Back when I worked for the Pierre newspaper, I often urged its publisher to write down or otherwise record his memories of a lifetime as a witness to state history.
Robert Hipple was that editor. He started working for his family owned newspaper when he was 5 years old, selling newspapers on the downtown streets of the capital city. After a lifetime in the business, he retired at 90 as publisher. For nearly a century, then, he had witnessed and recorded newsworthy events. He was a walking history book.
Hipple knew nearly every one of South Dakota’s governors. He watched the first highway bridge cross the Missouri River at Pierre and saw Charles Lindbergh land the Spirit of St. OLouis on a rocky patch of ground east of town. He knew Lewis Pick of the Army Corps of Engineers and William Sloan of the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation. Those two put together the plan that resulted in the dams across the upper Missouri.
I thought the stories Hipple casually shared with me were amazing. He thought they were just anecdotes of a long life.
Across South Dakota, hundreds of Bob Hipples are living out their years simply and quietly. Maybe they tell their grandkids stories about the old days. They probably shake their heads if someone mentions the “good” old days. They saw the good, and they saw the bad, and mostly they saw the plain hard work that went into making a living and providing for a family in their home state.
They tend to be proud of the lives they fashioned, but they also tend to believe it isn’t good manners to boast about their accomplishments. That makes it difficult to convince them — as I tried to do with Hipple — to talk out or write down the events of their lives.
“Who’d want to hear those old stories?” is a pretty common sentiment among that demographic. As my mother-in-law, who lived to be 100, used to say after we expressed amazement at her stories of growing up. “That’s just the way it was.”
In my career as a newspaper reporter, I traveled nearly every road and stopped in a whole lot of towns. I was lucky to work for people who sometimes gave me leeway to wander around without a deadline, looking for good stories. In my rambling, I discovered that the best stories involved ordinary people whose lives included remarkable events and adventures. If I had the time to make someone comfortable enough to talk freely, I learned simply marvelous stories.
In Custer, I ran into Mel Gibbs. Once I got him talking, he told me of his first job, teaching in a one-room school somewhere northeast of Gann Valley. “I saw snow drifts so deep in December you didn’t even try to shovel. You went around or over.”
As a basketball coach for a small North Dakota School, he was trapped in a blizzard with his team in a horse-drawn wagon. We came through, but I’d never want to see anything like that again.”
In Clark, newspaper publisher Bert Moritz told of getting an agriculture-teaching degree at Mayville State College in North Dakota. Instead of teaching though, he went halves on a weekly newspaper and spent the next 40-plus years running the Clark County Courier. “I never figured to go that long in one place. It seemed like something to do for a while.”
In Sioux Falls, a soft-spoken guy named Olaf Tuntland told me how he started as a bookkeeper for a commission firm and wound up with a career as a cattle buyer. Early on, he said, he bought 147 acres of land around 26th Street in the city. Three years later he tripled his money when he sold. “Dumbest thing I’ve ever done.” he said with a laugh. “If I’d hung on, it would be worth millions.”
Each of those folks, and so many others over the years, shared terrific stories woven through with bits of state history. I was fortunate to have talked with those kinds of folks. I often wish they had all written books so their stories were saved for others.