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Amanda Sullivan | News-Press NOW  

St. Joseph pitcher Alec Byous looks for the pitch call during the first inning Wednesday at Phil Welch Stadium.

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LIFE STORY | An ongoing series of articles about noteworthy people from the News-Press readership area
Studebakers are 'diamonds in the rust' for local couple

By Ken Newton | News-Press NOW

They have a name for these discoveries, metal hulks seen from time to time in fields and barns and vacant lots. Call them “diamonds in the rust.”

John and Diane Crooks recognize them in just that way. The St. Joseph couple has owned more than 40 Studebaker automobiles during their marriage, some coming their way in good shape, others as full-on rescues.

They share a love for the cars and the history of a company central to the nation’s development, a builder of wagons that helped settle the West before shifting with the times and turning its attention to motor vehicles.

Along the way, Studebaker had a couple of significant links to St. Joseph’s past.

John thinks he understands the appeal.

”You always hear where someone said, ‘Gee, my uncle used to drive a Studebaker or my grandpa used to drive a Studebaker,’” he said. “So they have some fond memories.”

On the Iowa farm where John Crooks grew up, his father had a 1946 Studebaker grain truck. In those days, he had not been a big fan of the car company.

”When I was a teenager, I always said if I tried to get a girl in a Studebaker, I never would have gotten a girl to go out with me,” he laughed.

But there was that one car, an eye-catcher, a 1953 Studebaker Commander. John spotted one in Rhode Island when he served there in the Navy. He tried to buy it but it didn’t work out.

A better catch was Diane, a Rhode Island native whom he married. A new bride, she would help him the day he found another car he liked, a 1955 Commander, low-slung and sporty, but in rough shape.

”It had been used for a rabbit hutch,” he recalled. “You find one and you feel like you need to save them all.”

He had no garage, and he did the repairs outside at his mother-in-law’s house.

”It wasn’t very impressive, no,” Diane said. “I have, over the years, seen what he can do. What you start off with and what you end up with are totally different things. He’s good at what he does.”

During their moves, first to Iowa and then to St. Joseph in 1970, they stayed alert for other Studebakers. They would find them and, with John’s mechanical talents, would restore them to his purposes.

That is, as transportation. He needed to drive to work.

”I’m not a purist,” he said. “I do them to suit myself.”

Along the way, John and Diane, who joined the Studebaker Drivers Club in 1972, learned more about the company’s history.

Two brothers, Henry and Clement Studebaker, opened a blacksmith shop in South Bend, Indiana, in 1852. Another brother, John, would buy out Henry in ensuing years.

They thrived in the manufacture of wagons for the trip to the California gold fields and wheelbarrows for the work once they arrived. During the Civil War, many gun carriages and ambulance wagons came from South Bend.

So widespread did the business become that the Studebaker brothers decided to locate “repositories” around the country where the wagons could be repaired or modified. The first site, in 1870, was on Fourth Street in St. Joseph.

Peter Studebaker, another brother, opened the repository and, in 1885, built for his daughter, Mary, a Queen Anne-style house that still stands on North Fifth Street. She had married a local man, Nelson Riley, partner in a St. Joseph manufacturing firm.

The Studebakers dropped all horse-drawn vehicle production in 1920 and went full-bore into car-making. But the company fell into financial straits during the Great Depression, only to revive itself in the post-war years.

Success came with models like the Hawk and the Lark, but financial problems persisted, as did the competition from Detroit. The last Studebaker came off the assembly line on March 17, 1966.

(One other St. Joseph tie: Studebaker, then in partnership with Packard, negotiated a $10 million purchase price for a petroleum product made by the locally owned Chemical Compound Co. It was called STP, sold in 1961, its manufacturing moved two years later from St. Joseph to South Bend.)

The Crooks’ house has numerous pieces of Studebaker memorabilia, including a display of STP cans, the ones made in St. Joseph with the word “Magic” featured prominently.

The couple now have four Studebaker models, a Lark, a Grand Turismo Hawk, a Daytona Sports Sedan and an Avanti II.

As Drivers Club members, they’ve traveled from coast to coast attending international meets, Tacoma, Washington, last year and Dover, Delaware, at one point. Regulars include Studebaker owners from Australia and Denmark, and friends show up from most American states.

John and Diane do not seem as though their car brand passion has maxed out.

