A visionary’s legacy; the non profits who benefitted
Good farming man.
Harold Ritter would probably have chosen that simple description of himself, but those three words cloak a life brimming with vibrant imagination. He was an accomplished wood carver, whittling beautiful animal forms at night. In between farm duties, Ritter tinkered with motors, switching tires, you name it, including inventing patented technology that Deere Tractors would utilize. He helped neighbors regularly with mechanical dilemmas. They knocked on his door frequently; he had no phone. But they also caught up with him in the barn with his cows and chickens or in the fields. Because besides advice, there was something extra. He told entertaining stories and had a sharp wit.
Ritter, who lived in Tilden, Neb., and owned a 1,000-acre farm with his brother Rolland, is the uncle of Bellporter Karen Ritter. Growing up, she and her siblings Sue and Dan spent a week every summer with their favorite uncle when her family lived in St. Paul, Minn.
Harold died in October 2015 at age 95. Besides directing largesse to several beloved Nebraska charities, Karen, her brother and sister each received an inheritance they brought to their own communities. She has given $106,403 overall that has been distributed to four local nonprofits: the Boys & Girls Club of the Bellport Area, Plaza Cinema & Media Arts Center, the Bellport-Brookhaven Historical Society and the Carmans River Maritime Center.
But Harold’s legacy needs to be told.
While Harold farmed 320 acres, he was content to charge his tenants modest prices. He loved trees and planted 1,000 of them on his land. In the end, his heirs picked up his philanthropic spirit and directed that a great bulk of the Ritter charitable estate be given to Nebraska nonprofits. Nebraska National Public Radio was one of them; he listened to their shows during his whittling time.
He loved animals and Karen said an animal shelter was also a beneficiary.
What he also left was an incredible collection of detailed wooden figures, bears, sheep, moose, giraffes, camels, elephants and bison from his time whittling wood, and also some of the machinery he configured. (The animals are now residing at the Antelope County Museum along with a windmill he restored; the Elkhorn Valley Museum also received many.) The wood box and chair he sat on, and the worn piece of kitchen floor where the chair was placed, are in the Elkhorn Valley Museum in Norfolk, Neb., part of a permanent display on the life of this man.
Elkhorn Valley Museum director JoBeth Cox spoke about the Harold Ritter exhibit that opened December 2018.
“We have items ranging from his wooden sculptures of animals — he made hundreds — and also mechanical items, plus a mini steam engine he put together from other things, some people would say junk. We have his Monopoly game he made and other board games and wood furniture from wooden fruit crates,” she said.
“It’s a permanent exhibit, so we will rotate things out. But we touch on a few different facets; we talk about him and his words. He spoke in a kind of street poetry way. We have his letters and there are so many memories we gathered from Karen and other family members, his quick wit and great sense of humor, and we talk about his obsession with the natural world. He planted 1,000 trees. He studied the anatomy of animals. We have stacks of his newspaper clippings. If he was going to sculpt a horse, he went to friends to study their horses. And then there’s this dichotomy of his love of machines and his repurposing of junk. It’s an intimate exhibit that speaks to who he was.”
Karen, her husband and brother spent some time on the display, she said.
Harold grew up on his parents’ farm during the Depression, when everyone had to fix things themselves in the home, on their cars and machinery and utilize what they had. He took that philosophy to the max. “He made his own Monopoly game out of cereal boxes, cutting up wax paper and painting it green for fake money,” Karen said. Player pieces were carved from wood.
Not throwing anything away because it could be useful became a mantra for him; he had a barn full of stuff.
“He was an inventor,” Karen said. “He would reverse the wheels on a tractor to see how it would ride. If he needed a ladder, he melted aluminum from items in his barn and would make one. He used the scraps he had and made us a miniature tractor we could ride around on. The parts were all there and he made the engine from other vehicles. He built a steam locomotive from scratch and replicated it perfectly.”
Harold proudly rode that one in a Tilden parade.
Karen displayed a photo of Harold in his barn of old metal items that were chockablock.
When her father, an electrical engineer, had a problem, he’d write a letter to his brother about it. “And my uncle would write back very descriptively, what they could be,” Karen said, adding that Harold utilized a manual typewriter. “We called them “Click and Clack the Tappet Brothers” based on the weekly NPR show ‘Car Talk,’” Ritter said. “They could communicate about radios, musical instruments and how all these things would work in their letters. He would write about this organ he made. He put in the intricate sounds from manuals he read.”
Harold was quite frankly, a fun uncle, Karen recalled. “My sister Sue said once, ‘I’d like a train track all around the house,’ and he started making the metal for it. One time I was sad because I lost a beloved headband. He just swooped me up and ran around the yard with me.”
The guy was focused on his projects, but he had a ready sense of humor. His blue eyes would, it was reported, twinkle.
One time Sue distracted Harold while he was tending to a cow. He got kicked. No worries. Harold just shook it off. “He was the greatest,” Karen recalled.
Karen said he would have approved of the local nonprofits that received funding.
Bellport-Brookhaven Historical Society president Joan Kaelin expressed her gratitude. “These are the generous donations that allow us to continue our mission of community outreach with summer youth programs, adult lectures and social events,” she said, “as well as to maintain the historic buildings and museums on our campus for the enjoyment of the community.”
“My uncle was very into kids and he always gave to children’s organizations,” Karen said of the Boys & Girls Club. “The Carmans River Maritime Center he would like, because you’re building things with your hands. Plaza Cinema & Media Arts Center because it’s the arts and they have classes for creating animation and films, and Bellport Brookhaven Historical Society, he would be interested in the museum buildings.”
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