Al Smith, Darla Bishop

Interviewees:


Interviewee Al Smith, Manager, Lower Platte North NRD, 1972 - 1990s

Al Smith

Position Held: Manager, Lower Platte North NRD, 1972 - 1990s
Interviewee Darla Bishop,

Darla Bishop

Full Interview:


Interviewer(s):

Jim Barr

Ron Bishop

Associated NRDs:

Lower Platte North

Transcript:

MR. BARR: This is Jim Barr. It's July 23rd, and I'm talking with Al Smith. Ron and Darla Bishop are here helping. And I thought I would start out by just asking Al -- give a little background on himself.
MR. SMITH: Well, I was in the Navy for five years and then I got called back during the Korean War. I was a pilot and was on the Hornet and it got sunk. I wasn't on it when it got sunk. We was airborne. And then we went to the Wasp and then got knocked out but then I -- then during the Korean War, I don't know why I got called back, only that the damn four-star general had taught us at Iowa State University, who was a captain at that time, that's about one-star general in the Army, and he called -- out of 49 of us, he called 28 of us back. Never got aboard a carrier. Never left Seoul. In fact, I walked in his office every morning and handed him my resignation and said I give up my commission. I want out of this damn thing. I'd go back to work for Zenith because I was working for Zenith at that time. I worked for them 26 years.
MR. BARR: Where at?
MR. SMITH: I had -- I only called on our own -- we owned 27 distributors in the Midwest and we owned 14 in the East. And that's all I called on, was distributors. And Mr. Livingston fired me at least once a month but I never could get him to put it in writing. He told his wife he didn't have any lead in the pencil. But and then when I left them I went in the turkey business and invested a lot of money in the damn thing. And the government stuck their nose in, as they usually do. We used to sell them on yield and grade. They'd come out and grade them and they bought the whole flock. Swift and Company was probably our biggest buyer and Cutahey was our biggest town buyer. And then we kept flooding and so we farmed the Bellwood watershed and it went on for 18 years and never had election. So we circulated a petition to make them have an election. And Bob Bell was a hell of a nice guy, but he was so self-conceited because he never had anything -- his dad owned probably 12 sections of land here and in western Nebraska. And he never had a job that wasn't a state job. He ran the old people's home in Lincoln for years. But we pulled an election and I beat Bob. And Harold Zellinger beat Sara Birkel and Sam Podraza. Dale Williams said he couldn't do it, you know. And then we made him start -- and that's when Kremer and Bernice Labest and the gal that was --
MR. BISHOP: Robak?
MR. SMITH: Robak and a fellow from -- the state senator from Indianola, which I knew real well, they started that. And first they had 33 districts, and then they cut it from 33 to 24, and then from there to 21. Now I think there's 17, isn't there?
MR. BISHOP: No, there's still 21.
MR. SMITH: Is there still 21? But we had a lot of battles because, no disrespect to them, but the SCS was a pain in everybody's side. They are a bunch of parasites as far as I'm concerned. They didn't want the NRDs because they wanted to do what they don't do now, nothing as far as I'm concerned. If they consolidated Butler County, Colfax County, Saunders County, Platte County, they could get along, and then give that money to the NRDs to do conservation work with, they would get more done and more people would be happy with what they do. Because you have to know the people and you have to want to work with the people in order to get things done, and that's how we did it. But --
MR. BARR: Ron, you and Al were talking about some stuff earlier. Do you want to just go ahead and kind of run the interview?
MR. BISHOP: Sure. Do you remember when the bill was first introduced?
MR. SMITH: Yes.
MR. BISHOP: There was some opposition from Soil and Conservation Service and from some others. Do you remember some of those others that were opposed to it?
MR. SMITH: Well, there was a lot of the state senators was opposed to it. But Kremer and Bernice Labest and I can't think of the guy's name from Indianola, they were people that just didn't give up. They knew they were going to do it, and they made up their mind they were going to do it, and they asked for a lot of help, and they got a lot of help. The boards were so big. Remember how big it was? We had 58 board members when they went into effect in July of '71. And you just never could work with something like that. But --
MR. BISHOP: Do you remember some of the other groups that were opposed to the NRD?
MR. SMITH: Yeah, some of the watersheds were opposed to the NRD. Now take Wahoo, for instance. They had $220,000 in the kitty and had never built one structure with it. They had never done anything with it. And Jerry Erickson from Price, Johnson and Erickson was a guy that helped us a lot. But the ones that was opposed to it was people -- well, you'd be surprised the people that was opposed to it, was in Lincoln mostly. Frank Morrison was in favor of it 100 percent. And we went to meet him a dozen times and Frank Morrison and I, every time I'd walk into his office, I'd go sit in his chair and reach over in his drawer and open it because he had Dutch Master cigars but they said Emerson on them. He would pull the labels off and put them on the Dutch Masters and put Emersons on the Dutch Master and people would grab them Dutch Masters and they was five cent Emersons. But the people around here that was opposed to it was like the Sobotas, because they were -- Louie was the head of it and his son was with it.
MR. BISHOP: The head of what?
MR. SMITH: The water --
MR. BISHOP: The watershed?
