Recollections: Remembering Y2K
By Thom Gerretsen
If you tell teens about Y2K, they’d wonder if you’re from another planet. But if you’re 30 or older, you probably remember the day our computers could have died – and didn’t.
New Year’s Day marks the 20th anniversary of Y2K. It’s the catastrophe that may have happened if the computers that regulate our electricity, water and almost everything else had crashed once their clocks hit midnight on Jan. 1, 2000. Utilities, governments, businesses, hospitals, and others spent months or years trying to make sure everything would keep humming. Xcel Energy, then known as Northern States Power Co., spent $25 million in parts of central Wisconsin and four other states from 1995-99 to assure a smooth cyber transition.
Dec. 31, 1999 had to be among the quietest New Year’s Eves in history. If something bad was to happen, almost nobody wanted to be in the middle of it. Tavern parking lots in central Wisconsin sat empty. Traffic was virtually nil on Marshfield’s normally-busy Central Avenue. People who celebrated the new millennium at others’ houses waited until after midnight to see if it was safe to drive or walk home.
Normally on New Year’s Eve, I’m at a sister-in-law’s house to enjoy dinner and a movie with family. But on the eve of Y2K – a Friday night that melded into Saturday – I was part of a regional reporting crew that covered events for the News-Herald’s Central Wisconsin Sunday. I went to Abbotsford, one place where folks turned lemons into lemonade.
About 800 people were having too much fun to be afraid of what might happen. They attended a party at Abbotsford High School, organized by the school’s principal and district administrator. It started with a dinner where five area churches arranged food and prayers. Revelers also enjoyed a hay ride, basketball, swimming, the movie “Toy Story,” music from a deejay, a raffle drawing, and fireworks at midnight.
Young children were fueled with enough fun to stay awake into the next century. Indeed, it was a safe place for a community to gather if the worst was to happen. But the lights stayed on, the party continued, and breakfast was served before the crowd safely left for home.
News people and school personnel were hardly the only ones working that night. Marshfield electric crews and workers from the former GTE telephone utility kept watch for emergencies that never materialized. Marshfield Police and other area law enforcement had larger-than-normal contingents for New Year’s Eve – but while revelers enjoyed themselves, problems were few.
In Marathon County, the Spencer Fire Department was among 60 places where people could seek emergency help. Fire Chief Roger Bymers said about 10 volunteers checked to see if their equipment was still working before they left. He could then declare: “The whole world was lucky.”