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Harry Strunk receives a miracle

Monday, November 9, 2009

Harry Strunk was not outwardly a religious man. Yet he readily admitted that he had been the recipient of events that, if not miracles, were beyond the ordinary. Harry's miracles usually came as an inspiration that came to him in a moment of contemplation. Then he worked like the very dickens to see that his inspiration turned into reality.

Harry was born in Pawnee City in 1892. At the age of 14 the Strunk family was struck by a severe financial crisis, bad enough that young Harry was forced to quit school and go to work as a "Printer's Devil" for the Pawnee City Republican, for a weekly wage of $2. After one year he was lured to a Fairbury paper with the promise of a great increase in his wage -- to $7 per week.

When the Pawnee City Republican editor became ill, Harry returned to his home town. Although just 16 years of age, he single-handedly published the Republican for three months, until the editor was able to return to work. During this period he acquired the title of "Boy Editor," (a label that followed him to McCook, where it became a term of derision, and took many years to shake.)

A stint at Powhattan, another at the Norton, Kan., Daily Telegraph followed. Still just 17 years old, Harry was in charge of 10 employees, at the Telegraph.

Strunk was on his way to find his fortune in California when he answered an ad for a Printer, at the McCook Tribune. After nine months at the Tribune Harry and a fellow workman, Burris Stewart, left to start their own job printing shop. To say that they were under-capitalized is a gross understatement, yet after only six months the two launched a new, semi-weekly paper, the Red Willow County Gazette.

In 1911, overwhelmed by the heavy debt the two faced, Mr. Stewart killed himself on the morning of the second edition of the paper -- leaving responsibility for the entire debt and the future of the Gazette squarely on the shoulders of teenager, Harry Strunk.

It took a great deal of courage, hard work, and luck (?) on the part of young Harry, and a legion of itinerant, semi-dependable, semi-skilled, often drunk, "tramp" printers, but Strunk somehow managed to meet every deadline of the paper and his debt.

By 1914, the little paper was on firm enough footing that Strunk felt confident to install an entirely new printing system. The Gazette was a pioneer and McCook became the smallest city in Nebraska to use a "linotype" machine to set its newspaper columns.

At the beginning of World War II, The Gazette again changed the way small town newspapers did business, when Strunk managed to buy one of the last teletypesetters manufactured, before the company was converted to war industry. This machine allowed the Gazette to keep printing throughout the war years, when skilled linotype operators were in short supply because of so many men were in the service of their country. That one machine, and only two printers put out the Gazette, a task that would have been virtually impossible without the teletypesetter.

There were a number of times that Harry Strunk felt compelled to act on inspirations. For instance, on July 1, 1924, Strunk decided, against long odds, and with but a tiny number of advertisers, to make the Gazette a daily paper. In doing so, McCook became the smallest city in Nebraska to be able to boast a daily paper.

Also, in 1924, he built a new building for the Gazette, at 422 Norris Ave. On the fašade of the new building he had the inscription, "Service is the Rent we Pay for the Space We Occupy in this World" -- a slogan in which he heartily believed.

Again, in 1929, defying all odds, Harry Strunk gained national attention when he bought a high-winged Curtiss Robin monoplane "Newsboy," to deliver the daily Gazette over a 389 mile route, to 46 communities in Southwest Nebraska and Northwest Kansas.

Strunk, ever the promoter, staged a huge event to mark the start of air-newspaper delivery service. On Sept. 15, 1929, governors from three states joined a crowd of 20,000 people in McCook, to witness the historic event. Pilots of some 40 planes competed in flying contests for $500 of prize money.

The pilot Strunk chose to fly the Newsboy route was a young fellow from Oberlin, Kan., Steve Tuttle, who for a year flew the Gazette route, establishing a reputation as "a fellow who hit a bulls-eye on nearly every paper drop." Alas, after a year, a combination of circumstances -- a tornado, high costs of operation, and the advancing depression, forced the discontinuance of the Newsboy air service. (Note: In the late '40s the Gazette again delivered papers in a Cessna 120 for about four years.)

All of these events Harry Strunk would have attributed to personal inspiration, courage to be different, and hard work. But there was one event that even Harry classified as "a miracle, albeit a minor one."

The year was 1912 -- a difficult time for Harry Strunk and the Gazette. Machinery and paper companies were threatening to remove the Gazette's equipment and supplies because of unpaid debts. Advertisers, already in short supply, were tightening their belts and cutting back on ads. Gazette printers were demanding their pay in advance, to be sure they'd be paid before the Gazette was forced to close its doors.

One afternoon Strunk received a call from a friend in Indianola. The fellow said that a lady was doing a great job of selling Gazette subscriptions in Indianola, but he wondered how Strunk could afford to sell the regular $4 subscription for just 25 cents.

This was all new to Strunk. He had no one selling subscriptions in Indianola. Not owning a car at that time, he immediately rented a car and went to Indianola. He cruised the streets until he saw a middle-aged lady going from house to house. When confronted she said that she was selling subscriptions to the Gazette. Would he be interested?

"Well, how's it going?" he asked. "How many have you sold?"

"I'm having really good luck", she answered. "I must have sold 45 so far."

"And for whom are you working?"

"Why sir, I'm working for Jesus Christ," the woman replied.

"Well, he's a very good friend of mine," said Harry. "But I happen to own the paper you're selling for 25 cents a year, and the people you've sold are going to expect me to fulfill this obligation and it can't be done for 25 cents a year."

"Oh, I'm certainly glad to meet you, Mr. Strunk. I had no idea I was doing you an injustice. You have a fine paper and I wanted to help you, and if you will figure up how much these people owe you, I'll pay the difference", she apologized.

She pulled $140 from a roll of several hundred dollars and paid young Harry in $20 bills. Harry was so astonished that he left without even asking her name. With the money he paid off some of the more pressing debts and continued to publish his paper -- 45 new subscriptions better off.

The money came at a time when the Red Willow County Gazette was deep in debt, and it perhaps made the difference between continuing the young newspaper or going out of business. Harry Strunk thought so.


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That was great Walt. I knew some of that but some aspects were totally new to me. Thanks for a great story about one of the real leaders of McCook.

-- Posted by ImissMcCook on Tue, Nov 10, 2009, at 8:46 PM

I was thrilled to find a this information about my husbands relative Burris Stewart in two of your articles. Thank you for adding information to our family tree.

-- Posted by mkathleenstewart on Thu, Jan 14, 2010, at 10:18 AM


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Walt Sehnert
Days Gone By
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