Sunday, December 5, 2010

Former sheriff, principal has led long, interesting life

by Con Marshall

Although he no longer lives in the county, if anyone deserves to be called “Mr. Dawes County,” it might be Jim Butler.

He is the grandson of Dawes County pioneers, grew up on a farm during the drought and depression the 1930s, was an excellent athlete at both Chadron Prep and Chadron State College, was involved in the nation’s struggle to survive during World War II, was the county sheriff for nearly 10 years and served as principal of the Chadron Elementary Schools for more than two decades.

Now a resident of Lincoln, Butler is still hale and hardy at age 91. Accompanied by his five sons and several grandchildren and great-grandchildren, he returned “home” last month to be inducted into the CSC Athletic Hall of Fame. While in town, he was a member of the Chadron Prep panels that discussed their beloved school and visited with several long-time friends.

While he’s been through the “School of Hard Knocks,” Butler acknowledges he’s also had lots of good fortune during his life.

“I’ve often said that somebody up there has looked out for me all these years,” Butler said with his shy grin. “Just about everything I tried has worked out somehow. I’ve been very lucky.”

Butler’s health is one of his blessings. While he’s been treated for atrial fibrillation, a rather common heart disorder, he looks and acts much younger than the calendar specifies.  He lives on the fourth floor of a retirement center in Lincoln and nearly always takes the stairs instead of riding the elevator. He also participates in workouts three times a week and, best of all, his mind is still sharp.

Of course, he’s not the first Butler to live a long and active life. His father, T.J., a lifelong resident of Dawes County, was still raising a huge garden and hauling cattle in his 30-year-old Ford truck when he was 93.

The first Butlers in the county were his grandparents, John and Sitha. They were among the 50 or so members of the Sweat Colony who came from Missouri in 1884 and settled along the two Bordeaux Creeks east of what became Chadron. The Butler homestead is now known as the Ralph Rhoads ranch along Highway 20 about eight miles east of town.

Jim’s parents were living there in the late 1930s when it was sold out from under them, plunging the family into poverty.

“Those were hard times anyway, and after that happened we didn’t have anything,” Butler said. “The place was sold to a relative for just a dollar an acre. It was a big mess. My dad then borrowed $10,000 and bought a bunch of sows and was going to raise hogs. But the hogs got cholera and died. Then before long the bank went broke.”

T.J., his wife, Grace, and their three children moved into Chadron, where he landed a job at the Reitz and Crites Lumber Yard. T.J. later used a team and wagon to pick up the garbage in the western half of Chadron. After a few years he brought a truck for the job, eventually purchased a stock rack so he could haul cattle and launched his long career as a trucker.

After graduating from the eighth grade at the Rucker School near the family farm in 1932, Jim attended high school at Chadron Prep.

He had never seen a football or basketball game when he began high school. Prep didn’t have a football team while Butler was in school there and he didn’t go out for basketball as a freshman. But he started as a junior and a senior. The Junior Eagles qualified for the state tournament both years, but lost in the first round in overtime both times.

After graduating from Prep in 1936, Butler enrolled at Chadron State. The college’s football coach, Ruffus Trapp, encouraged him to come out for football. After one year of learning the game, he played enough as a sophomore to earn a letter.

The following year, 1938, he earned a starting nod at guard, but just before the first game he suffered a severely sprained ankle.  By then, Ross Armstrong had taken over as the head football coach and advised Butler to soak the ankle in hot water and put it under the heat lamp—a common treatment for sprains then and the exact opposite of the ice applications used today.

“It (the ankle) swelled up and turned black and blue. I was on crutches for a couple of weeks and then returned to practice,” Butler recalled. “I had earned my starting job back and was about to play when I sprained the other ankle. Ross told me I might as well skip the rest of the season. I guess you would say I received a medical redshirt.”

Butler said he never had any trouble with his ankles again and he was a starting guard on both offense and defense his final two years in 1939 and ’40. The 1940 team pulled off a major upset, defeating the University of Wyoming 12-9 in a game played in Casper. Butler was instrumental in the victory. He said both teams played the single-wing offense. He knew the system well and was able to nail the Wyoming tailback for losses several times after the offensive guard left Butler unblocked while pulling to run interference on the opposite side of the line. 

“Some Chadron people made quite a bit of money that day,” Butler said with a grin. “They bet on us with some Wyoming fans who were sure they were going to beat us. It was quite a game.”  Butler said when he played he weighed about 170 pounds, or about the same as he weighs today, and had “pretty good speed.”

While Butler didn’t start for the Chadron State basketball team, he earned a letter in both 1939-40, when the Eagles were 16-4, and 1940-41 when they were 15-3. None of the losses those two years was by more than five points and four of them were by one or two.