MR. SMITH: Yeah, the Bruno watershed. Now, people in Prague, the only one that was against it was a county supervisor and he was really opposed to it because he was on the Bruno watershed board. The people that was on boards thought they was going to lose their jobs, and they didn't have jobs. All they had was appointments because they -- but some of the people in Lincoln and Omaha that was opposed to it, believe it or not, Kiewit was opposed to it because Kiewit got jobs from the watersheds and they had taken conservation things. Now a lot of people don't realize this, but Ron probably knows it, but the secretaries for this conservation service was all paid for by the watersheds. And another one that was opposed to it, Dr. Gold was at the University, head of the Extension Service. And the Extension Service was really opposed to it because they could see maybe a consolidation of that organization. But the thing was you never really knew who was opposed to you. But we had a state conservationist at that time called Benny Martin. He was probably the only person I know in the Soil Conservation Service that wanted the NRDs. He really wanted them because he said it would make them stronger and make them better because somebody would be there to push them, to make them do something besides in the wintertime putting round circles on paper that had a hole punched in it. But, Ron, the people that was opposed to it.
MR. BISHOP: How about Senator Schmit?
MR. SMITH: Oh, yeah, and him and I battled a lot. When I got elected to the NRD Board I got more votes than all of them put together. And Loran come to me and he says, could I still be chairman? I says, hell, you ain't even on the board anymore. You got beat off. Who beat me? I says, Dan Podraza. Oh, Dan couldn't beat me. I said, well, he did. But we had so organized and set up the thing with farmers and our NRD only sued one farmer in 27 road structures we built, and he was a guy that just absolutely wouldn't -- he spent $40,000, his nephew was a lawyer in Lincoln, they spent $40,000 trying to beat us three times in the Supreme Court. And finally I happened to be in the courthouse and one of the girls said, Smitty, do you know that he don't own that farm? I said, well, hell, he don't. No, no, his three daughters and him own it. I said, his daughters own that? So I went to see him and I said, now the state says you're entitled to $4,000 because you sold land to the state for the highway for less than $2,000. Now you girls either settle with us or we're going to take it away from you, and then we're going to go back to the $1,200 that the state said you should have. Otherwise, I'm going to give you 12,000. You either settle or not. And she says well -- Zager girls, Zager now, she says, Smitty, are you sure we own it? I said, yeah. I'll go get the deeds and abstracts for you. And I went and got them and then we went to court up here. You probably remember that. Went to court up here and I told the girls, this is the last chance.
MR. BARR: While we got a break here while Ron is away, do you want to just kind of give a background on yourself and how you were involved in this process?
MS. BISHOP: Well, I grew up in this area and I knew Al since I was a little kid, ran with his children. And I had been a legal secretary and I had done a lot of abstracting. And I had worked in Lincoln and moved back to David City. And at that time we were doing quite a few things with checking to see who owned what and whatever and I was able to do that because I had been doing abstracting and worked with the courthouse really well. And then, too, when I started working there in '73, we were in a trailer home which we were in for quite a little while, and my cousin, Virginia Rugel, was working there just a little bit before I did. And when I started working I was doing the -- not the books, I was like the secretary, answering the phone and typing. And the Central Platte NRD secretary, they aren't called that now, but was the secretary was Diane Miller. And her and I got together with Hazel Jenkins and we set up how to do some of the bookkeeping but mostly we set up files, how to do the filing because this was all new projects and whatever. We did the filing. And then we also worked with her a little and some of the other people to set up the insurance program at the time. So that is kind of my background on this.
MR. BARR: I got over there while you were away. I'll let you go ahead again with Al.
MR. BISHOP: Al, when the NRDs first started, what were some of the problems that you had getting set up and getting things underway?
MR. SMITH: The biggest problem was the amount of board members we had to have because we had to keep all the watershed board members. We had to have a city like Fremont and Columbus and Schuyler.
MR. BISHOP: They all had to have a representative, didn't they?
MR. SMITH: Yeah. And the thing was Fremont was not in our NRD. But Columbus wanted in the Butler County NRD. There's always been a friction between Columbus and David City and the main reasons, like the highway -- you remember when Highway 64, how they fought us on it. But a lot of it was people didn't understand that you can't change progress, and that's what they was trying to do, was change progress. And it just -- you've got to work with the people and you've got to talk to the people. You've got to talk to them. You've got to go see them. I bet I spent, out of my own pocket, I bet I spent a couple thousand dollars trying to get the NRDs so they worked right and they went right. But if I had a county board up here that I don't care what I asked for, what I asked them to help me do or what resolution I asked them to pass, it got passed. There was Gruball and Beanie and Audrey Krisinger and Johnny Svoboda. They'd just go in and say, what have you got, Smitty? And I'd hand them a piece of paper and they'd say, I make a motion and, bingo, the NRDs -- that was for the NRDs was there. They had what they wanted. And it was -- but the biggest thing was the money. I don't know how much money you had in Central Platte from watersheds, but I think we had close to a million and a half dollars.
MR. BISHOP: That was transferred over?
MR. SMITH: Yeah.
MR. BISHOP: I'll be darned.
MR. SMITH: But now Fremont -- but Wahoo had $280,000. Bone Creek had 290,000 and they hadn't done anything with it, only collect it. They hadn't done a damn thing with that money. And what happened was they thought we were going to get it, but they didn't read the law because the law said it had to be spent in the watershed to which it was collected. And that's when Jerry Erickson from Price, Johnson, Erickson said, Smitty, let me try to help you guys. Let me try to work with it because I am chairman of the Wahoo watershed board. And we went to the county commissioners and we talked to them for probably an hour and they asked us to leave, Jerry and me to leave. And when we come back they said, what do you guys -- what's that resolution you had? And he said, you got it. But that was again when you had county boards and township boards working with you. Them people that got elected. And maybe they aren't all real honest with their gravel and things when election time comes, but at the same time they knew there had to be changes. There just absolutely had to be changes. And they still need changes, and Ron knows that. The money that is wasted by agriculture is pathetic.
