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WOSTER: A true newspaper man

Back in the good old days of newspapering, the printing and journalism program at South Dakota State College focused a great deal of its coursework and instruction on producing men and women capable of working in newspapers, particularly weekly papers.

News writing and editing were essentials, of course. The curriculum also included, even for students planning to never set foot in the back shop of a newspaper, a strong dose of printing, font styles and sizes, layout and design and more. Advertising techniques were in there, and laws -- state and national -- impacting a free press.

The whole package seemed designed to turn out journalism graduates who could move into a community, take over the local newspaper and perform the public function of telling citizens what was going on in their city offices, their schools and their courthouses, along with a helping of weddings, births and deaths, quilting bees, school sports and oddities of all manner, from the largest pumpkin in seven counties to a turnip that looked just like Harry Truman, at least to the owner of the garden from which said turnip was harvested. Whatever else happens in the world, people read their weekly paper.

If you were to put a face, a name and a career to that sort of J-school product, you might look to the editor of the weekly newspaper in Platte, South Dakota. Ralph Nachtigal, a 1960 graduate of South Dakota State College, bought the Platte Enterprise in 1965. Ralph died last month at the age of 80, after a half-century career as a weekly newspaper editor and publisher.

If you never read his weekly column, "From the Bottom of the Barrel,'' you missed a creative, informed, sometimes outlandish take on small towns, South Dakota and the world in general. Anyone who has faced a weekly deadline for any other sort of written essay knows it isn't easy to write on command and deliver finished copy ahead of the deadline. Ralph always seemed to have something to say.

Part of having something to say came from knowing his neighborhood. He was born in nearby Academy and graduated from Platte High school. He served in the U.S. Navy before going to college. He tried his hand at sports writing, first at the Watertown Public Opinion and then at the Sioux Falls Argus Leader.

The obituary says he left the Argus in 1965. I got there for my first job in 1967, and rare was the day in the sports department without a Nachtigal story. We read his "Bottom of the Barrel'' stuff religiously, even when he quoted something from the Argus and noted for the record that he had found a copy of the newspaper blowing around at the town dump.

Ralph served two terms in the South Dakota Legislature back when I was still a young Capitol reporter. He won his seat in 1976, just a little too late for the glory days when Democrats had near equality in the House of Representatives. In 1972, Democrats won 35 of the 70 House seats. In 1974, they managed to hold 33 seats. In 1976, they fell to 22 seats and Republicans took 48. That was the count for Ralph's four years of service. He accepted the minority position with his trademark grin and a shake of the head, and he managed to work with the majority party on more than a few pieces of legislation.

Here's the deal. The Navy would have been fine without Ralph. The Legislature would have functioned without him, too. But he has been essential to Platte. He provided public information to the citizens of his community that helped them make important decisions and understand the changes going on around them. He served on the school board and chaired the local hospital board. Always, he cared about the people of Platte and the surrounding neighborhood.

He was a newspaper guy at a time when that meant a lot more than just knowing how to write a story and snap a picture. He was a part of his community, and he cared.

The rest of us in this crazy business should be so lucky as to have that said about us.