"Things Ain't What They Used To Be" is the title of a song from renowned jazz pianist and composer Duke Ellington. But it also could be the theme for Ken Smith, a press technician at the UI for 12 years.
Smith, a jazz aficionado and guitar player who became hooked on jazz as a child, has been a printer all of his adult life and has watched his profession change before his eyes.
"I've been printing for a long time," he said from the pressroom inside the Document Services building. "I started out as a bindery person, but at my first job the owner couldn't keep a pressman."
Smith, who had taken the job right out of high school because it involved working for a music publisher where the owner had a doctorate in choral music, decided to give it a try.
"I had no experience operating a press and I just kind of jumped into it," he said. "That's how it started and it became a pretty good trade."
He bounced around among pressman jobs before landing at the local Solo Cup plant, where he was asked to perform intricate printing jobs using complicated techniques.
After adapting once again to learn the techniques, Smith said, "It was about then that I said, 'Hey, I'm pretty good at this.' "
He said he tried for years to get on at the UI, finally receiving his opportunity with the retirement of two pressmen in 2000.
But by then, the digital revolution was affecting not only his trade, but the very way the university unit operated.
Before long, Printing Services was in jeopardy of closing, he was holding a layoff letter, and fellow pressmen were wondering if time had eclipsed their careers.
He said the aged equipment, which included a host of rumbling presses on the building's second floor, simply couldn't compete with the speed of the digital age.
"It was all about speed," he said. "It certainly wasn't because of quality. If you don't stay on top of the technology then you'll constantly be playing catch-up."
A reorganized and energized Document Services was unveiled last year, with printing, sorting and delivery services combined and the staff reduced by half. The unit still offers most of the same services as before, though it is built for quick turnaround and not the larger offset jobs it used to handle.
"It was decided this is something that a major university needs," he said. "If anyone on campus has an immediate need, we're on it."
The new structure, he said, "has made us leaner and meaner. I think it's going to make us very successful. If we can serve the U. of I. better, then so be it."
When Smith arrived at the UI, he was one of six pressmen. With the reorganization, the big offset presses were sold, and the remaining pressmen left.
He said there was a time when a pressman could travel to any major city and pick up work almost instantly, but that too, has changed with time.
And while, as Ellington notes, "Things ain't like they used to be," Smith said he simply continues to adapt.
"I guess I'm the last printer standing," he said. "I wanted to be a part of the solution. It's a team effort here and it takes everybody doing what they do; I'm just another gear in the mechanism."
Smith and his wife, Cathe Capel, own a 20-acre farm east of Sidney, which she manages. It has 100 chickens and 10 sheep. A daughter, Sarah, also works at the UI.
Music still plays an important part of Smith's life, but he always had to put it on the back burner in order to make a living. He still reads about music at every opportunity, plays with a band occasionally and composes his own pieces when the inspiration strikes.
"I've been playing music since grade school," he said. "It was all I could think about. I didn't take much of anything seriously in high school. I was unfocused and got a little out of control. I really regret not going to college and doing something more with my music."
He comes by the talent naturally. His father was a country-swing guitar player in Chicago in the 1940s and regularly played live accompaniment for radio commercials.
"There was always a guitar in our house," he said. "I still would probably rather play music than anything else. I have tons of books on music, I'm always reading something."
When he was younger, Smith was drawn to rock and blues, though popular jazz pianist and composer Dave Brubeck turned him onto jazz - a course he never reconsidered.
"I just write jazz tunes now," he said, "though I've always wanted to write for traditional orchestra."
He said printing has similarities to jazz, in that there's lots of room for improvisation and artistic inspiration.
"Printing always has been a craft and an art to me," he said. "With a letterpress, I can actually construct and make things. I've always had a love for the printed page and I've always been, for lack of a better word, bookish."