From the Bottom of the Barrel - 26/11.2014
Gulp. Deep breath. These are some very big shoes to fill. My dad bought the Platte Enterprise in 1965 and he’s written a weekly column in this very space for nearly 50 years. I’ve done the odd guest piece over the years, but this is the first one where I really feel I have to fill his shoes. Because those shoes are so sadly empty now.
We lost my dad just after midnight on November 22, just a few weeks shy of his 81st birthday (it would have been December 7). I live in Denmark and I was entirely too far away when the news of his hospitalization came through. It took me way too long to get to McKennan Hospital in Sioux Falls from my home in Denmark. I missed a lot. Friends and family came out of the woodwork and gathered at his bedside. And although I wasn’t here for all of the visits, we are so grateful for this - for your stories, for your laughter, and yes, for your tears. Because my dad, Ralph Nachtigal, meant a great deal to all of us. It was awe-inspiring to see how much he meant to so many.
Ralph wasn’t an easy person or a simple person - he could be hard on you (my rule growing up was “win or don’t come home”), he assessed the blame, his humor could be ironic and a bit harsh, he was unafraid of discussing politics and he had a competitive streak (and he would have hated how long this sentence is getting). He was an avid gambler and could place bets on everything from football to his next putt. But, he was also probably the funniest person I ever knew. He could laugh about anything and make any situation, including being picked up by an FBI agent and taken for a little drive and a chat around Platte Lake, into a humorous anecdote, even while he admitted that he was completely crapping his pants at the time. He was ornery, but he had a heart of gold and I know he helped many more people than I even know, in ways of which I was never aware, through the years.
He studied agricultural journalism at South Dakota State. While waiting for his assignment for Associated Press, the Enterprise came up for sale and he bought it, sealing his future in the little town where he had grown up. He’d been out to see the world in the Navy (coming close to, but not really that involved in the Korean War). He once hitchhiked from San Diego to Platte and those adventures were apparently enough for him, so after stints as a sports reporter at the Watertown Public Opinion and the Sioux Falls Argus Leader, he settled down again back home.
He and Mom and their friends made a yearly winter pilgrimage to Las Vegas (that was, in retrospect, pretty dumb of them to leave their teenagers home alone, each with an empty house (hello, party for the last episode of M*A*S*H!)) that seemed to satisfy his wanderlust. He was content to do his part to make the small community where he grew up grow and thrive - and he wasn’t afraid to get involved, as a state legislator, chairman of the school board and then the later of the hospital board. He knew that if you want a little town to thrive, you have to get involved.
He was a lifelong Democrat (one of about 12 in South Dakota, at last estimate). He always said that he hoped that one day he would have enough money to become a Republican. Alas, that didn’t happen. He served two terms in the South Dakota State Legislature (1976-79) and during that time, tacked an amendment onto a particularly absurd bill to make the fence post the state tree, to further underline the absurdity of the bill. It failed and the Black Hills Blue Spruce is still our state tree, but he made his point with humor. That was definitely a trademark.
When I studied in Russia in 1994, he and Norm Huizenga came for a visit. We took the 13-hour train ride out to Kazan and back and explored Moscow and he met all of my friends. We stayed with a grand elderly lady fittingly called “Aunt Kate” in Moscow and we drank a bit too much vodka on a couple of occasions and generally had an awesome time in post-Soviet Russia. I heard him say, for the first time (and last) in my life, “get out there and buy something!” at a middle-of-the-night stop where workers from a crystal factory sold their wares somewhere between Moscow and Kazan.
I went on a Fulbright to Macedonia in 1997 and Dad and Monica came there for a visit as well. We toured ancient ruins in Macedonia and hung out in Greek tavernas eating octopus and drinking ouzo and the most fabulous cold Nescafé frappés. We laughed and laughed together amidst the ruins of ancient Thessaloniki. And although I don’t think he ever said so, at least not to me, I know he was proud of me and that Fulbright.
He and Monica had a couple of trips as well. When they left Macedonia, they explored the pubs of Vienna. And a year and a half ago, when they came to see us in Denmark, they went home via London, the beaches of Normandy and Paris. Monica even made him go to a Pink Martini concert at Royal Albert Hall in London. Pretty cool for a 79-year-old. And he was the kind of person who always had a song lyric for any occasion, so taking him to Pink Martini concert wasn’t really that far off.
Now we may never know what really happened with the Ole Horn Incident (it got him kicked off as Editor of the Collegian) or that time his legislative roommates got caught temporarily appropriating saddles from a tack store late at night (he swore his innocence in both until the bitter end and probably he even was innocent). But, I do know this, it was a privilege to have him for a father. He showed me that there was a world out there and that I should go explore it. He raised me to be confident and unafraid, but to remember my roots. I am privileged to have had him for a father and I hope that you all feel privileged to have called him a friend. He will be missed. Sorely missed.
I know there are many other stories to tell and that Dad’s friends in the Platte area meant the world to him, and we heard many of them on Monday evening at the Lake Platte Golf Club. A big thank you to everyone who came and told their stories! I know that you all will miss him as much as we do. There is a big, gaping hole in our hearts right now that no one else can ever fill. Ralph Nachtigal was really something - larger than life, full of life, truly one-of-a-kind. This little corner of the world is forever changed by his having been in it.
As Dad wanted his body to be donated to the University of South Dakota Medical School, there will be a memorial service in lieu of a funeral at 3 p.m. on Saturday, November 29 at the Platte Community Building. We ask that instead of flowers, you make a donation to the Platte Health Center Avera in his name.*
*originally i suggested that folks contribute to the Ready for Hillary campaign, but since there are only a handful of Democrats in SD, i changed that. tho' it does make me chuckle to think of all those R(h)INOS (Republicans In Name Only) contributing to Hillary....