Almost twenty-five years ago, while attending the University of South Dakota in Vermillion, I made an observation about South Dakota history.
My eclectic course structure of criminal justice, political science, history and earth science; going to school full time and also working on the Vermillion Police Department could get a bit hectic. But one summer, while working a fairly slow day, I was dispatched to a reported hit and run of a parked car near a fraternity on Pine Street. Investigation revealed little damage to the parked car but paint transfer was evident and it appeared certain the offending car probably had greater damage. After taking the report, I began a search for the car responsible for the damage. The Vermillion Hospital is not far from the crime scene and I decided to check the cars in the hospital parking lot and eventually to speak with hospital staff of any recent treatment of injuries.
I found a car with fender and headlight damage that looked to correspond with the damaged parked car. Paint transfer convinced me I had found the offending car. I had dispatch run the license plate. I was quite surprised as to who the owner came back as. The person was a highly respected man; the eminent South Dakota Historian Dean Emeritus Dr. Herbert S. Schell.
I simply could not imagine him not reporting an accident. I asked the hospital staff if he was currently at the hospital and if he was being treated for injuries. Dr. Schell was not hurt nor was he being treated for any injuries. At this point I was a bit baffled why he would be at the hospital. I asked to see this prominent man to speak to him about the hit and run.
As things sometimes are, there was an understandable explanation. I was lead to a small waiting room where Dr. Schell was sitting. I introduced myself and told him why I wanted to speak with him about a hit and run. Dr. Schell readily admitted he hit a parked car on his way to the hospital. He was in his 80's and I thought maybe he needed to get to the hospital quickly as he may have felt poorly. I asked him this question. He stated that he was actually in a hurry to get to the hospital so he wouldn't be late for an appointment. His intention was to call the police after his appointment. Technically it was still hit and run but I could not bring myself to write a court summons. I chose to and proceeded to treat it as a reported accident.
As I began to fill out the accident report, we got to talking about history (he had seen me around the history department in the past). It was quite enjoyable to speak with the man who wrote the definitive history book of South Dakota. He had fascinating insights and mountains of South Dakota trivia. Believe me when I tell you that this was the longest time it ever took me to write an accident report! Even police dispatch checked on me several times by radio. Dr. Schell was actually waiting for some test results and I needed to wrap up the report. But before I left, I stated an observation I had about the subject of South Dakota history.
I noticed that an awful lot of history had been written about East River South Dakota and gobs of history written about the Blacks Hills area of South Dakota. But there seemed to be a void: not much seemed to be written about the central areas of South Dakota. Very little written beyond some localized history and some personal accounts written by some old-timers. I remember his look. He sort-of cocked his head and looked at me. He smiled and said maybe I should be the one to put it together. Of course, this was absurd to me as I had no time, patience or resources (money) to do such a project. He told me the information is out there. All it needs is to have someone pull it together into a cohesive collection.
I've never forgotten my encounter with Dr. Schell. Sadly, he passed away in 1994. He really didn't know me from "Adam" but I was always thrilled with his confidence in me. I have since taken on history projects of a smaller nature.
One such now is the mystery of the name of the town of Westover, Jones County. Part 2 will explore this mystery.
by Becky Bryan
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