”I’ve fixed some and I’ve sold some, and some I’ve given up on,” John said. He adds, though, “You find a Studebaker sitting around someplace and you say, gee whiz, I ought to get that fixed up instead of it rusting away or going to the junkyard.”

King City center capitalizes on fun and learning

By Ken Newton | News-Press NOW

The newish building holds in the sounds of laughing and learning. Suzanne McCrea knows the commingled noise to be related.

Her 36-plus years as an educator taught her as much. Most of those years with fourth-graders, the rest of the time as a librarian, McCrea seasoned the teachable moments with hands-on experiences.

The payoff for her now, volunteering at the Tri-County Alternative Energy Education Center, feels like the old days.

“Just like it was in the classroom,” she said, “seeing the light bulb come on.”

King City, Missouri, has 1,000 residents, give or take. Excuse those surprised that a small community could launch an ambitious venture like this science center, one complete with LEGO contests and a shadow wall, with electrostatic generators and pneumatic airways for shooting items around.

“It’s amazing what they can learn when they have the activities there before them,” McCrea said.

The center took shape about a decade ago, an effort to build a visitors’ building to capitalize on the wind energy towers near King City. Everett Rhoad, with more experience building barns than maneuvering state funding sources, remembers its origins.

He was among five people who went to Jefferson City looking for help with the project. They landed at the doorstep of the Department of Economic Development.

“We didn’t have an appointment. We just walked in,” Rhoad recalled.

After an initial rejection, the project got $500,000 in tax credits. A critical aspect of the structure was an upper-story area for viewing the turbines. But Rhoad insisted on additional square footage upstairs for the educational exhibits.

“They said, ‘How big do you want it?’” he said. “I said, ‘As big as I can get it.’”

The facility opened, but it took several years to outfit the educational component. McCrea, a member of the board that Rhoad chairs, helped research the possibilities for equipment.

Summer school students from down the block flock to the Van de Graaff generator, a metallic orb that can send their hair straight out. They sit down at a table and fashion geometrical designs. They mount a bicycle, back wheel elevated, and pedal to light a bulb.

Downstairs, in a banquet space where small concerts and wedding receptions can be held, an “Imagination Playground” awaits, large blocks that can be shaped in countless ways. “The whole idea is teamwork, building and creating,” McCrea said.

Rhoad built a three-lane downhill course for wheeled racers built with LEGO blocks, the chairman’s mechanical skill set having been employed throughout much of the center.

“If something breaks down, he’s a phone call away,” McCrea said.

Neighboring schools have embraced the site as an inexpensive field trip. (The center resides next to the Tri-County Museum and Historical Society, a nice one-two learning experience.) Families, with a summer pass as low as $12, also find it a good deal.

McCrea insists the center will continue its evolution, with new exhibits sought to keep children and their parents coming back.

“It’s just a thinking game all the time. What can we do to get them here?” she said. “Being an educator, you know how those little minds work, and you want to keep them working.”

Rhoad added, “A lot of people come in and think this is a plaything. But in a playing way, it’s all very educational.”

The sounds of laughing and learning need not drown out one another, they believe.

Idled for summer: state park waits for flooding to abate

BIGELOW, Mo. — Northwest Missouri’s flooding means one of its most popular state parks will almost literally remain dead in the water for patrons until next season.

Nonetheless, officials at Big Lake State Park are already preparing a plan that will eventually redirect their efforts from debris and other cleanup to the activities that will be necessary to launch the 2020 tourist season.

Mark Kunkel, the park’s superintendent, said crews were able to return to the grounds in mid-April. But the latest round of flooding kicked everyone back out again in early May.

“We got everything cleaned out the first time,” Kunkel told News-Press NOW on Wednesday. “We were very fortunate. It didn’t kill our grass.”

Two pit latrines and a shower house sustained damage, he said. Eight portable cabins were moved out of the park on March 15 and remain on standby in Mound City, Missouri.

Visitors still can’t book reservations for the flooded Big Lake State Park, with the season now essentially canceled all the way through October.

“The people that made reservations for the season, they’ve been refunded their money,” said Kunkel.

Visitors who already had booked their stays at either the 76 campsites or the eight cabins of Big Lake will have their choice of transferring their reservations to another state park of their choosing.

Despite the waters’ obliteration, the problem of restoring the park for a hoped-for resurgence is much on Kunkel’s mind these damp days.

“A lot of it (list of damage), I have already gotten to the state, so they can get a cost estimate,” he said. “We’ve already started repairing some of the electrical. We’ve still got things to reopen from the first flood.”

