Community loses a colorful character

Monday, April 14, 2008
H.H. "Smokey" Pritchett at work in the bakers.

McCook lost a most colorful character recently, and I lost a good friend. I would like to run the story again, which ran previously in the Gazette, about H.H. (Smokey) Pritchett.

In 1957 we came to McCook and bought the Harvest Bakery. In addition to the mixers, oven, showcases, and good will that one gets when he buys a going business we also got a baker, Herman (H. H.) Pritchett. He had come to McCook as an airman at the McCook Army Air Base in the 40s. He married a local girl. They divorced, but after the war he married another McCook lady and stayed on in McCook. Herman turned out to be the most valuable asset we acquired.

Few people in McCook knew H. H. Pritchett, the baker. He had an even disposition -- never rattled by problems in his life or at the bakery. Herman was a wonderfully talented man. He was loyal. He worked at the bakery for over 40 years -- over 30 years for John Power and me -- through some very trying times. Family bouts with heart surgery and cancer forced me to be gone for periods of time. Herman and other loyal workers kept the business going smoothly.

Herman had a phenomenal memory for detail. He remembered recipes into the hundreds. Some items we only made at Christmas time. It didn't make any difference. He remembered. Many times it was easier to ask Herman than it was to look up the formula in a book.

Herman was an extremely fast worker. Working at the bench, he could make mountains of work disappear, quickly, and seemingly without effort. It was really fun to work with Herman. He liked to talk, and he kept up a running dialog while we worked. He told some pretty amazing stories. We weren't always able to separate fact from fiction. He had fast reflexes and liked to impress people by taking product out of the hot oven without the protection of padded oven mitts.

But Herman was extremely valuable to the bakery in other ways. He was a good mechanic and could keep our machinery in repair, either by fixing it himself, or by helping other mechanics in determining the problem and then convincing them that even though it might be a mixer they were working on it was really not that much different than fixing an automobile. His rapport with mechanics was excellent, and mechanics could be surly with bakery equipment.

He was very creative at the bakery. He could make alligators and many other animal shapes out of bread dough, and regularly came up with simpler methods of making up bakery items on the workbench. Heritage Days one year, for a radio promotion we made the "World's Largest Bieroc" (we didn't call them Bierocs then). Herman devised the way that we could bake it in our oven. It worked fine and enabled us to enter the Guinness Record book.

Herman was invariably in a good mood and liked to joke with the other workers, especially the young ladies who worked in the front. Each of our children has fond memories of Herman, and they remember the particular running joke that he had with each of them.

Sometimes Herman's sense of humor tilted to the bizarre. He had little rituals to initiate new workers. He would open the can of powdered ammonia, pretend to take a whiff and then ask the new man if he thought the ammonia had gone bad. When the patsy took a deep sniff , he would gasp at the pungent fumes. Ammonia is guaranteed to clean out one's sinus passages.

Or Herman would send a new young baker to Fallick's bakery across the street for the "oven-stretcher," which he said Fallick's had "borrowed." They would in turn send the fellow to a restaurant for the item, and so on. The "oven stretcher" was an imaginary piece of equipment.

Once we had a baker who took great quantities of aspirin, which caused him to be hyper sensitive. Herman liked to wait till this fellow passed him with a load of pans his arms, then "accidently" drop a sheet pan on the cement floor behind him. That pan hitting the floor made a noise not unlike a shot, and caused the poor fellow to jump, sending pans flying in all directions.

But if Herman, the baker, was not well known to the people of McCook, everyone knew him in his other life, as Smokey, the auto salvage man. He literally made an overnight transformation -- black from grease and grime, when working on a car, yet scrubbed clean, dressed in bakers' whites, next morning, ready for his day at the bakery.

He used to do a good deal of auto parts business at the bakery. I'm sure that on some days Smokey did more business in the back dealing in auto parts than we did out of the front dealing in baked goods. It was amazing. He seemingly could recall every wrecked car in his lot and would instruct his customer just where they could find it in the yard, or where in the area they could find a car that he had dealt for but had not yet picked up. And he could tell them that while he didn't have parts for the '65 Olds they were looking for, he did have a '62 Buick and the part from that car that would interchange. It was strictly the honor system and he was lenient about accepting checks. Some of the checks he might be asked to hold for "awhile -- just till payday," indeed, his billfold bulged with such checks.