MR. BISHOP: You mentioned 27 road structures. What other kind of projects did you do in the early years?
MR. SMITH: Dams. We built probably 35, 40 dams. We probably built more dams than any NRD put together. But we did it because the people worked with us. I never, ever went to see somebody that I didn't take the board member from that district with me. I didn't ask them to go. I told them to go. That's one thing I had a bad habit was doing, which Darla knows, and I didn't mind telling a board to kiss where I sit because 90 percent of them can't get away from the political part of it. And you can't work if you don't have help. But you can't get politics fixed into the thing. It's got to be honest to God people wanting something and you've got to create the want. That's one of the biggest problems we had, was creating the want. Ron knows that.
MR. BISHOP: When you started here, Al, you were all by yourself. How long before you started getting some help?
MR. SMITH: Well, 90 percent of the people didn't know it. Dick Behrens had to find out the hard way. But I was hired with six months before the NRDs ever went into effect and I was hired in Yutan, Nebraska, by 42 votes. And the opposition had 12. We thought they actually had 14, but at the first meeting when they picked a manager we had 17 people involved in it. And believe it or not, six of them was SCS district conservationists and the vote, 22 times that night, was 14 against anybody being a manager and 44 -- I mean, 44 against them, 14 favor of them. And then finally Jack Sutton, there was another guy, Ron, that was opposed to us so bad, him and Peterson, the mayor, and all of a sudden they just turned absolutely around because they seen -- they was flooding and they was getting dams. They needed dams in Dodge County. And the thing was that meeting that night, we come to it and finally Jack Sutton said to Albert Yardbar, Mr. Yardbar, who have you guys picked for a manager? He says, I make a motion Al Smith is our manager. And with 44 Jack says -- well, it ain't going to be 45 because I'm changing. And that just turned the whole table around. That just turned Fremont. But him and Pete Peterson did everything in their power to make sure the NRDs worked. But we actually had 58 board members when it first went into effect.
MR. BISHOP: When it started?
MR. SMITH: Yeah. And we decided to divide it up into 10 districts and have two members from each district plus one at-large. And Kermit Wagner was another one that just pushed it. He was a Board of Regents and owned the elevator and Kermit was somebody that just pushed the NRDs, pushed it and pushed it behind the scenes. You can't remember how many people Kermit changed to want the NRDs. But I actually was hired six months before the NRDs ever become legal.
MR. BISHOP: How did they happen to have that meeting, Al, six months ahead of the NRDs?
MR. SMITH: Well, I suppose maybe I instigated it, but Dick Gruball and Mark Gruball and Denny and them said -- Wahoo county board said, let's get together, Yutan, and pick a manager. And they sent me to go get a couple cases of beer and a fifth of whiskey. When I come back they said, Smitty, you're going to be our manager. We got a contract here for you. And nobody knew that I signed a contract six months before the NRDs went into effect. And I tried to tell Dick Behrens, I said, Dick -- he called me, asked me, because I knew Dick from Papio in Omaha and I think you was there, too, when --
MR. BISHOP: Yes, I was.
MR. SMITH: And I think he called me and he said, Smitty, I'm going to apply for that job. I said, okay. He said, can you help me? I said, no. Why? I said, because I'm the manager. He said, you're crazy. They ain't had elections yet. I said, they might not have but we did. Dick come to the meeting and I said, Dick, I'm going to put your name up first. He got beat 44 to 14. And then I put Mel Saw's district conservation and then Harlan Hendricks and then Glen Forey. You remember, he was the head of the Federal Land Bank. And Al Gruball, Marv told Al, that's his brother, they were twin brothers, told him, he said, if you make -- if you even give him a chance or even ask your people, he said, I'll disown you. But it was just the people. It wasn't politics. It was the people that -- because it was something that the people knew they had to have. They had watersheds for 10, 12 years, collected money and it sat in the bank and the banks made a big profit off of the interest off of it. But it was just something that had to be done and the people realized it. But it wasn't for the county boards and people like Jack Sutton.
MR. BISHOP: He was the city manager of Fremont?
MR. SMITH: He was the city manager of Fremont, yeah, and Pete Peterson was the mayor. And we had one little gal over there, Mary Callas, remember her? One time at a board meeting I said, Mary, why don't you do me a favor? I was sort of crude and I said, why don't you do me a favor. Why in the hell did you get married and have twins the first time and wait three days and get pregnant again for triplets. And she said, I ain't never going to get married. I was married once. I said, well, Mary, you'd get the hell out of my hair. You're in my hair continuously. Get the hell out of it. And, you know, but I got by with stuff like that because you did it in a way, you tried to do it in a way that made people feel they were part of your organization and you could talk to them that way. But the same way with the state commission. They was run by big Bob Bell, Bob Bell from there, Rich Hahn that was a big wheel with Farmers Mutual, and I told them right out, point blank, I said, I might not be a Kay Orr fan because I never have been a Democrat or Republican. I've been an Independent. I said, but I guarantee you, you two guys ain't going to be on this board come the first of the year. As soon as she takes office you're gone and make up your damn mind. Big Bob Bell said, do you know who I represent? I said, yes, some stupid city called Omaha. I said, but you ain't going to be on this board. And Rich Hahn never believed us. He just didn't think it would happen. But we had organizations inside our own organization that didn't try to do things only to better themselves. They thought you had to do something to help people. And you had to help the people that needed the help, not the people that wanted the glory, and that was what was wrong. Ron, you know that. You had it in your area. You had a big board.
MR. BISHOP: Yeah.