When World War II broke out, Butler left college before graduating, moved to California and worked in Burbank at the Vega Aircraft factory that was a Lockheed subsidiary. He was the foreman of a 10-man crew that initially assembled Ventura bombers and later the famous B-17 bombers as soon as the pieces came out of the jigs.

“We could assemble a plane in 10-hour day,” he said. “It was a tough job. Inspectors went over every rivet and weld. Our crew was one of the best. I sometimes rode along on the test flights.”

While still in college, Butler married Madeline Iaeger, granddaughter of one of Chadron’s most prominent citizens in its early history, L.T. “Billy the Bear” Iaeger.

“She was the best looking girl in college,” Butler said. The couple had two sons, Gary and Dale, when she died of pneumonia in 1943 while the family was living in California.

While he was working at the aircraft factory, Butler had tried a couple of times to enlist in the military because he wanted to be a pilot, but his requests were rejected because of the importance of his work. He was finally accepted into the Army Air Corps and had begun pilot training when Madeline died. With two small sons to raise, he received a dependency discharge and returned to Chadron.

The Butler family had already lost Jim’s older brother, Melvin, during the war. He was a Navy pilot and had survived the attack on Pearl Harbor in November 1941, but was shot down near the Solomon Islands in September 1942 and was never heard from again.

Back in Chadron, Jim helped with his father’s trucking business, which became quite lucrative.  Because of the Great Depression and then the war, there weren’t many trucks available but in the mid-1940s area farmers had a couple of bumper wheat crops that needed to go to market.

“We hauled lots of wheat,” Butler said. “Some days we made $125 or $150. That was a lot of money in those days. We never got rich, but it was more money than the Butlers had ever had before.”

After the war ended, Butler was planning to take his two boys and return to California. But romance changed his plans. He met Donna Sailor, who had come from Gordon to work at Midwest Furniture in Chadron.

“We hit it off and before too long I was married to another wonderful woman,” Butler said. “She took over as the mother of my two boys and after a while we had three more (Scott and twins Criss and Curt). It was another case where I was really lucky.”

Butler returned to college in the spring of 1947 and completed work on his bachelor’s degree.  That fall became the industrial arts teacher at Provo High School at the Black Hills Army Depot near Edgemont. He stayed just one year.  

The next year Dale was old enough to attend kindergarten, something South Dakota schools didn’t offer. Donna was friends with Opal Schroeder, the kindergarten teacher at the East Ward School and wife of Chadron Superintendent of Schools H.A. Schroeder and

“She thought Dale should be in kindergarten and that Opal should be his teacher, so we moved back to Chadron,” Butler said.

For nearly 10 years, he was the Dawes County sheriff. He was appointed to the position after Cy Spearman resigned at the end of 1948. Butler took over just as the Blizzard of ’49 struck.  His new job immediately called for around-the-clock duty as he and other law enforcement officers helped in dozens of rescues and other emergencies for about two months.

He recalls that one of his activities was riding in the C-47 bombers from an air base in Colorado that were used to drop hay to cattle that had been marooned by the storm. “Frank Snook (a Chadron pilot) and I would fly to Alliance, where the C-47s were located, and then direct the pilots in making the deliveries because we knew who lived on most of the ranches in the county.”

The Chadron Record reported that 1,854 hay bales were dropped on 29 ranches in the Chadron area during “Operation Haylift.”

Butler said after the storm subsided, being the sheriff was a good job. He was elected to the position twice, but resigned in early 1958 before completing the second term.

“There was just a two bedroom apartment in the court house and with the five boys and a college girl to help Donna feed the prisoners, we were really crowded,” he said. “We decided I needed to do something else.”

Once again, Butler planned to move to California and went there to interview for a teaching position. However, fate again intervened. In the fall of 1960, Schroeder hired him to teach industrial arts, social studies and junior and senior high school physical education and help Fuzz Watts coach the Cardinals’ football teams.

During this time, he worked on his master’s degree at Chadron State and after two years at the high school, he became a fifth grade teacher and the principal at East Ward. Two years later, during an evaluation of the school system, it was recommended that one person serve as principal for all three elementary schools. Butler got the position.

“I really never applied for any of the jobs I had in the Chadron Schools,” Butler said. “Heinie Schroeder just asked me to take them. I think it worked out pretty well. We had good (teaching) staffs. In the early 1960s the college was really growing and a lot of the new professors had wives who were elementary teachers. We hired quite a few of them.

“Also, I was good friends with Royce Vathauer, who was one of the college professors that worked with the students who were studying to be elementary teachers. He’d send some of the best ones to student teach in the Chadron Schools and if they got along well and we had an opening, we’d hire them.”

