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Karolevitz: Rose to the Challenge

Jun 20, 2011

Way back in the 1960s, a bunch of 4-H kids gathered at Pine Acres 4-H Grounds in Yankton for our annual meeting. We enjoyed our moms' potluck casseroles and then some guy with a crewcut got up to speak.

He explained that he had recently moved back to Yankton, and then he started telling stories. Funny stories. We'd never heard anything like him — not even on television or radio. He knew stories about people and places we knew and loved.

That was my introduction to Bob Karolevitz. About a decade later, when my brother, Brian and I were figuring out how to get more readers for our newspaper, The Yankton County Observer, I remembered that funny guy. Brian suggested that we get acquainted with him by featuring him in our paper. Bob had just finished writing the state's history in commemoration of the state's bi-centennial, and he was as busy as anybody in South Dakota. But he happily met with Brian, and the very next week we featured him and his lovely wife, Phyllis.

Before long, Bob agreed to write a humor column that appeared weekly in The Observer for the past 30 years. Through the years, many other papers also started to publish his weekly humor. I don't think I ever read his column without remembering that 4-H dinner at Pine Acres.

Sadly, Bob had to stop writing the column a year ago due to declining health. And last Friday night, Bob Karolevitz died at age 89. South Dakota has lost one of its greatest historians and perhaps its most prolific author.

Karolevitz was one of America's great promoters. In fact, he was a well-known public relations director on the West Coast before he came home to Yankton in the 1960s to establish a literary career. Many South Dakotans probably won't recognize his name because of the simple fact that he never promoted himself any more than absolutely necessary.

Still, among journalists and historians he will forever be remembered for the timeless books he provided. Some were serious, like the bi-centennial book that today is regarded as one of the most complete and readable histories ever penned. He titled it South Dakota: The Challenge State because he believed the our peoples' trials and tribulations have led to an admirable work ethic and value system. He once worked to nickname South Dakota."The Challenge State," but it never quite took hold.

Karolevitz dedicated the book to "South Dakotans of all eras — Indian and non-Indian men and women ... and especially those who have faced and conquered the challenges in anonymity."

His stories were not just about the rich and famous, the powerful and political. His blue collar boyhood days in Depression era Yankton must have taught him that the folks who really make a community and a state successful are those who work long days on the farms, in the stores and factories and offices.

In the early 1980s, we collaborated with Bob to compile some of his funny columns into a series of popular books. The first was titled Touloose the Goose and Other Ridiculous Stories. We pictured Bob at his beloved Mission Hill farm, caught in a mess of barbed wire, digging a grave for a favorite hen and riding a hobbyhorse. He made a living as a serious writer, thinker and speaker — but he also had a knack for making us laugh and it's a gift he shared.

My favorite Karolevitz story is about the church meeting where members are trying to decide how to spend a $100 donation they'd received from an estate. One fellow made a motion that the church buy a chandelier with the money, but his neighbor jumped up to speak in opposition.

"Let's not waste this money on a chandelier!" he argued. "We don't need some darned chandelier. What this church needs is more light!"

Of course, there was often a lesson in Bob's humor. But he was never one to preach to readers or listeners. You might not realize you learned something until hours after the hearty laugh.

In all, Karolevitz wrote 37 books, plus countless newspaper articles and stories — including many fine contributions to South Dakota Magazine. His writings will be of immeasurable value for as long as there is a South Dakota. What a void we would have in many areas of literature if Bob and his wife, Phyllis, had not wanted to return to their home state from Seattle more than 50 years ago with their two daughters, Jan and Jill. Phyllis was a a full partner in Bob's work, helping with research, book sales, travel arrangements, farm chores and numerous other details that writers often neglect.

South Dakota has never been an easy place to earn a living as a writer. That was especially true when he came home in the 1960s. He never became rich from the 37 books and the thousands of columns he wrote — but we are all far richer because he wrote them.


11:48 am - Mon, June 20 2011
Rebecca Johnson said:
What a wonderful tribute to him!
12:35 pm - Mon, June 20 2011
Lois H. Varvel said:
Bob Karolevitz was an inspiration to me. His revelations and ever-so-readable accounts of people, events and unique places in SD and Yankton history, made me want to work, in any way possible, to preserve what he wrote about.
11:43 am - Tue, June 21 2011
Inez L. Harris said:
Thank you for your tribute, Bernie. So appropriate. I had the privilege of working with Bob long before he became famous. We were proud pupils of Verna Emanuel, the Woksape advisor at YHS and we worked very closely with her and edited both the Wokswpe and the Annual. I remember so vividly working till the wee hours of the morning at the old Yankton Public Opinion getting out our high school paper, when I served as editor.. Bob worked right along side me and became an editor also. What memories! Inez
12:32 pm - Thu, June 23 2011
Ken Mills said:
Bob and Phyllis were great friends of my parents -- the late Tom and Marie Mills of Sioux Falls. They all met at SDSC after WWII. Every year I would look forward to the Christmas card to my folks from Bob. We loved his stories. Thank you for the nice tribute.
12:33 pm - Sun, July 3 2011
Clarissa Kaiser said:
Thank you so much Bernie. Fond memories of Bob, Phyllis, Jan and Jill. And the hens and cats. :)

Also, Stephen and I are truly enjoying South Dakota Magazine. We save every issue.

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