to fill a last-minute gap in the work schedule, seasoned professional guiding the station through some significant news or weather event, caring and thoughtful co-worker looking out for someone's well-being when they needed it. Most often, she was a source of humor and good cheer.
Any workplace runs the risk of turning dry and dull; Cheryl was like a ball of entropy, bringing a little bit of zany fun to the place. I remember most the ongoing series of gags she would play at the expense of Bob Quinn in the days when he ran the newsroom. Perhaps it was watching my two immediate supervisors duke it out via tongue-in-cheek memos and manipulated pictures photocopied and stuffed into mailboxes that left me with a firm appreciation for just a touch of anarchy in the workplace.
Through it all, Cheryl persevered. She should have had a bigger budget so she could hire a few extra people without having to worry about parsing out time off during the holidays. She should have had more storms and breaking news to cover so she could groom more young broadcasters to shine when they were needed most. She should have had more time on the air to have a little more fun and to bring a few more listeners along for the ride. But I never saw her take it personally, and I always saw her laughing. It was her ability to roll with the circumstances that came her way -- particularly when at their most ridiculous -- that brought out the best of her humor, like her truly masterful recordings of contest rules peppered with non sequiturs.
The last time I crossed paths with Cheryl was just a couple of weeks ago. She was covering an overnight board shift so the full-time operator could have a day off around Thanksgiving. I only saw her through the glass for a moment as she set up the programming for the next hour before she ran off to some other corner of the building. I finished some routine tasks of my own before packing up to head home for the night. Since I hadn't seen her in a while, I wanted to catch up; I could always count on Cheryl for a good anecdote about something absurd that had happened since we had last talked. I went looking around, first on the third floor and then on the second, where her office light was on and the door open to an empty room. No matter, I thought; she was probably busy editing some production work for the air in a studio I had overlooked and I'd catch up with her sometime over the holidays. A storm had put many of our studio "On Air" lights on the fritz, so I probably missed her that one last time by walking right past for want of a working light bulb.
And that, perhaps, is how I'll choose to remember her: Working in the middle of the night to lay down some recording while the meters kept on moving in the control room without her. I'll choose to tell myself that she was recording something fittingly hilarious and ridiculous and clever. And I will remind myself that radio (or "RAY D O", as Cheryl's license plate would have it) is the theater of the mind, where actors like Cheryl should always be the stars.
What I learned from Cheryl
- Give a young person a chance. Cheryl gave more young people a chance to shine than probably anyone else in Des Moines radio. Some of them flopped. Many of them grew into the big shoes they were offered to fill.
- Take in a stray. Cheryl's enthusiasm for the Animal Rescue League of Iowa was widely known. But she wasn't just a friend to stray animals -- she was a friend even to what you might call "stray" people. She had a big heart that welcomed everyone, including the misfits and goofballs of the world. Just like animals looking for adoption, those people can use our friendship, too.
- The more ordinary the task, the greater the invitation to the absurd. Cheryl's zany recordings of contest rules and the sight gags that littered her office (like the "May contain peanuts" sign on the side of her big jar of peanuts) demonstrated a joy for life that everyone should try to appreciate and express.