Butler retired from education at age 66 in 1985. Seven years later, Jim and Donna moved to Lincoln. It was difficult for them to leave, but since all five sons and their families lived in eastern Nebraska, or Missouri or Iowa it was a logical decision.

Donna, who gave lessons to dozens of aspiring pianists, had several physical problems in her later years and died in April 2008. Jim said having his family nearby has helped keep him going. There also are numerous activities at the retirement home where he lives, he’s active in the Aldersgate Methodist Church and he continues to follow both college and professional sports.

Jim Butler's sons all gathered at Chadron State College to help him celebrate his induction into the CSC Athletic Hall of Fame in October 2010.  Shown left to right are the "Butler Boys" -- Curt, Chris, Jim, Scott, Gary and Dale.    Click on the photo to see a larger version.
This past Sunday, he attended the women’s exhibition basketball game between Nebraska-Lincoln and Nebraska-Kearney and saw freshman Jordan Hooper of Alliance score 20 points to lead the Cornhuskers to a 97-55 victory.

“I keep pretty busy and still enjoy life,” he said.  “And, I’ll always remember the good life I had in Chadron.”

Friday, December 3, 2010

The "specialties" of Sid Umshler

When the Nebraska Cornhuskers and the Oklahoma Sooners do battle tonight at Cowboys Stadium in Dallas, it’ll be the culmination of a football rivalry dating back more than 75 years.  We well remember the ‘50s, when the two teams were in the Big Eight and the rivalry was palpable.  Somehow, since formation of the Big 12 Conference, that rivalry hasn’t seemed quite as intense – perhaps a harbinger of things to come for the ailing conference.  Nonetheless, the game tonight will determine the conference championship, and it’s sure to be a humdinger.

Joining the millions of avid football fans nestled in front of their TV sets to watch the big game will be Chadron native Skip “Sid” Umshler.  A 1964 graduate of Chadron High School, he’s been retired from a successful sales job in Omaha since 2001.  He and his wife Bev, who is retired from a long career with the telephone company, decided to pull up stakes and move into a country home in Missouri – not far from Branson.

While Skip’s passion for NU football remains unbridled, he is anything but your typical armchair enthusiast of things Husker.

Skip and Bev Umshler in the "Husker Room."
In late November, we had the good fortune of visiting Skip and Bev at their home just outside of Mount Vernon, Missouri.  Skip and I chatted a bit about old times – recapturing some of the memories we shared as teammates on the 1961 Chadron High Cardinal basketball team, which won the Class “B” State Championship under the tutelage of Verne Lewellen.  If our nostalgic discussion seemed to take place in something of a time warp – especially for our very understanding wives – what happened next seemed like an episode from the Twilight Zone.

Skip and Bev were giving us a tour of their home, when we began navigating our way upstairs.  Then, it was as if Rod Serling was transporting us from Mount Vernon, Missouri to………NEBRASKA!

Upstairs, from ceiling to floor along all the walls of a spacious room dubbed the “Husker Room,” sports memorabilia abounds – most of it celebrating Nebraska Cornhusker football.  Photographs, posters, shirts, caps – all of it exquisitely framed and professionally displayed.  Neon signs.  Jerseys.  All forms of memorabilia.  If you simply woke up here, you might think you’d dozed while on a tour of a trophy room at Memorial Stadium in Lincoln.

Since time was limited, the fascinating tour was cut short, and we were able to enjoy only a brief summary of key items.  There’s lots of stuff from and about Jerry Tagge, the All-American Husker quarterback who was field marshal in the Big Red’s 35-31 win over the Oklahoma Sooners in a 1971 game considered to be college football’s “Game of the Century.”  Tagge and Umshler later became good friends in Omaha, further inspiring Skip to expand his memorabilia collection.  Umshler also got acquainted with NU athletic equipment manager Mel Worster.  Autographed items from coaches and players abound.  And there’s more than just Nebraska mementos.  Many dozens of items have come from players and coaches he’s met and befriended – not just in Nebraska, but Iowa, Missouri, and elsewhere. 

Alas, we should’ve been snapping photos and taking notes – so much to see and experience, and so little time!  Skip and Bev have invited us back, and I suspect we’ll be on their doorstep one day soon, eager to more leisurely explore and examine the trove of Cornhusker treasures that grace this special room.  Each and every item has a story.    It’s a stunning display.

Cardinal teammates Umshler and Miller -- reunited.
One wonders how long it’s taken Skip to collect these items – all tastefully exhibited.  He notes that he’s been gathering the collection since the mid-1990’s.