MR. SMITH: But you had to whittle them down.
MR. BISHOP: 155 I started with.
MR. SMITH: But that was the thing. But it was the cities, maybe not in your area but in my area, it was the cities and the county boards that got behind us because they knew the roads were going to hell, the bridges were going to hell and they had to have somebody that was willing to push it. I think we was the first one to ever build a road structure.
MS. BISHOP: And it was just Al and the board. There was no assistant manager. There was no help outside of the office.
MR. SMITH: No. And this is something people have to start realizing. I don't care. It doesn't change one damn bit today. But a manager is not the boss. He is not the one that makes the wheels turn. He is not the one that grease the wheels. The girls that work for him, that is the people that make the wheels turn. And that's what our board had a hell of a time figuring out because I was paid good. There was no doubt about it. But Darla remembers one time they was going to give me a 20 percent raise and give the girls a damn 3 percent raise. And it was stupid. I said, I don't need a 20 percent raise. You've got another deal like you got in Omaha paying somebody $1,000 a day. That's the kind of thing that you had that people was wanting. They didn't care whether the money went to work or it went to play. And play I mean by spending it. But our NRD was -- and the biggest problem I had was the Soil Conservation Service.
MR. BISHOP: How was your relationship with the Soil Conservation Service?
MR. SMITH: Null and dull and I think today we don't need it. My -- Gene Sullivan was state conservationist. Harlan Hendricks was a retired district conservationist. They tried to get a medical discharge because he had an open heart surgery for a valve and Dr. Culpen said, no, there ain't nothing wrong with you. Then you had Paul Smith, they stayed at the Country Club drinking beer more than they did.
MS. BISHOP: You never could get anything. I mean, I couldn't even go over and get a map or anything. They would give us nothing, not anything.
MR. SMITH: And that was the thing. I wasn't bashful. And when they -- they tapped my phone for two years and they got caught at it, and I got freed on all charges. They filed charges against me that was unbelievable. But it took Benny Martin from Washington to call me and said, Smitty, you're being screwed by our people. Your phone is tapped. So what we did, I got a hold of Bernie Meisinberg, I got a hold of people in Fremont. Jack Sutton got some people that would call and say, hey, Smitty, I could get you $1,000 under the table. Would you take it if we could get a dam built here? Oh, hell, yes. But the best friend I had in the state government was Paul Douglas. Paul Douglas says, everything you get recorded. And remember something, Smitty. Don't push it past the point because the more you stir stink, the more your shit, the worse it stinks. And he did the same thing. He had to go to the Supreme Court to prove he hadn't done anything wrong. And I had to go to the County Commission, I mean, the State Commission and they proved it without a doubt. They freed me on every charge. But it was them. But Bob Crosby and Steve Seglin had -- Steve Seglin is still with the law firm. They wanted me to sue. And Paul Douglas called me one night at two o'clock in the damn morning and he said, I just left Bob Crosby and them, Smitty. Don't do what they want you to do. Do what your wife told you. Don't sue nobody. It ain't the guys that done the dirty work that suffers. It's their wives. Leave it lay. Just leave it lay. And I did. But the telephone company man -- but they transferred Gene Sullivan to Alabama. Harlan Hendricks was drawing his salary plus his pension which is absolutely illegal. You've got to pay it all back. It was federally illegal. And Benny Martin is the one that -- and then they had, I can't think of the guy, I always called him Slim Jim, when he come out here as a state conservationist. He stepped out of the car and he says -- I was standing right there. He says, where is that son of a bitch called Al Smith? I said, that bastard there knows who he is. Why don't you open your eyes, you dumb bastard. And he says, you know, I think you and I are going to get along, and we did. But he didn't last a year because he started working with the NRDs, started helping the NRDs and that just didn't -- because how many people know today that us farmers and every farmer in Nebraska only pays 72 percent of his mill levy. The rest is all tax -- some of the people -- out of nine state supervisors right today we got eight of them to get over 500,000 a year. It's all back payments. One of them gets over a million.
MR. BARR: What's this now?
MR. SMITH: That's for conservation work that they don't do. But the thing is, we wouldn't have financial trouble in Nebraska if the farmers would pay their fair share of the taxes. We had a farm sell down here for 14,000 an acre. We had another one sell for 12,000 an acre. We had one in Hastings sell for 13. And do you know what the assessor said? I don't know how to appraise it. I said, well, at the County Board meeting I said -- and Hank Kobza was there and he done the auction. I said, well either you got a dummy for a supervisor, bunch of dummies for supervisors and you got an auditor that don't know what she's doing, or you got a damn crooked auctioneer because there was two people bidding on that land. So it went for 14,000. Hank, did you run that bid up without anybody bidding? Are you that big a crook? No, no, no, Smitty. That was an honest bid. I said, well, then it's an honest appraisal. There's two people, the guy that bought it and the guy that didn't get to buy it, bid it. But our government, to me, our agriculture department is so corrupt it's pathetic. Because when you can buy land and when you can get the kind of money Oskedaus, for instance, two million a year, and own their own equipment to do the land leveling, the drag line work and their wife told me one day, she said, God, Smitty, I hope you don't get that farm bill killed. She said, we'll be sitting out there looking at people because we got so much invested in equipment and farms. They owned 2,200 acres. But that is what is wrong with the NRDs. Somebody wanted to control them but they didn't have the brains or the background or the initiative to know it wasn't the board members. It was the people you had to have and the people you had to work with.
MR. BARR: Did you have any other questions, Ron, or --
MR. BISHOP: You did a lot of road structures and built a lot of dams. What was some of the other work that you started when you first became an NRD? What were some of the other priority projects?