The May version resulted in depths 2 to 3 feet higher, and this time even reached inside the main administrative office.

“It surprised us,” Kunkel said.

Holes in the grass will have to be filled, and the swimming pool may require sandblasting from a contractor.

“The pool is going to be a big expense,” he added.

Kunkel said the timing of those renovations will depend on levee repairs. A Missouri River level that is expected to hover around the 19- to 20-foot mark all summer is another challenge betraying the desire for renewal. More sand deposited on the area than ever before poses an additional hurdle.

For the moment, the target date for opening is April 15, 2020.

While the park looks forward to the future, its neighbors are coping as best they can with the situation. Kyle Tubbs, a farmer from Craig, Missouri, said the floodwaters he’s seen this time are 4 to 5 feet lower than in March.

“We’re just doing some maintenance” of the farm, he said. His pigs have twice been moved to higher ground in Craig and Maitland, and Tubbs also said he’ll probably be able to plant only a third of his usual row crops this year.

June 20 marks beginning of fireworks season

Fourth of July season is upon us. Starting today, retailers can begin selling fireworks without a waiver.

Outside of designated seasons, like the one from June 20 to July 10, retailers may only sell fireworks if buyers are from outside Missouri or they sign a waiver agreeing to not explode the fireworks inside the state.

“In the offseason, you can sell to Missouri residents so long as they sign a statement that they’re taking them out of state,” PJ Kovac, the owner of PJ’s fireworks, said.

If you live inside the St. Joseph city limits, you may have to travel to the outskirts of town to stock up. PJ’s fireworks, just over the Buchanan County line in Andrew County, is allowed to sell a range of products.

“The tents that are set up at Walmart or in the city, they can only sell safe and sane (fireworks),” Kovac said.

He explained that “safe and sane” fireworks are usually kid-friendly, and are low risk. Because of this, Kovac said he doesn’t think any of the “pop-up” style tents will be operating in St. Joe this year.

Kovac said PJ’s Fireworks does about 80 percent of its business during the Fourth of July season. However, he added that some people do come down from Nebraska and Iowa during other times of the year, often spending a few hundred dollars or more on a single trip.

While PJ’s Fireworks has a much larger range of products than “pop up” style stories. Kovac said many of his bestselling products are kid-friendly, like sparklers and fountains.

To stay safe, Kovac recommended making sure fireworks are placed on even ground. He said one of the most common errors occurs when users ignite multiple products from a single fuse, and some of the fireworks aren’t level. In those cases, he said fireworks can become very dangerous.

“Fireworks themselves are much safer than they used to be,” he said. He added that China, where most fireworks are made, has instituted more safety protocols over the years.

No increase to sewer rates expected

For the second year in a row, sewer bills will remain the same for customers in St. Joseph.

At a work session Wednesday, the City Council saw a detailed overview of the rate study system that is used to determine increase amounts annually.

The proposed plan for the next fiscal year, which begins on July 1, shows no increase to sewer rates for residential and commercial customers.

Mayor Bill McMurray said he understands a portion of the population in St. Joseph struggles to buy food due to high sewer rates, and he wants to try and keep those numbers down.

“The big thing that we’re trying to do is keep the residential rates at a 0 percent increase this year and I believe we have achieved it,” McMurray said.

He said eventually rates will have to be raised due to loan payments on expensive wastewater mandates and regular operating expenses.

“At some point, of course, we’re going to have to raise the rates,” McMurray said. “This year we’re spending about $2 million of the fund balance and we can’t go on forever spending part of the fund balance, but we don’t have to have an enormous fund balance when people are struggling to buy food.”

In July of 2020, rates are expected to increase by 4 percent, then 6 percent the next year, then 3 percent and by 5 percent in July 2023.

“Next year, we’ll have to take another look and sharpen our pencils,” McMurray said. “There are other cities around us that are having annual increases of 4 percent or 6 percent.”

During the meeting, McMurray read stats about Kansas City’s struggle with increases due to wastewater mandates. He said Kansas City is expected to spend $350 million out of their fund this next fiscal year and some customers there have seen a combined 290 percent increase in sewer rates.

“Compared to our neighbors, we have a real sweetheart deal and we don’t want to jeopardize that deal by not keeping reserves at the proper level,” McMurray said.

The Council will not have to vote on the sewer rate plan due to the fact that no changes will be made from the current fiscal year to next fiscal year.