While he disavows patience, it clearly has taken much time and effort to amass this collection.  But it’s not the only hobby that Skip has undertaken.

In 1976, while traversing roadways across Nebraska, Iowa, the Dakotas and surrounding states as a sales rep – first for a hobby craft company and later for a smokeless tobacco firm – he bought a metal detector and took up coin-hunting.  Within a couple of years, he had found some 8,875 coins, more than 1,300 of them silver.  Of course that doesn’t include class rings, dog tags, and numerous sterling silver religious medals.  His collection is now safely ensconced in an Omaha safety deposit box.

In 1979, Umshler authored an article for Western-Eastern Treasures, a leading “how-to” magazine for metal detectionists.

“My only regret,” he wrote in the October issue, “is that I didn’t get into this ten years earlier!  I’ve had countless hours of enjoyment and know if I live to be 90, I’ll be out there huntin’ somewhere – though by then I may have to talk a grandson into doing my digging for me!”

Skip Umshler at work searching for 
coins in the town square at Tecumseh,
Nebraska in October of 1980
Skip shared with us a letter from a Scottsbluff woman, whose high school class ring had been lost many years earlier.  Skip found it while foraging for coins on the town square in Ord, Nebraska.  The lady wrote a touching letter of thanks to Skip – noting that her husband had recently died after their house burned down, destroying everything they owned. 

“Getting back my ring is something real special,” she wrote.

“Special” seems to fit Umshler well.

The oldest of three children born to Warren and Jen Umshler, Skip was a talented all-around athlete in Chadron during the late 1950’s and early ‘60’s.  He was only a freshman when he suited up for the varsity at Chadron High in 1961, when they won the state “B” basketball tournament.   Later that same year, he played first base on the outstanding Chadron Midgets squad that won a berth in the National Teeners Baseball World Series in Hershey, Pennsylvania.

Many Dawes County old-timers will remember Skip’s dad, Warren, as a long-time employee for the State Highway Department and an ex-Marine who won both the Silver Star and Purple Heart during World War Two. He was good friends with another WWII hero from Chadron, Warren Beamish.  The senior Umshler became something of a fixture with the American Legion Color Guard that supported events around Chadron for decades.  He also refereed basketball games for several years.  Skip’s mother, Jen, once served as Clerk of the District Court and still lives in Chadron.  In addition to Skip, the Umshlers had two daughters, Shari and Cam.

Following high school, like so many youngsters, Skip struggled a bit in finding out what he wanted to do with his life.   He was soon to discover that “having a good time” wasn’t all that good.  Those years might euphemistically be called “colorful,” but they were difficult.

He married Beverly Urwin – who also has roots and relatives in Chadron.  Her sister Marilyn and brothers John and Bob still live in the Chadron area.  Another sister, Karolyn, lives in Tennessee.  The marriage proved a positive step, especially when they retreated to Omaha and pursued new careers.  

Bev landed a job with Northwestern Bell Telephone Company – later Qwest – from which she retired more than 30 years later.  Skip’s affable personality proved a real asset for sales work, and he found the work both enjoyable and profitable. 

While the “collector” side of Skip Umshler has shown brightly through his coin collection and Husker memorabilia, there’s yet another “special” talent he possesses – poetry.  While he dismisses the thought that he’s really a poet, he concedes that his mother’s fondness for two of his poems enticed him to have them framed. Click on the image at right to see one of these poems. Read the other one here. Both were penned not long after Skip graduated from Chadron High, and we think his work was exceptional.  

Along the way, Skip and Bev raised two girls, Kim and Jodee, who still live in Omaha.  There are three grandchildren:   15-year-old granddaughter Hunter; 11-year-old grandson Tai; and 9-year-old granddaughter Sydney.

Skip waxes enthusiastic as he talks about grandson Tai, who’s already a collector of sorts – not coins and memorabilia, but trophies!  At his ripe young age, he’s already collected a wide array of BMX racing trophies for his prowess in a bicycle sport that is gaining wide popularity.

We figure it’ll be no time at all before some of Tai’s accomplishments earn him a place in the Umshler “Husker Room”!


Saturday, November 6, 2010

Chadron Prep students 'had it made'

By CON MARSHALL

Students who attended Chadron Prep thought they “had it made,” those participating in panel discussions on Oct. 22 said during a program that was a part of Chadron State College’s homecoming celebration.

Nearly a dozen people who had attended what officially was the Campus Laboratory School, but was commonly referred to as Chadron Prep told of their experiences at the school.   The lab school operated for more than 50 years. It accepted students in 1911, the same year as Chadron State opened, and was closed in the early 1960s after the college’s administration and board decided the funding could be better used to increase faculty salaries and strengthen the accreditation status.