MR. SMITH: The projects, like Fremont was West Bend. They had a dam there they worked on for 10 years, never got it done. That Mary Callas and the other guy, her husband shot the manager, remember?
MS. BISHOP: Oh, yeah, but I can't --
MR. SMITH: Josh, no. Well, anyway, I went to her one day and I said, I got to talk to you. I said you own a section and a half of land. Bellwood, yeah. I said, you want a dam? You want ditches through there? You want that thing drained out? You want to quit flooding your damn land? Yeah. Well, then get your nose out of my business and get it out now, not tomorrow, now. She says, well, what am I doing wrong? I said, well, you're fighting the NRDs and fighting North Bend and Fremont. Well, they're going to take some of my land. I said, well, you were willing to give it to us in Bellwood to stop the flooding. You want to stop it on your land but you don't want to stop it on anybody else's. You don't want to give us the land. I don't want to buy your damn land. I think you ought to give it to us.
MS. BISHOP: Was that Rawhide Creek?
MR. SMITH: Yeah, and she looked at me and she said, how do you know I'm going to give it to you in Bellwood? I just opened my briefcase and there's a letter you willed to me. You didn't know who the hell I was, do you? I do now, yes. Yes, I wrote that. Yes, I'll still give you the land if you get that dam built. I said, well, then give us the land here to complete the ditch to your farm. And this one guy, I can't think of his name, his son was on the county board over there and they owned a lot of land. They owned a development company. And he said -- his son said, you know what? A little banty rooster met a bigger banty rooster. My dad won't give in. I says, oh, hell, he'll cave in. I said, he knows that that money didn't come honestly and he didn't get it all by working hard. He swindled people the same way I'm trying to swindle you. And he started laughing. And he said, you and Mitch, you're trying -- I said, hell, yes, I'm trying to get to you for nothing. I said I didn't tell you I was going to give you any money for anything. And, by God, him and Jack's son -- I asked Jack, I said, Jack, go talk to him. Pete says, you and I better go with him. And we went out there and he said, how much land do you want? I said, 90 acres. Is it good land? I said, No. 12. He said, well, what have I got it for? I said, how in the hell do I know? I guess you thought you had to have more land and you didn't know that, did you? He started laughing. He said, you know what, let's go over to my lawyer, was Brad Holdorf in Fremont. He says, let's go to Brad and get this damn thing settled right now and we did. And that's just the way things went with people. If they knew you was sincere and you wasn't afraid of them and you wasn't going to do something that was bad for them but was going to help the community, then help the community. Don't just say give them so much money like Kiewit does. That's one of my biggest pet peeves in this state right now. Nebraska Foundation got 2,300,000,000 and yet they want the taxpayers in Omaha to pay for a medical center with a cigarette tax of 35 cents with a $50,000 from the County -- I mean 50 million from the county, another 50 million from the city. They're paying three times taxes and don't know it. But that Foundation, I've tried to get them to say you can't have more than 500,000 in the bank. And now they got the guy that broke the World-Herald running the thing because the other manager quit because they give all the professors a 13 percent raise. And there's another thing. How many people realize that they give them that raise two years ago, but next year -- that was a contract. Now next year the taxpayers got to pay that 13 percent increase. And people don't realize it because they don't stop to think and they don't stop to try to listen to what somebody is saying. Because, like I said, if you don't have good help, and you know that is true, just like the Extension Service. Dr. Gold one time walked in my office and said, I'm Dr. Gold. I had the Extension Service. I was in a crappy outfit and a dumb do-nothing outfit. I said, by the way, you sold our truck -- remember, we bought the truck for the soil sampling and they sold it to Steve Oltman. I called Steve and said, hell you bought something that's stolen. How do you figure? I told him, I got the title. It's in my name and the NRD's name. Steve, I want 12,000 for that truck. Are you sure? I said, yeah, I'm sure, and I didn't do a thing. But then what's her name, the county attorney, they had cuts all over, the one that was so bashful, and I called him and told him. He said, does Dr. Gold know? I said, he's a thief. I said, it takes a thief to catch a thief. Are you a thief or are you honest? Well, I try to be honest. I said, I didn't ask if you tried. I asked you, are you honest or aren't you honest? Yeah. We got the truck two days later. But that was again Extension Service. People don't realize that the NRDs paid the secretaries and the SCS office. And I said, you ain't going to tell me who I can hire and who I can't hire. I'll hire who I want to hire. You're not going to hire your friends. I told Dr. Gold, Delmer Lang is not getting help. You're not going to hire an assistant for Delmer Lang and it happened to be April's uncle. And he hates me today for it. But that saying was -- I said, and by the way, we're not going to pay for a car any longer. See, the County paid a third of the Extension Service. You do, too. You pay a third. But the University runs it. And when we took that survey the biggest county we had was Hatton from Wahoo and I called him Hatton do nothing. And he had 3 percent of the people he was representing. Columbus and Butler County represented less than 1 percent of the people. But every time you walked by and seen Delmer she would say hi to Delmer, he would make it down as connection.
MR. BARR: When they started the NRD, was there any difficulty in establishing boundaries and everything? I guess one of the mysteries I have had is I used to work with the city of David City on drainage and they kind of headed that out west of town and everything. Was there any controversy on the boundaries?
