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Monday, April 21, 2008

When you called him a character, did you know the meaning?

By Gordon Garnos

THE ISSUE: In reference to last week's column about the disappearance of Chaplain Robert J. Gentry, an email from a reader read in part: "...He must have been quite a character..." Well, according to Webster there are more than a dozen definitions of the word. The first one is, "The combination of emotional, intellectual and moral qualities distinguishing one person or group from another." Another is, "An eccentric person." If the author of the email meant the first meaning, yes, Robert J. Gentry had all of these qualities. If he or she meant he was eccentric, he or she could be referring to some of the old timers from my home town.

THE NUMBER OF old time characters in my home town may be no more, or no less than in your home town. Some of mine were Billy Nelson, Bill Hopson, Grant Mowrey and Earl Roberts. Yes. Earl Roberts. And, yes, there's a story about every one of them.

Billy Nelson, at least in his later life, lived in a quonset hut, behind the Al Boe residence. If I'm not mistaken, that quonset hut had a dirt floor and the color of his feet was proof. I remember a few of us playing behind the Boe home when he came out of his hut, barefooted in the dead of winter, to play with us.

But dirty feet or not, Billy was an extraordinary finish carpenter whom my folks hired for their carpentry jobs. Billy never bothered about his dirty feet or the rest of him as well, but whatever fell to his hammer and saw was perfect.

BILL HOPSON, and his paint brush wide mustache or perhaps I should say his 1920s something Dodge four-door car with its wooden spoked wheels were something special to see. I can still see him attempting to steer that boat down the hill on Main Street. Even to the day he and his car straddled a large wind row of snow in the middle of the street in front of the Lyric Theater.

Not realizing what he had done, he stepped out and fell straight down about four or five feet, which I feel was the beginning of the end of this elderly gentle man.

THE MURDER OF Grant Mowry even hit the Police Gazette, a national magazine of the period that was read sort of under the table at the time.

The lonely old man lived in a house kitty-corner across the street from the Lyric Theater. He was probably best known for hosting rather large poker parties and for the size of the rolls of bills he always carried with him.

One dark night, I believe may have been prom night, after a card game, someone entered his house and bludgeoned him to death, then stuck a handkerchief down Mowry's throat.

The night was also the wedding dance of a cousin of mine in Oacoma, which was attended by my parents. The young woman working for my folks in the bakery was also hired that evening to babysit my brother and I. After the news of the murder hit the street, that babysitter was so scared she called her boyfriend to stay with her until my parents returned home.

The murderer took part in the sheriff's search party for the next couple of days until it was discovered that it was his handkerchief down the throat of the murdered bachelor. It was a young man who did the dirty deed and received a life sentence in the state penitentiary for what he did. He died just a few years ago, but a free man following a parole from the governor.

THIS SAGA WOULD NOT be complete if I didn't include Earl Roberts to the list of characters as he lived so many of Webster's definitions. He was the local pharmacist, who always carried a goodly supply of comic books, which we could read until supper time and he made the best root beer floats in South Dakota. His drug store was kitty-corner across Main Street from what is now the home of the Lyman County Herald.

I said he was a character in so many different ways. Besides his professional life as a pharmacist, he directed and played in the local band for many years. And if there was some sort of medicine or another needed, even in the middle of the night, Earl was there to help.

The story I like best about Earl Roberts was the morning after my English bride and I returned home following my military discharge. My parents were still living in the apartment above the bakery overlooking Main Street, or what was left of it after a heavy rain. Saying it was muddy would not be an exaggeration.

I was up early and down to the bakery as I was finally home after four years overseas. My wife slept late and at her first look at Main Street there was Earl on his way to work--with his pants rolled up to his knees and wearing a pink bathing cap.

She prayed, "Dear Lord, please let this be a dream."

So, the next time someone wants to talk characters, let me know. I knew some.....


Gordon Garnos was long-time editor of the Watertown Public Opinion and recently retired after 39 years with that newspaper. Garnos, a lifelong resident of South Dakota except for his military service in the U.S. Air Force, was born and raised in Presho.


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