These individuals were the panelists who told of their experiences at Chadron Prep last week as part of the Chadron State College homecoming program. In front, from left, are Jan Adams, Jean Henkens, Doris Harrington, Jerry Berry, Marilyn Hills and Gary Bieganski. In the back are Lois Putnam, Jeanelle Grant, JoAnn Schaeffer, Jim Butler, Don Kay and Goldie Dawkins Mitchell. Another panelist was Don Housh.  NOTE:  Click on the photo to see an enlarged version.
Laboratory schools were founded so college students who were studying to become teachers could practice teach in elementary and high school classrooms before graduating.  The lab schools closed on many other college campuses about the same time. The college students then did their practice teaching in public and private schools.

“I thought I was very lucky to go to Prep,” said Lois Putnam, who lives near Oelrichs. “We had it made. We got to do things that kids in other schools didn’t get to do. We had physical education classes beginning in the third grade, swam in the swimming pool, got to take home ec when we were seventh graders and our science classes were super.”

Other members of the two panels agreed with Putnam. They noted that when they were high school students, college professors often were their primary teachers.  Several said playing in the school orchestra that was directed by Roy Peterson, who also directed the college’s orchestra, was a special treat.  Taking Spanish under Emma Steckelberg also was a bonus, others noted.

Some parents insisted that their children attend the Campus Laboratory School.  Putnam said she lived just two blocks from the West Ward Elementary School in Chadron, but her mother enrolled her in Susan Frazier’s kindergarten class at the Lab School. That meant she had to walk a mile and a quarter to school instead of two blocks.

Putnam said years later as a college student she did her student teaching in the same room in Hildreth Hall where she had attended the first grade.

JoAnn Schaeffer had a similar experience.  She attended the Lab School from kindergarten until she graduated from high school, then returned to Chadron State to earn a bachelor’s degree after raising five kids.

Jim Butler, Don Housh and Jeanelle Grant had attended rural schools before enrolling at Prep. Butler said he was “scared to death” when he stepped on the college campus as a high school freshman, but got along fine.

Don Kay noted he attended Crawford High School for two years, but his father didn’t think he was learning enough and persuaded him transfer to Prep.  Marilyn Hills said she transferred from the Chadron Public Schools to the lab school because most of the students in her Sunday-school class went there. Gary Bieganski said he had attended schools, several of them large ones, “around the world” while his father was in the military.  When his family moved to Chadron, Bieganski enrolled at Prep and he said, “I really enjoyed it.”

Goldie Dawkins Mitchell recalled that a few hours after she was born in January 1920, two teachers from the college stopped at her parents’ apartment and saw her. Six years later when she was ready to begin school, Mitchell said one of the teachers contacted her parents and said she should enroll at the Campus Laboratory School. She did, and remained in the Prep system until graduating from high school in 1937.

Mitchell said Hildreth Hall was still under construction when she began school and her first classes were in the Administration Building.  When the new building was completed in 1926, she and her classmates helped carry the supplies across the street.

A couple of the participants said there was criticism of the Laboratory School by some educators not connected with the college because much of the instruction was done by the student teachers. However, the panelists said that was often advantageous because the student teachers were competitive and liked to outdo each other when it was their turn to teach.

“I’m glad I got to go to Prep,” said Jerry Berry, a member of the final high school class in 1961. “The student teachers worked hard and were a lot of fun. Some of them worked with students who were having problems and helped them succeed. We also got to know a lot of the college kids. It was like one big happy family. The Prep reunions that we’ve had for the past 45 years are great. The spirit lives on.”

It is impossible to talk about Chadron Prep without mentioning the three Class C state championships that the basketball teams won in the 1950s. Jan Adams described the coach, Archie Conn, as a great person who stressed respect, developing friendships and being kind and understanding to one another.

Another milestone for Prep occurred in 1961, the year the high school portion closed. Just a few weeks after the announcement was made, Prep won the championship at the first CSC Scholastic Contest.

Long-time Chadron resident Jean Henkens said her experience at Prep was different than most. She grew up in Martin, S.D., but came to Chadron the summer between her junior and senior years in high school to take science courses that were taught by college faculty members Charles Philpott, Lyle Andrews and Minnie Lichty.

“That was a great experience,” Henkens said. “I learned a lot. After I graduated (from high school) in 1936, I came back over here to go to college. I knew this was the place for me.”

Another of the panel members was Doris Harrington, who taught second grade from 1960 until 1964 when the elementary portion of the school was closed. She said she has fond memories of that experience and enjoyed supervising student teachers.