MR. SMITH: Yeah, Fremont, I don't know why, they didn't want in the Elkhorn and they didn't want in the Omaha. They wanted in our NRD. Columbus didn't want in our NRD because Columbus was afraid of us. They was afraid the politicians couldn't run it and they knew they couldn't. And Duane Smith was on the Loup Public Power Board. He was a lobbyist for them. They didn't call them lobbyists because it was illegal, so they called him a business manager, but they were opposed to us. But a year after they got moved to Ord Dick Beren called and he said, you know they're starting a petition in Columbus to come to your NRD? I said, they ain't welcome. I said, they didn't want us. We don't want them. I said, they might as well quit. And I called -- the mayor over there was Johnny Check and I called him and I said, you might as well give it up because our board will vote on it and set not to take you because we don't want you. Dick Beren is doing a better job than I'm doing so you stay with Dick. But that was the trouble. I think, Ron, we tried to work with your NRD on some different projects.
MR. BISHOP: Uh-huh.
MR. SMITH: And my wife had an aunt that they wanted to go through her land she was just bitter as hell over it. And I went to see her, I said, why? You didn't earn your damn money. You inherited it. And now you don't want to give somebody else a chance to have some good out of your money? If they want to build that through Silver Creek and I said, give an easement.
MR. BISHOP: Shell Creek, one of the first tours I ever made of a snagging aquarium project was on Shell Creek. That was in your district, wasn't it?
MR. SMITH: Part of it was in his, part was in ours.
MR. BISHOP: I don't remember where it was exactly, but is that a program you did very often or snagging --
MR. SMITH: Yeah. See, we didn't -- number one is I had the state commission over a damn barrel because they never had public hearings on any of the rules or regulations. That's when I built the ditches over in Fremont. We just built them. Gene Sullivan took us up to State Commission and said, you've got to pay back the 90,000. I said, the hell we do. And I looked at Jim Koch and Jim Koch was another one that I liked and appreciated. He was an honest guy. And he looked and I said, Jim, your state commission is a little illegal, aren't you. That was at a board meeting. Bob Bell says, I suppose you think you know now what we do wrong. I said, hell, yes. I said, number one, you didn't have public hearings and you don't have your own rules and regulations and the law, federal law says you've got to have public hearings on every damn deal, every rule you make, and you haven't done it. Am I right or wrong, Jim? Or should we call Paul Douglas and ask him to come over? He said, leave him out of it. Leave him out of it. And they didn't get their money back because there was a case again where they wanted to do it, but the way they wanted to do it the damn ditch they didn't bid. It was just a waterway. The damn ditch would have been 200 foot wide and 10 foot deep. But whatever -- they wasn't going to stop the silting up above. And Ron knows that's half your trouble, is the silting up above.
MR. BISHOP: You mentioned Jim Koch. Were there others that stand out in your mind as being helpful to the NRDs either in the formation or --
MR. SMITH: Oh, yeah, they was --
MS. BISHOP: Dale Williams?
MR. SMITH: Huh?
MS. BISHOP: Dale?
MR. SMITH: Dale, yeah. There was a lot of people.
MS. BISHOP: Ben Star?
MR. SMITH: Huh?
MS. BISHOP: Star?
MR. SMITH: Yeah. There was a lot of people that worked for the Commission that knew the Commission was a political deal and it was run by big Bob Bell. Bob Bell from Bellwood. Little Bob Bell. And from Hahn. Hahn had national farm. And he -- the one time he popped off and said, I'm a lieutenant commander. I said, when do you have to do your duty? Well, I'll go this summer. I said, I'm calling the old man and ask him because I'm a Goddamn commander and you're going to go (indiscernible) and you make up your damn mind to it. I said, you ain't nobody. You just got a dad that had a lot of money. And that's where the damn thing comes from. It's people don't realize money don't buy friendship and money don't buy honesty and money don't buy people that want to work with you. Ninety percent of our people, Ron, 90 percent of the people you work with, after they figured it out and knew it was going to go, wanted it. And they always come back and say, I should have built that damn bigger. Yeah, why didn't we build that bigger. But the whole thing is, I think that you're going to see more controversy in the NRDs because -- John Mioshi is a good manager, but how in the hell could a manager get himself in a ringer where the county owes $4 million on a project, the city owes $4 million and the NRD owes $4 million because they didn't make the papers out right. And they got in a hurry and started the project before they had the money. You've got to have the money in your hand. That's another thing that got me in trouble. I found out through Benny Martin that the SCS had a $10 million slush fund every year. And October the 1st, if it's not spent, they used it for bonuses. Who gets the bonuses? State conservationists. So I applied for it. Benny Martin helped me and the other one was Whitman that was with --
MR. BISHOP: The SCS?
MR. SMITH: -- no, he was with -- yeah, he was with SCS but he was actually was hired by the agriculture department. And he says, I'll help you every way. We got the whole damn 10 million. Steve Oltman was the first one to call me. You gonna give us some of that money? I said, hell, no, you didn't earn it. I earned it. I worked for it. But that's where my trouble started. They just couldn't see -- well, Gene Sullivan come right out and said, you lost me a $5,000 bonus last year and I'm coming after you. I said, be my guest. But that was the problem. People didn't understand how much money was in the background. But if you dug deep enough, you could find it. But I remember up here, Bob Lichem says, you're going to give our NRD $2 million? I said, yeah, that means you're going to get off -- your board has got to get off their dead ass and start getting easements for me. But do you know that Colfax County, we had five days to get 104 easements. The City Council, the County Board --
MR. BISHOP: Which project was that?
MR. SMITH: That was Shell Creek.
MR. BISHOP: Shell Creek?
