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Benkelman's Ward Bond

Monday, May 2, 2011

Ward Bond, at the peak of his career as the wagonmaster on Wagon Train.
Beginning in 1957, with the TV success, Wagon Train, Ward Bond, the star Wagonmaster of the show, became the poster boy of the American cowboy/pioneer of the post Civil War era -- brave, resourceful -- a veritable "knight of the old west." He certainly had the credentials to play such a part.

Ward Bond's grandfather, W.H. Bond had arrived in Dundy County, Nebraska, in 1882, from Illinois, via Kansas. He had come west to take advantage of the new homestead law. He made his living as a farmer and businessman, but in retirement he wrote an amusing column for the Benkelman newspaper, called "The Man on the Street."

Ward's father, John Bond, grew to manhood in Benkelman and was in business there until after World War I. From all accounts, John Bond was a very beloved member of the community. His business was a dray line/transfer company, delivering items from the railroad station to businesses in town. He was also something of an entrepreneur. At various times he operated an ice house, bought a hotel at Brush, Colorado, did contract work for the county in building roads and bridges, and prepared foundations for new business buildings. In 1905, he purchased equipment for moving large buildings. The transaction was noted in the paper. Bond's statement -- "With this new equipment he would be able to move (without damage) houses and farm outbuildings safely to any destination."

Mr. & Mrs. John Bond and son, Ward -- Benkelman days.
But John Bond was remembered for more than just his business acumen. Whenever there was trouble, or tragedy in a family, John was there to help. In that day, without hospitals, someone was frequently needed to run errands, or "sit" with the sick.

John was a ready volunteer at such times. In one item a farm family told of driving their team to Benkelman for supplies. Something spooked their horses, causing them to panic. The farmer had lost control, then John Bond hurled himself at the team, grabbed the reins, and brought the frightened animals to a stop before serious damage could be done. The couple credited Bond with perhaps saving their lives.

Ward Bond was born in Benkelman in 1903. There is not a great deal of information about Ward Bond's years in Benkelman, and much of what is available is bad. At age 3 he was gravely ill for several weeks with what was called "the rheumatism," Another time he was struck by an automobile and carried, unconscious, to a home of a friend. On Fourth of July night in 1916, 13-year-old Ward was walking the streets of Benkelman during an electrical storm. The steel rods of the awning at Montgomery Store had become charged during the storm. When young Ward grabbed one of the rods he was knocked unconscious. Store employees, seeing what had happened, rushed to bring him inside the store. After some minutes he revived, with no apparent after effects.

But there were also good times in Benkelman. He was popular (and very self-confident). In school, he almost always was on the no absence or tardy list. He was a member of "The Young Bloods -- the Elite of Benkelman." This was a high-spirited group of young boys who mainly took car rides to St. Francis and Imperial, "dragging" the streets and honking their horns at pretty girls -- and supervising noisy "Chivaries" for newly married couples.

In 1919, John Bond sold his Benkelman business interests and moved his family to Denver, where Ward and his sister, Berniece, finished school. Then it was on to the West Coast, where John Bond worked in several location.

Ward Bond enrolled in an engineering course at the University of Southern California. He also went out for the football team, though he was not initially successful. In his early years he acquired the nickname of "Judge" -- because he spent so much time on the bench. That all changed by the time he was a senior, when he was a starting lineman for the Trojans, when they won their first National Championship, in 1928.

The football team was perhaps more important to Bond for other reasons. John Wayne, who became a lifelong friend, was a member of that team. One day, John Ford, the Hollywood director visited practice, seeking football players who would be in a movie he was making about Plebes at Annapolis. Bond was not initially chosen, but Ford reconsidered, "Get me that ugly one over there!" singling out Bond.

For a time, Bond juggled his time between school and bit-parts in movies. When he finally got his degree, he found that he could make more money as an "extra" in the movies than he could taking a job with an engineering firm. His course was set. Over the next 30-plus years Bond played in some 250 movies (Elizabeth Taylor played in just 50.) All of Bond's movie parts were in supporting roles, but he played in 11 movies that won Academy Awards, and appeared in more of the film industry's top 100 movies (7) than any other actor -- It Happened One Night (1934), Bring Up Baby (1938), Gone With the Wind (1939), The Grapes of Wrath (1940), The Maltese Falcon (1941), It's a Wonderful Life (1946), The Searchers (1948), While he did not have the lead in the pictures, he sure didn't do anything to keep them from being hits and becoming classics.

Bond and Wayne, both ultra-conservatives kept up their friendships with director John Ford, a strong liberal, for their entire lives. Bond and Wayne were active in the conservative movement, which preached strongly against Communists in Hollywood during the 1950s, yet both actors stayed very busy making movies during this period. Professionals they were, putting aside politics during the production of a picture, while working well with directors and producers with radically different points of view.

Bond, Wayne and Ford all loved the outdoor life, and probably more than a bit of drinking and "raising hell." Their fishing trips to Catalina Island were well known, and their hunting trips into remote areas in Baja California and other destinations, via horseback, were the stuff of legends. On one trip John Wayne accidently shot Ward Bond with Bond's gun. In his will, Bond left that gun to Wayne as a lasting memory.

After 30 years of playing supporting roles in the movies, Ward Bond became "an overnight sensation" when he was named to star in the continuing TV drama, Wagon Train, beginning in 1957. The story followed a group of settlers braving the elements, Indians, and skullduggery whites on their journey from Missouri to California. Ward Bond starred as the resourceful Wagon Master, and each episode was bolstered by guest appearances of some of Hollywood's biggest names. By 1960 the show had attained the No. 1 spot among all television shows, and Ward Bond was at the zenith of his career.

In November 1960, midway in Wagon Train's fourth season, Ward Bond and his wife were in Dallas to attend a Cowboys-LA Rams football game, and Bond was to receive some sort of award. That night, at the couple's hotel, Ward suffered a massive heart attack, was rushed to the hospital where he was pronounced dead.

Bond's funeral was one final meeting of his old gang. John Wayne delivered a heartfelt eulogy. John Ford, with tears in his eyes, turned to actor Andy Devine, another of Bond's Conservative inner group, "Well, Devine, now I guess you're going to have to take over as Hollywood's biggest horse's hind end."

Bond was honored with a star on Hollywood's Walk of Fame, and was inducted into the Cowboy Hall of Fame in Oklahoma, but here in Southwest Nebraska we are reminded of Bond when we pass the Ward Bond Memorial Park in Benkelman, the city of his birth.

-- Source: The wealth of source material on the Bond family at the Benkelman Public Library, Presented by Marilyn Jean Hendrickson

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Ward Bond suffered a heart attack while shaving in the bathroom of his hotel room. He fell against the door and was dead by the time he was able to be reached.

-- Posted by moose44 on Tue, Oct 29, 2013, at 4:31 AM

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Walt Sehnert
Days Gone By