Friday, March 27, 2009

Curly's Corral

Trips to Colorado to visit our son in Wheat Ridge often conjure up memories of Colorado broadcasters who helped lay the groundwork for KCSR in Chadron.

The other day we wrote about a recent visit with ex-KCSR managers Jack Miller and Don Grant, who both live in Fort Collins. That delightful interlude caused me to remember Bill "Curly" Finch, a co-owner of KCSR when it went on the air in 1954. Among other places, I'm sure, Finch was once at KRAI in Craig, Colorado, before teaming up with Bob Fouse to establish the new radio station in Chadron.

While Finch was later known worldwide for playing big band music as host of Finch's Bandwagon on the Armed Forces Radio and Television Service, he also had a bit of country in him. Well, I'm not absolutely sure about that, but I do believe he understood the importance of country music to folks in western Nebraska, so he launched Curly's Corral on KCSR. It was a showcase for local talent, including long-time radio host Ellis "Peabody" Hale and another well-known musician, Russ Garner. They're among the musicians in the photo below.

Included in this scene are (L-R): Bob Rinker, Ellis "Peabody" Hale, Russ Garner, Unknown, Neville Sits Poor, Bill "Curly" Finch, Joe Crossdog, Harry Hanson, Howard Parker, Dave Parker, and Gordon Benson.

Live broadcasts of Curly's Corral were staged on Saturday afternoons in the small KCSR studio at 212 Bordeaux in Chadron; I don't recall other venues, but I'm sure their were remote broadcasts from other locations; I was a teenager and more inclined at that time toward Pat Boone and Elvis Presley.

Finch would often engage in some spontaneous tomfoolery. Big band music really was his "schtick," and I recall one weekday afternoon when he played "One O'clock Jump" by Count Basie, then proceeded to play every other version of the tune that we had in the library. I was amazed at how long it took to accomplish the task -- and wonder how many listeners actually stayed with it!

While Finch was a shameless promoter, he had a real knack for understanding what an audience wanted. He remained in the wings while a creative Bob Fouse and witty Cliff Pike took the limelight with their popular morning show Breakfast with the Boys. I don't know whether Curly's Corral was his brainchild -- or Ellis Hale's -- but it certainly couldn't have succeeded without Finch's support and involvement. I don't recall Finch ever playing an instrument or singing, but he certainly was the perfect host for the program that carried his moniker.

Thursday, March 26, 2009

KCSR vets retired in Colorado

We think Dennis Brown and his crew do an excellent job operating KCSR in Chadron. Its focus on the community and abundance of local programming help it continue a tradition that was started back in the 1950s.
It was fun visiting this week (3/24/09) with two fellows who helped shape KCSR back in those days..

While taking refuge in Denver from a massive snowstorm across the Black Hills and the high plains, we took a side trip to Fort Collins. That’s home now for both Jack Miller and Don Grant, broadcast veterans who at one time worked – as did I – for the “Beef Empire Stations” owned by the Huse Publishing Company, publisher of the Norfolk (Nebr) Daily News.

The photo here -- taken in Jack Miller's driveway in Fort Collins -- shows Don Grant (left) with Jack donning his trusty Navy baseball cap.

Jack Miller was named Manager of KCSR in August 1959, when the station was bought by the Norfolk group. A native of Norfolk and a Navy veteran who served aboard ship during the Korean War, Jack cut his broadcast teeth announcing and selling for WJAG beginning in 1956. Don, who hailed from LeMars, Iowa, was an Army veteran and attended the University of South Dakota after he left the service. He also worked at WJAG and did a stint at the Chadron station.

The “Beef Empire Stations” included flagship station WJAG in Norfolk, KVSH in Valentine, and KCSR in Chadron. The group later expanded to include KCOL in Fort Collins, Colorado. In 1971, Jack took the helm of KCOL, bringing along several of the KCSR staff – including Don Grant (Sales), John DeHaes (News), and Wil Huett (Programming). Many folks will remember John DeHaes as a reporter with the Chadron Record for a few years before swapping printer's ink for a microphone. He married long-time Chadron resident Lorraine Ford, who has since passed away in Fort Collins.

Jack’s leadership at KCOL continued well into the 1980s before the station was sold. He twice served on the Board of Directors for the Colorado Broadcasters Association and was named “Broadcaster of the Year” in 1981. Not surprisingly, KCOL was strong on local service during those years, and instituted local editorials – not something lots of local broadcasters were always willing to undertake. Appropriately, Jack was named to the Colorado Broadcasters “Hall of Fame” in 2007.