MR. SMITH: And people couldn't realize. Mary called me and she said, Smitty, I don't know how we done it. We all got toothpicks sticking in our eyes, but we got every easement but one and we can't get it. I said, who is it from? One of your board members. I said, Don Bosch. Yeah, I'll have it for you. And that was about five o'clock. And I called Don and I said, I want to see you and I've got a piece of paper and I don't want your Goddamn excuses. I want your signature. His wife was on another phone and she said, Smitty, if he won't sign it, I will. And that's how the people worked with you.
MS. BISHOP: Tell us a little bit about the board members. You always had a good group of board members.
MR. SMITH: Well, board members, I wasn't bashful about going to a board member and saying, I want you to resign. Remember Red from Fremont? I said, you're worthless. You only come here when you want something for yourself and your Goddamn construction company. So why don't you resign? I got the papers made out. But I had board members like Irvin Bull. Leroy Nelson was one guy that voted against me all 14 times. But at the same time him and -- one time I told him, I said, you know what, I took your wife when she was in high school up to a duck blind and she was so Goddamn ugly she scared all the ducks away and I left her out there with wet clothes and I told her I would be back with dry clothes. I forgot to go back. And he started laughing. She told me that's why I voted against you every time. But the thing was, our board members, you take Jerry Erickson. Jerry was our first chairman. And he had Price, Johnson and Erickson. One time I looked at him and I said, Jerry, you know what we're going to talk about tonight? And I said, the Wahoo dam. Get the hell out of here. You can't be here. You want to screw things up? Go home. Well, I guess I am wrong, ain't I? I said, yeah, you got a conflict of interest. But that's the way -- and the board members, you could talk to them, couldn't you?
MS. BISHOP: Yes, and they were good about attending meetings and giving reports on meetings they went to.
MR. SMITH: What we did was illegal. There was no two ways about it. If a guy didn't attend three meetings, we asked for his resignation. Now you can't do that if somebody is elected for a four-year term. But we got away with it because the guys figured, well, they know what I'm doing. I'm here for -- to help somebody. But that was the thing. But just like the night that they was going to give me the big raise. Give the girls 3 percent. I told them, I don't want your -- this is the God's truth. I figured it out. Out of a 20 percent raise I would get less than 3 percent because the government, the city, the state would get the rest of it. I said, give it to my girls. It ain't me that runs this Goddamn NRD. It's them and you guys ain't smart enough to know it. Because I talked to my NRD not -- but if they didn't do something, they got told, didn't they.
MS. BISHOP: Yes, they did. We got used to language here and there.
MR. SMITH: Yeah. But they -- I had the best damn board.
MS. BISHOP: Yes, you did, very good board.
MR. SMITH: I had a very good board. I had guys, you know, Stan Podraza. Maybe he wasn't the smartest man when he started on the board, but he was a good man.
MS. BISHOP: He learned.
MR. SMITH: He learned. And everybody that was on the board, you had to instill in them, they didn't know, they had to learn. And you wasn't going to be the teacher. The girls were going to teach you stuff. If they called you and told you you did something wrong, you did something wrong. Don't argue with them, dammit. You did it wrong. And most of them accepted it, didn't they.
MS. BISHOP: Yes, they did. They were very good.
MR. SMITH: But a lot of times, you know, we would take board members up to Burwell, to Calamus and things because -- but I never, ever went to get an easement that that board member didn't go with me. He wasn't asked to go. He was told to go. Dammit, it's your job. That's what you got elected for. And they would just go, wouldn't they?
MS. BISHOP: Yes, they would.
MR. SMITH: Darla would call up and say, Smitty has got a meeting for an easement tomorrow.
MS. BISHOP: Meet him at certain, certain place, certain, certain time.
MR. SMITH: Yeah, and they didn't give a real argument. They didn't give Betty no argument. But it was the people that work for you that make you. It isn't the person -- Ron didn't make himself. That board member -- but them office girls made them board members and that's what people don't realize.
MR. BARR: What are some of the main accomplishments of the NRDs, not only yours but in the state that you think --
MR. SMITH: Well, I got two or three NRD managers that I respect. Ron is one of them. He knows it. Steve was another one. Maybe he had an affair, but that was his damn business. That wasn't nobody else's damn business. That was between him and his wife. And the other one is John Turnbull because I think John has done one hell of a job controlling water and not being afraid to step on irrigators' damn toes. And the other one partway, but he lets a damn lawyer control him, that's Ken Miller out of the Central Platte. If he had kicked that lawyer's ass out of there and said, stay away, I don't need you, Ken could be a good manager. But Ron Fleecs was another one. Now Ron and I didn't agree because I never used the SCS to build a damn or a road structure. I used Olsson & Associates or HRD. I used private engineers. But at the same time Ron got along with SCS. Ron done a hell of a job down there. And he done a job because he had a different attitude than I did. He had a different personality than I did. He didn't show somebody their butt when he didn't like what they did. But that is the thing that makes natural resource districts. And today I'm afraid we're getting in the rut again. We're not getting the job done that we should get done, but we haven't got a legislature. And this might sound funny to you, but the best friend I got is Ernie Chambers. And I could say things to Ernie Chambers that nobody else could say and get away with it. But Ernie can say things to me and get away with it. But Ernie and I have always been friends. But you have to have legislatures. But if they tell you know, think they put a Y in front of that n-o and go back and see them, but don't pester them. Don't pester them. If Bernice Labest told me no on some bill, I didn't go back and bother her. But you have to get people behind you. No one person can do anything without help. It is impossible to do stuff without help. Just like the Games and Parks. I could chew on them board. I called Walter Scott one day the biggest asshole that ever walked down the streets of Omaha. You ain't giving your Goddamn money away. You're giving tax money away, you lying bastard. He said, Gene, do I have to put up with it? He said, you're as big as he. You're bigger than him. Go after him. But Walter Scott finally said, well, I guess it's truth, because that isn't their money. They say it's their money, but it isn't. It's tax money. But they don't let somebody that knows how to use it wisely because Ron don't want to make money. He wants to be paid well, but he don't want to be a millionaire. Hell, what the hell do you do with a million? But you want people to respect you and you want people to know that what you say, you mean.
