Plains Folk

Panama White


Eric Sevareid, revered commentator on CBS News, favorite son of Velva, North Dakota, has been the subject of quite a bit of my reading lately. You might think there’s not much new to say about such a celebrated figure, but to the contrary, there is plenty of fresh material to take up.

For instance, I ordered microfilm of the Velva Journal to study a little-known guest column written by Sevareid for the old home town paper. This was the situation. In June 1933 Bud Sevareid had begun both his student career at the University of Minnesota and his journalistic career in Minneapolis. He decided to take some time off and work in a gold mine in California. This meant riding the rails west, with a stopover in Velva. Sevareid wrote a humorous column about his visit that was published on July 13, 1933. It begins like this:

When I left Velva at the age of 12, this, I dreamed, would be my return:

In a suit of Panama white (to match my limousine) I would roll into town in a cloud of dust. At my leisurely command, the uniformed chauffeur would twist to a stop before McKnight’s. Then, a twenty-five cent cigar jutting from my handsome, world-weary mouth, I would step from the car, into the store, calmly order 800 ice cream cones, and distribute them to the crowd of gaping little boys and girls. And I would smile politely at the whispered remarks, such as: “I always knew that Sevareid boy would make good.”

But this, according to Sevareid, is how things really happened.

Sunburned and blistered, skin on my nose peeling like curled wallpaper, my left shank gone bad, I backed my painful way into Main street with a soiled pack sack sagging from my two-by-four shoulders. And the first remark my burning ears caught was: “My gosh, who is that funny looking oaf?”

I don’t know about you, but I’ve never had fantasies about a homecoming to the acclaim of the folks back in the old home town. It’s more my desire to slip in and out quietly, preferably with a little time in my old duck blind.

Sevareid’s scenario, I’d say, is the work of a young man who clearly has aspirations, expects to be a big man someday, but does not yet take himself that seriously. And he cares about what people in Velva think.

He particularly cares about one citizen of Velva, the girl of his dreams, Helen Bloomquist. According to Sevareid’s biographer, the young man was interested in looking her up, and he found her at the reunion dance that happened to be taking place that night. Stealing the final dance with the fair Helen, Bud was disappointed to learn she was married—and not even to his old rival, Walter Wilson, but rather to another chap, John Kramer.

Of this episode Sevareid writes,

The annual high school homecoming was but a few hours away when I arrived. Donald Dickinson, high pressure spokesman of the event, thought he would capitalize on my return (the optimist). “Bud Severeid will be there,” he told prospective homecomers.

To which synopsis the editor of the Journal, Bill Francis, added this note: “The reunion was attended by an exceptionally small number this year.”

I’ll note just two things more about what Sevareid wrote about his 1933 homecoming. First, he inventoried the things that had changed, and the things that had stayed the same. Change and constancy were important things to Sevareid—as I’ll probably discuss in a future column.

Second, Bud Sevareid showed he had learned some journalistic lessons by hanging around the office of the Journal. If you want to make friends and sell papers, you need to mention a lot of people by name. And affirm them in print. The affirmation sometimes is in the form of gentle mockery, because in the rhetoric of the prairies, joshing is a way of expressing affection.

“The cutest thing in town,” writes Sevareid: “Mrs. James Motley’s youngest.”

“Most beautiful thing in North Dakota,” he asks: “The drive from Minot to Velva.”

“Most notable addition to Velva: Marvin Nurnberger’s mustache.

And here is the young reporter’s closing:

It was surprising to find the shaky wooden bridge over the river at the park, still upright. But not surprising to find the sign it bears, “Welcome to Velva,” still in existence and still full of meaning.

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