The discussion was arranged by members of the CSC Education Department.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~`
Our deep thanks to good friend Con Marshall of Chadron for sharing this great story and photograph with Dawes County Journal!
               

Monday, November 1, 2010

Jim Butler inducted into CSC Athletic Hall of Fame

Some months back, we did a short piece on long-time Chadron educator and lawman Jim Butler (left), who now lives in Lincoln.

Mr. Butler turns 92 in January, but you'd never know it by the schedule he keeps.  Although he now lives in Lincoln near some of his sons, he still occasionally drives back to Chadron to take in a CSC ball game or -- as happened last week (10/23/10) -- to be inducted into the Chadron State College Athletic Hall of Fame.

Jim Butler grew up along Bordeaux Creek east of Chadron, one of three kids born to T.J. and Grace Butler.  He went to school at the old Chadron Prep, competing in football, basketball and track.  After graduating from high school in 1936, he enrolled at Chadron State in pursuit of an Industrial Arts degree.


Then it was college work at Chadron State, where he participated in sports under legendary coach Ross Armstrong.


Veteran Chadron writer Con Marshall wrote, "Butler played offensive guard and linebacker for the CSC football teams in 1937, ’39 and ’40. His defensive play was a major factor in the Eagles’ 12-9 win over the University of Wyoming in 1940. He also lettered in basketball at CSC two years when the Eagles were 16-4 and 15-3."

After several jobs, marriage, two children, the death of his wife, and service in the Army Air Corps, he returned to Chadron following World War II.  Butler remarried in 1946 and graduated from CSC in 1947. After teaching and coaching for a year at Igloo, SD, he was appointed as Dawes County Sheriff, a job he held from 1950 until 1958 – with lots of memorable experiences!


Many folks will also remember Jim Butler playing first base and other positions for the Chadron Elks baseball team for several years. Check out a few photos from an earlier era in Chadron.


Read Con Marshall's story about the Chadron State College Hall of Fame inductees.


The Jim Butler award is well deserved, and a timely recognition for a family with a lot of sports history.  His son Dale was inducted into the Nebraska High School Sports Hall of Fame earlier this year.


Below are a few Jim Butler photos we snapped at the October 23 induction luncheon at Chadron State College.  You can click on the images to see a larger version of the photo.



2010 inductees to the Chadron State College
Athletic Hall of Fame.  Jim Butler center front.


Members of the Jim Butler Family were on hand
as he received his award at Chadron State College

Monday, August 2, 2010

Bill Finch was a 'King of Swing'


by Larry Miller

Bill Finch loved music. But it was broadcasting where he left his mark.

A native of Illinois, Finch was deeply rooted in the music and culture that he had grown up with in the 1930’s and ‘40s.

He also had a knack for new technologies and ventured into broadcasting – first radio, and then television. But television was a mere flirtation, and he molded his lifelong career around radio, sharing his love of big band music with radio audiences from Nebraska and Colorado to South Carolina – and around the world.

It’s no surprise that he was blending those two traits when he partnered with Coloradan Bob Fouse to put Chadron radio station KCSR on the air back in May of 1954. That event was listed among “New Beginnings” in the recently-published history of Chadron, Nebraska, prepared as part of the quasquicentennial celebration this summer.

Few folks with first-hand knowledge about the beginning of KCSR are still around. So it’s left to those of us who were mere youngsters romping around Chadron in the mid 1950’s to tell the story. And that story can’t be told without first knowing about the people who made it happen – and Bill Finch was in the thick of it!

Born in Lovejoy, Illinois, in 1922, Finch was just a few months old when his parents moved to Chicago. In later life, he told newspaper writer Thom Anderson that life as a big-city kid was pretty exciting. He said he remembered the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre, which took place not far from his house – as was the Biograph Theatre, were gangster John Dillinger was killed.

“The gangsters were often looked at as sort of folk heroes…we didn’t worry about them, though. They were never a real danger to citizens – only to each other when one invaded the other’s turf. The police figured they’d just kill each other,” Finch was quoted as saying.

He also remembered with great delight the wide array of big bands that would play in the many ballrooms around Chicago – from Glenn Miller and Guy Lombardo to Duke Ellington and Benny Goodman.

“Being raised in the Big Band era was the best thing a person who was musically inclined could possibly experience,” he was once quoted as saying. Those inclinations led him to master the saxophone and clarinet.

During World War II, Finch served a stint in the Pacific with the U.S. Army Signal Corps. His four-year hitch included an assignment to Special Services and ended in Tokyo, where he was a courier with the Army Security Agency. After his discharge as a First Lieutenant, he enrolled in the broadcasting program at Denver University, where he graduated in 1951. Then it was off to his first radio job at KRAI in Craig, Colorado, where he was Sales Manager and also handled announcing chores.