Seeing Don Grant was a real bonus. Since we had worked together for only about a year (and I was a part-timer still going to school), I’m surprised he remembered me at all. Jack waxed eloquent about Don’s superb sales skills – of which I have no doubt. Don remains as I remembered him from 50 years ago – a warm and personable guy. Beyond our common friends and co-workers at KCSR, it was a further surprise when he revealed that he had spent time in Vermillion, South Dakota. We also lived in Vermillion and worked on the USD campus, albeit some 30 years after Don had been there. Still, we both remembered “Monk” Johnson and Martin Busch, both well-known broadcasters across South Dakota in those years. Don and I also spent time working in the Sioux City market.

I believe Don Grant said that another veteran broadcaster, Kent Slocum, was from his hometown of LeMars. I remember Kent from his years at KOTA in Rapid City. Wonder where he is these days?

After many years at KCOL, Don later returned for an encore at WJAG in Norfolk.

During our morning discussion, which was continued over lunch at Red Lobster, we tossed out names of one-time colleagues, and occasionally we all three would remember someone – or a memorable incident that would bring a chuckle. Like the case of the “sleeping announcer.”

But that’s another story……for another time

Sunday, March 15, 2009

A ring of Whitney memories

While working on the driveway of his home just west of Chadron recently, Richard Bates discovered a ring. Not just any ring, but an old high school class ring from a school that’s been closed for more than half a century.

Bates, who works for the postal service, could barely read the initials on the ring, but Whitney was emblazoned across the front of it. He knew of Whitney, the small community in western Dawes County that in another era aspired to be the county seat. But how to go about finding the owner of the ring?

A stop at the jewelry store confirmed that the initials on the ring were “GC,” and its small size suggested that it had belonged to a girl. The date on the ring was 1930.

Bates inquired informally of a few friends, and then visited our
Whitney Reflections website in search of a possible owner of the ring. He sent an e-mail inquiry to Whitney Reflections, and we referred back to a late 1930s Shunga newsletter that listed Whitney High School graduates up to that date. Fortunately, they were listed by year, and the evidence promptly pointed toward 1930 graduate Gwen Connell – the correct gender, and the only one with those inititals!

We called Bob and Ruth Ann Connell in Chadron and Bob Galey in Whitney, all good sources for historical information about Whitney. Bob Galey asked where the ring had been found and observed that Gwen (Connell) Walcott’s daughter, Carolyn, and Carolyn's late husband Bobby Bickford, had lived in the same area, a couple of miles west of Chadron.

Confirming with Rich Bates that his house, built in 1957, had once belonged to Bobby Bickford, we determined that the ring almost certainly had belonged to Gwen Walcott, who probably passed it along to her daughter Carolyn Walcott Bickford.

In early efforts to find a family member and return the ring, I called brother John Miller to find out what he knew about any of Gwen Connell Walcott's children. Although closer in age with Gene Walcott, John knew only the whereabouts of Gordon Walcott, one-time Air Force pilot, now living in Austin, Texas. By the time I had tracked this information down, Rich Bates had done some investigating of his own and found contact information for Carolyn Bickford’s son, Rick, who apparently still lives in the area. Carolyn, according to Ruth Ann Connell, lives in a Broken Bow nursing home. Gwen Walcott was an older sister to Bob Connell.

We’re happy that the ring is on its way back into the hands of a family member – and thankful that its finder was committed to seeing it returned to its owner. Thanks to postal worker Rich Bates for delivering this heirloom.....and a good story!

Sunday, March 8, 2009

Youthful adventures of the 1950s

It was August of 1955. Bill Haley & the Comets were setting the music charts afire with "Rock Around the Clock," and Ray Kroc opened the first McDonald's restaurant in Des Plaines, Illinois.
Five young Chadron boys gathered their camping gear and tossed it atop a Plymouth owned by Elwin Wohlers, and prepared for a memorable trip to Yellowstone National Park. From prairie dogs and bears to spectacular scenery -- like Tower Falls (at right) -- they were to get an up-close glimpse of nature's bounty.

Those boys were Windy Wohlers, Don Mathis, John Miller, Ron Jones and Wayne Lecher. Wohlers and Mathis had just graduated from Chadron Prep and Chadron High. Miller, Jones and Lecher would be returning to high school that fall. This was their final hurrah for the summer.

At least one of the group, John Miller, took along a camera and snapped a few photos. These are but a few of the moments captured during their trip more than a half-century ago. John's Yellowstone photos help bring back a few memories of youthful adventures!