MR. BARR: Ron, do you have some more questions or --
MR. BISHOP: I don't think so.
MR. BARR: Any final thoughts you want to share?
MR. SMITH: No, I think we consolidate the SCS there and wipe them out and then give the money to the NRDs to do construction work with.
MR. BARR: Well, speaking of that, why do you think maybe it happened in Nebraska with natural resource districts but didn't happen in any of the other states? Do you have any thoughts of why it might have happened here?
MR. SMITH: You had probably out of your 49 senators, I would say you had 22 of them to start. Well, you had six to start with. Kennedy from Newman Grove was one of them. But it was the senators that worked behind the scene that knew something had to be done for flooding. That's just like forest fires. Somewhere we've got to take everyone, just like that 60,000 acres the Sierra Club owns. Every five miles we've got to put a road through there so the fire trucks can get into them things. We've got to start cleaning the brush. Right now how come we got 2,000 foresters in the federal government and yet all the conifer trees, white pine, Scotch pine, the Austrian pine, are dying. But the ash is gone, the American elm is gone. And they sit down there with 1,700 acres at Fontenelle Forest and lost 60,000 trees last year and they don't know what the hell killed them. Now why don't they know what killed them? American Elm went that route. But why can't we figure out what happens to things? And just like the president of the University, and I call because I ain't afraid to call nobody. I call today and said, what the hell you running? Bob Daugherty wouldn't have hired a Goddamn president for 120,000 to sit on his board. He would make them pay him to sit on his damn board. He says, well, we had to do something. I said, why, tell me why. I said, is that the way you do things in Belgium? He said, you don't forget very easy, do you? I said, no. Because I don't know if you knew Ruf Amos.
MR. BARR: Yeah, I remember Ruf, yeah.
MR. SMITH: Well, Ruf and I were friends. But Ruf's brother left him the Belgium Foundry and Ruf didn't want it because he said, I can't take care of the money I got. Now I've got to rewrite the whole damn thing again because people didn't realize, but Ruf Amos owned the land that Douglas Aircraft sits on. I flew down there with him a dozen times and always a big limousine would meet us out at the air strip. I said, what the hell are you? Well, I own the land we're sitting on. They rent it from me. But he owned Arrow Commander. He sold it for 250 million and kept half of it. He didn't give -- he didn't take 49. He took half because he still could make a tie and he couldn't get anything done. That's the kind of guy Ruf was. But at the same time, Ruf never would say what they did. I worked for the head of the Zenith Radio Corporation -- was Mr. Livingston. And one time I told him, I said, Milt, you built Children's Memorial Hospital. You're chairman of Boys Town Board. How come you don't ever say it. He said, my name is not Eppley and only fools' faces and fools' names appear in public places. He said, you keep your mouth shut about what you give and what you don't give. And you don't -- like I say, he fired me at least once a month. He would call me and say, Goddamn, you, you're fired. Do you want me to bring the plane to Lincoln or Chicago or should I just leave it in Omaha? Maybe I can land it on top of the Douglas Street bridge. One time -- this is terrible. Jack Knox, Art Knox's son, was the aeronautics, head of aeronautics here. He called me and he said, Smitty, I've got to ask you a question. I don't want you to lie to me. Did you fly upside down under the Douglas Street bridge? I said, yeah, I was getting my old Livingston to wash his dirty face. He got dust and tears in his eyes from flying with me. Made him start bawling so the dust got in his eyes. And, you know, the thing was, Jack Knox said, well, you ain't going to do it again, are you? I said, unless I can get you or your dad in the plane. But that was the way I was. I was who I was because of who I was. But I'll be 90 years old in November and I've enjoyed every damn bit of my life, but I don't want to live a damn day of it over. I couldn't stand it.
MR. BARR: Well, thank you very much.
MR. SMITH: Thank you, sir. And I hope somewhere somebody gets wise and starts giving some money to the Historical Society so they can buy some more of these plaques. Because a lot of times I don't know why, out of curiosity, I guess, I stop and see what the hell they say and what. But, you know --
MR. BARR: Do you have anything further?
MS. BISHOP: No, I just do that, too. I think the Historical Society is great because if we don't learn from the past, how we are going to get better.
MR. SMITH: Yeah, do you know, that's like a lot of people don't know it, and the historical -- I call them Hysterical Society, that didn't know it. They got Oregon Trail went right through this damn farm right down here but they had it over a mile because some little politicians in Bellwood wanted it to come that way.
MR. BARR: Do you have any old sign of it out here, by chance?
MR. SMITH: Yeah, there's a -- well, there's still -- you can see the old bridge that was made out of planks and they had -- they run steel on the planks. But they run 10 by 10 planks alongside of them and they drilled holes through them and run big bolts through there. But, yeah, the Historical Society admitted finally that they knew, but the money to put the plaques and things come from Jerry Mick, Jerry and Joe Mick. I can look at in their point of view. Was I going to give them the money for it? Hell, no. Did I happen to give it to them? No. But they did. And so they give it to them. You got five miles difference or no miles difference. It's still -- it went through here.
MR. BARR: Well, thank you again.
MR. SMITH: Thank you.