It was likely in Denver, however, that Bill Finch crossed paths with Bob Fouse, an announcer and Promotion Manager at KTLN in Denver. It was fortuitous that Fouse’s family was apparently quite wealthy. Finch and Fouse joined forces in the early 1950’s and decided to build a radio station in Chadron, Nebraska. The station went on the air in May of 1954 from studios at 212 Bordeaux Street, just a few doors north of where the station is now located.

Much could be written about those early days of KCSR, which operated at 1450 Kilocycles with only 250 watts. Nonetheless, the station boasted that it was the “Tri-State Voice by Listener Choice,” but the signal struggled to reliably serve an audience in South Dakota – let alone Wyoming, which was even farther away.

But everywhere the signal could be heard, the station was a hit!

Early KCSR staff members included other DU alums like Cliff Pike and Freeman Hover. They were creative and resourceful, and they didn’t hesitate to take chances trying new things. The station was on the air 18-hours a day and incorporated everything from country and western to classical music in a format that was “keyed to the mood of the day.” But it was the local news, sports, and weather that caught the fancy of a Chadron-area audience hungry for their own radio station. They loved it.

Other early staff included Dave Scherling, who had been at KGOS in Torrington, and local Chadronites Ted Turpin and Sherry Girmann. Turpin did news and sports. Girmann was receptionist and stenographer.

Finch served as Station Manager and guided most of the technical work, while Fouse was Commercial Manager. Both did on-air work, but Fouse dove full force into programming, injecting his rare brand of creativity that was showcased on a weekday morning program called Breakfast with the Boys. We have a some photographs from this era; you'll find them posted in our KCSR Gallery.

Finch and his wife Dorothy became well-known in the community; their children Barbara and Ron enrolled in the Chadron public school system. Finch had a flair for showmanship, too, creating and hosting a weekly live performance program called Curly’s Corral,” featuring area country and western musicians. “Curly” Finch became something of a celebrity, donning western outfits (at left) and even riding a horse down Main Street in a parade. Quite a trick for a guy who grew up in Chicago! But he knew the importance of country music to station listeners, and he responded in a positive way.

In 1958, as a part-time announcer at the station, I vividly recall one summer afternoon when Bill was at the control board hosting an afternoon of recorded music. He decided to spice it up a bit by playing Count Basie's “One O’clock Jump,” followed by another version of....“One O’clock Jump”......and then..... yet another version! I have no recollection of just how many renditions he found, but he was loving every minute of it. It was clear he had a passion for big band music – even if it was demonstrated in a rather unorthodox way! He was, after all, the boss!

By late 1958 and early 1959, Finch was simultaneously managing KDUH-TV in Hay Springs, the new television station owned by Duhamel Broadcasting Enterprises. Whatever the motivation for Finch and Fouse, they sold KCSR to the Huse Publishing Company of Norfolk, Nebraska. The deal was done in August 1959, and Finch was gone from Chadron.

Finch then bought a radio station in Clewiston, Florida, but it became a tumultuous time for him and his family. He was soon divorced from Dorothy and lost the station, taking a job at WFTL in Fort Lauderdale.

By 1963, Bill Finch met magazine editor Patricia Lane, and they wed on New Year’s Day in 1964, soon re-locating to Casper, Wyoming, where he was again involved in broadcasting. But the lure of the Rockies took hold, and Bill and Pat moved to Colorado Springs, where – among other things – he hosted a weekend big band program called The Finch Bandwagon on KVOR.

The program was heard by an Air Force colonel who had some clout with higher brass, and Finch was asked to produce the program for the worldwide audience of the Armed Forces Radio and Television Service. He’d periodically fly to Los Angeles and record as many as 13 programs in one trip.

This phase of Bill Finch’s career accomplished several things. First, it gave him an opportunity to invite top-name talent to the studio for interviews that could be inserted into his programs, which were pressed to LP discs and distributed to AFRTS station and ships around the globe.

Surely, it must have been a real kick for the kid from Chicago to rub shoulders with top entertainers, ranging from musicians like Percy Faith, Patti Page, Stan Kenton, Frankie Carle and Lawrence Welk (shown here with Bill Finch), to legendary writers like Jimmie McHugh and Sammy Cahn, to name just a few. Second, as an ex-GI, Finch relished being able to share music that he had grown up with and loved with a whole new generation of American kids – not to mention the large “shadow” audience that tuned in AFRTS in every part of the world.

Bill and Pat Finch had a son of their own, Holmes, who spent his formative years in Colorado Springs.