Smokey's innovative nature, which helped so much at the bakery, was invaluable at his auto-salvage yard. He lacked auto diagnostic tools so his work on newer model vehicles was limited. He said that he did not particularly like to do mechanical work, but he had a gift for getting vintage autos to run. Sometimes, if parts were not available, he would improvise, with bailing wire, by adapting a similar part, or even cutting a gasket out of the plastic cover from a telephone book. But if it appeared that it would require too much in time or parts to fix a particular car, he would haul the problem vehicle to a corner of the yard, to be used for parts, and eventually the auto crusher. There were always other vehicles that he could put in running order.

Smokey's daughter, Carla tells of the time Smokey dealt for a car on a farm north of McCook. He needed her to go along to drive -- either the wrecked car or the tow car. She chose the latter. It turned out that the wreck lacked a front seat. No problem, Smokey used a 5-gallon bucket. But the bucket was too tall, so Smokey had to sit on the round side, which tended to roll on the turns. Carla, who has some of the devilment of her father, delighted in turning the corners a little fast -- just to see Smokey fight to keep his equilibrium.

Late one night a fellow came to the house. He was driving with his family through McCook and had car trouble. Of course Smokey went out to help get the fellow on the road again. When he got to the car he discovered that there were two small children, who were hungry. He took them back to the house and ordered his wife, Elva, to fix sandwiches and milk. She called him into another room and told him she was afraid. They were strangers, and might do her harm. "Good God, woman, those kids are hungry" was his answer. She fed them. He found the part they needed and fixed their car and they got on the road again. Only later did Elva find that they had no money and had not paid Smokey. She was mad. Some months later Smokey's faith in humanity was vindicated. He received a money order for his services -- and the lunch.

Smokey usually referred to Elva in less than flattering terms -- "The Old Lady," or "Bloomers," or worse. Yet, when Elva became sick, Smokey was the kindest and most-tender of caregivers. They regularly took long rides in the country, and when he could no longer care for her at home, he spent long hours by her bedside at the nursing home -- moving his chair from one side of the bed to the other, so that she would be able to see him when she opened her eyes.

When Elva passed away Smokey received a sympathy card from Viola, his first wife. This card initiated a correspondence, which blossomed into romance, and marriage. They were happily married, for the 2nd time, for more than 10 years at the time of Smokey's death.

My friend, Smokey retired from the bakery, but stayed active in the auto-salvage business up to the time of his death. He was very philosophical about his auto-salvage (ie: Junk) business. People sought to sell him their old cars.

He would set a price that he could pay, and didn't dicker on that price. Sometimes he would tell the seller that his lot was all filled up and he really didn't want their car at all (which was apparent in looking over the junk yard). A bit more conversation. Pretty soon the fellow thought that Smokey was doing him a favor, just taking the vehicle off his hands, and I guess he probably was.

Sooner or later all the cars on the road would end up in a salvage yard. Just by having a place to put old cars, and to be willing to take them, he knew that he would get his share. He never ran out of an inventory in used parts, his stock in trade. And if the price of iron was not high enough to bring in a crusher this year, it didn't matter. He'd just wait till the price went up. Next year he'd just have more iron. One of Smokey's favorite sayings is still vivid in my memory, "There are only a few things that you can count on, Walter, and one of them is this -- There'll always be junk."

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  • Well said, Walt. Smokey was a great neighbor, and friend. His quiet philosophy about life taught me much. May he be remembered as, yet, another asset to McCook.

    Shalom in Christ, Arley Steinhour

    -- Posted by Navyblue on Mon, Apr 14, 2008, at 5:18 PM
  • Another great column Mr. Sehnert, only knew Smokey from getting parts from him. (That was always an adventure!) Had no idea he was also a baker. Thanks again, and keep up the good work.

    -- Posted by goarmy67 on Mon, Apr 14, 2008, at 11:55 PM

    -- Posted by gabby1963 on Tue, Apr 15, 2008, at 12:41 PM
  • I just recently learned of Smokeys passing! I knew him at Walts Bakery where i worked during my high school days and i also knew him at his wrecking yard where i spent hours finding parts for my various broken cars over the years clear up into the 1980's! That was a great article on a very amazing man!

    Michael Plourd

    -- Posted by graywolfen on Thu, May 15, 2008, at 9:31 PM
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