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Longtime South Dakotan, historian: Cecil writes 21st book

For Chuck Cecil, retirement means authoring 21 books. Earlier this month, he published his 21st book called "Prohibition in South Dakota: Astride the White Mule." The "retired" 84-year-old, who was born and spent his first 10 years of life in Wes...

Chuck Cecil, 84, has written 21 books. His most recent book was published earlier this month. (Makenzie Huber/Republic)
Chuck Cecil, 84, has written 21 books. His most recent book was published earlier this month. (Makenzie Huber/Republic)

For Chuck Cecil, retirement means authoring 21 books.

Earlier this month, he published his 21st book called "Prohibition in South Dakota: Astride the White Mule."

The "retired" 84-year-old, who was born and spent his first 10 years of life in Wessington Springs, loves writing about history, especially South Dakota history. And his new book looks at the history of prohibition in South Dakota. Many of his books cover different historical topics in South Dakota, especially in the Brookings area, where Cecil has lived since 1965.

The idea for Cecil's book on South Dakota prohibition came as he was returning home from bypass surgery in 2007. Knowing he had a long recovery and therapy ahead, Cecil thought about what he could do with his free time. He chose to continue with his passion of research and writing. His wife suggested he write about gambling, as they drove past a casino.

There were quite a few books already published on gambling, so Cecil said he decided on prohibition, a topic few have researched.

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He quickly became immersed into the topic, looking at hundreds of newspaper articles about the violence surrounding the state, the number of bootleggers and moonshiners and how law enforcement reacted during this era.

Prohibition in South Dakota lasted from 1917 to 1935, which had a large effect on the state. One topic he found interesting and dominating among the headlines was a double murder that occurred in 1927. The murder of two prohibition officers took place near Redfield.

But that wasn't the only interesting fact Cecil discovered. Cecil said he was amazed by the large stills located in the southeastern part of the state near Vermillion and Sioux Falls that were manufacturing thousands of gallons of alcohol each day. Cecil guesses there were connections with "the big people" in Chicago during the prohibition era.

Getting into the 'newspapering' business

Cecil's passion for researching and digging up history stems from his former career as a journalist.

The long-time South Dakotan lived in Wessington Springs for about 10 years, before moving to Sturgis and then to Rapid City, where he graduated from high school in 1950.

It was in 1951 that Cecil joined the Navy. And for the next four years, he was an aerial photographer. Two of these years he was stationed in Japan, where he and his team occasionally flew over to Korea and back, taking pictures. They had automatic and handheld cameras they used to take hundreds of images of the land, looking for roads, trucks, trenches or whatever they could see.

"I never knew what we were looking for," Cecil said. "I just took the pictures."

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After getting out of the Navy in 1955, Cecil pursued a degree at South Dakota State University. He originally planned on going into veterinary science. After discovering he didn't like the sight of blood, he switched majors.

"I decided to try journalism because I took pictures in the Navy and maybe I can learn to write the captions under the pictures," Cecil said.

But it became much more than just writing captions. He graduated in 1959 with a degree in journalism and worked for The Public Opinion in Watertown as the farm editor. He moved on and went to Vermillion working for the Plain Talk.

But it wasn't long before he returned to Brookings to work for his alma mater as the director of development. He spent the next 22 years at SDSU in various positions, working his way up. He became assistant to three different SDSU presidents: Sherwood Berg, Ray Hoops and Robert Wagner.

And in 1987, he returned to doing what he enjoys most: newspapering.

"I love newspapering," Cecil said. "I loved to be around people that work in newspapers. We all understand one another and why we're so nosy."

Cecil bought several small weekly newspapers throughout eastern South Dakota. Eventually, he had a total of 11 newspapers and he helped each them incorporate computers into the workplace.

One of those newspapers was the Moody County Enterprise. Here is where Mary Lynn Headrick, who has known Cecil since 1987 when he first purchased the Enterprise, is in charge of circulation and news production.

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When Cecil first took over the newspaper, it was when computers were "entering the newspaper business," he said. Headrick remembers the switch to computers and how optimistic Cecil was. She still recalls the day she and other staff members were forced to learn how to work the new technology. It was one of the "worst days," Headrick said with a laugh.

"It was so horrible, because we were all so old school," Headrick said. "Chuck is always for the new and exciting and advancing yourself."

But even though Headrick recalls this memory as one of the "worst days" at the paper, she can't help but remember all of the other good days and how encouraging Cecil was.

"He kept saying, 'You can do this, you can do this,' and we did," she said. "He taught us the value of hard work and to be proud of the product you put out."

'Not your typical boss'

Headrick's nickname is ML. And she got it from Cecil, who decided her full name was too long. He then started calling her ML and ever since, everybody has called her that.

"He wasn't your typical boss, let's put it that way," she said. "More fun to work with than the average boss."

Headrick said Cecil was always giving the staff constructive criticism to help them improve. And each day he had a "word of the day" so they could learn a new word, one they either heard or rarely heard.

But his talents as a journalist and editor was what amazed Headrick. Cecil wrote all of the news stories for the paper, she said.

"And he would come in and his ease of writing a news story would always amaze me," she said.

Headrick said in 1994, Cecil rented the staff a limousine to go to the South Dakota Newspaper Association awards banquet. Headrick said the newspaper took home several awards that night, and they were the only staff to arrive in a limo.

Cecil remained with the Moody County Enterprise until 2000, when he retired from the newspaper business.

While in the office, Headrick said Cecil would say, "Keep reading and keep your mind sharp," so now with the completion of his 21st book, Headrick said she's not surprised he's kept himself busy.

"That's the biggest thing about Chuck, he never stops learning," she said. "When he retired from the college, most people would have been retired and moved on. But he needed a new challenge and decided to run newspapers and he did quite well at it, I thought."

A true South Dakotan

If there's one town that Cecil loves more than Brookings, it's Wessington Springs.

Cecil said the two towns are tied for being a nice place to live.

He hasn't been back recently, but when he returns, Cecil said he finds that not much has changed, and he still knows his way around.

Cecil enjoys Wessington Springs so much, he said maybe he'll write a book about the town.

"It's a great town and I still enjoy going back to Wessington Springs," he said. "Maybe I'll write a story about Wessington Springs. It'd be a good excuse to get back."

Cecil, who now lives in Brookings, spends a majority of his days researching at the library. Right now, he's writing a book about Jerry Lohr's life and business. Lohr is an SDSU alumni and the founder of J. Lohr's Vineyards and Wines.

This upcoming book and his recently published book about prohibition might be his two favorites he's written, Cecil said.

Cecil said it was hard to pick a favorite, since all of his books are about the state he loves the most.

"South Dakota, to me, is a beautiful place with beautiful people," he said. "That's just a part of me and I wouldn't want to live anywhere else."

Related Topics: HISTORYBOOKS
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