The AFRTS gig went on for more than a decade, but – according to a 2002 news story – Finch lost is voice and had to undergo surgery on his vocal chords. While he regained his voice, it was markedly different, and Finch apparently felt that his tenure as a radio announcer was at an end.

Shortly thereafter, the family headed east – to South Carolina. They settled in Pamplico, where Pat had grown up.

In 1975, the final chapter of Bill Finch’s broadcast career unfolded. He went to work at WJMX in nearby Florence and resurrected the Finch Bandwagon radio show. It thrived and became something of a fixture on the station, running steadily for 27 years. At the end of that long stint on radio station WJMX, writer Stella Miller dubbed Finch the 'King of Swing' in an article for Golden Life magazine.

Finch's first wife, Dorothy, suffered a bout of heart ailments and passed away in 1995 in Orlando, Florida. Their daughter Barbara lives in Orlando today, where her husband is project manager for a construction company. They have five children, 10 grandchildren, and one great grandchild. Finch's older son Ron lives in China and owns his own window dressing company. Ron’s two sons are in college and his daughter is in high school. Finch's younger son, Holmes -- by his second wife, Pat -- is an Associate Professor at Ball State University in Muncie, Indiana, where he serves as Director of Research for the Office of Charter School Research.

In 2002, on his 80th birthday, Finch suffered a stroke. Despite this significant setback, he fought his way back and was soon sharing the helm of The Finch Bandwagon on another South Carolina station, WOLS, where he was again immersing himself – and his many fans in the area – with his beloved big band music. Click the "Play" button below and enjoy a few minutes of an original AFRTS broadcast of The Finch Band Wagon.

Bill Finch died June 9, 2004, just a few weeks shy of his 82nd birthday. His wife, Pat, continues to live in her native Pamplico, South Carolina.


~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~
Our thanks to Pat Finch, Barbara (Finch) Schenk, Holmes Finch, and Ruth Munn Kilgallon for generously sharing photos and other materials used in this article.

Monday, July 19, 2010

Early Chadron: Hollywood of the Plains?

More than a decade before the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences began staging Academy Award ceremonies in Hollywood, one of the earliest western films about Wild Bill Hickock was produced in…….Chadron, Nebraska?

Not that the movie would have won an Oscar. According to the Nebraska State Historical Society, it wasn’t even close to being an accurate depiction of Wild Bill, but it was an ambitious undertaking for a group of local folks in Chadron who produced the film.

Entitled Wild Bill and Calamity Jane in the Days of ’75 and ’76, the 1916 movie was said to have embraced several “state of the art” production techniques, including film masking and titles within the film. Most intriguing for us was the fact that local citizens created the Black Hills Feature Film Company and sold stock in an effort to bankroll the project. We don’t know how many shares they sold, but one “William Chalk” was the proud owner of Certificate No. 4, shown here.

Interestingly, the certificate is signed by Willis Schenck, Secretary, and A. L. Andrews, President, of the Black Hills Feature Film Company – and Schenck also performed in the film. According to the credits, he played the role of “Nettie’s father.”

But the real limelight of this film was focused on a young lady by the name of Freeda Hartzell Romine, who – according to the Centennial History of Chadron, Nebraska (1985) – was born in Nebraska but grew up in Deadwood, South Dakota. That’s where, so the story goes, she learned to become an expert rifle shot and honed her skills well enough to appear in the 1904 World’s Fair in St. Louis with Will Rogers. She would have been only about 12 or 13 years old. The photo here shows Freeda with fellow performers in Wild Bill and Calamity Jane in the Days of '75 and '76.

The young lass also toured with Buffalo Bill Cody’s Western Show for several years, according to an account in Dawes County - The First 100 Years, published in 1985. She and her railroader husband, Guy Romine, had a daughter, Catherine. Many years later, the Romine’s divorced. Freeda reportedly lived for several more years in Chadron, but also had a home in Indiana. We know nothing about her final days.

Other "locals" in the film included Freeda's mother, Mary Hartzell, who portrayed Calamity's mother, and A.L. Johnson, who was cast as Wild Bill. Barney Efting played the infamous Jack McCall, while Dick Iaeger was Calamity's brother. In researching this local drama troupe, we discovered that Iaeger was an uncle to Karen (Kindig) Schlais, who still lives in Chadron.

Alas, this film – and the film company – were also lost in obscurity. Fortunately, the movie was finally “re-discovered” some years ago and placed in the Nebraska archives in Lincoln. It was dusted off and featured a few years ago by Nebraska Educational Television in their Next Exit series.

Enjoy this glimpse of film magic that is nearly 100 years old.
~