In the aftermath of a major disaster, when raging floodwaters ravaged Rapid City and the Black Hills on June 9, 1972, Verne Sheppard’s steady voice over the airwaves calmed a shaken community.
Sheppard was a longtime news announcer for KOTA radio and TV, but the stations had been forced off the air when rising waters from torrential rains knocked out electrical power to much of the city on that tragic night when 238 people were swept to their deaths.
Technicians finally restored power to KOTA’s transmitter about 8 a.m. the following day, recalled then-Rapid City mayor Don Barnett.
“The first voice to come on the air was Verne Sheppard,” Barnett said. “And he had a calming effect.”
Barnett said Sheppard helped the city rally from the tragedy, providing emergency reporting of the disaster, including the repeated reading of more than 5,000 names on a slowly dwindling list of missing persons over the coming weeks.
Barnett said a statement he had issued to the local media in July of 1972, a note found among his memorabilia of that tumultuous year, summed up Sheppard’s role in the city’s recovery.
“Only one man’s voice could have brought comfort and confidence to our citizens about our city’s survival during this terrible summer of 1972,” Barnett wrote. “That man is Verne Sheppard.”
Sheppard, 93, died April 26 in Rapid City.
Barnett’s recollections will be one of many remembrances of one of the most trusted voices in the city’s radio and television history during a Celebration of Life gathering at 2 p.m. today at the Elk’s Lodge 1187, 3333 Jolly Lane in Rapid City.
Sheppard was born Verne R. Lotz in Sheridan, Wisconsin, on Feb. 14, 1926. He graduated from high school in Waupaca, Wisconsin, in 1943.
Lotz served in the U.S. Army Air Corps from 1944 to 1946, honing his future broadcasting skills as a radio operator in the South Pacific.
After leaving the service, Lotz attended Central State University in Stevens Point, Wisconsin, and radio training school in Minneapolis.
He adopted the on-air name of Verne Sheppard, launching his broadcast career at stations in Minneapolis, Fargo, Cedar Rapids, Stevens Point and Green Bay, before landing in Rapid City in 1950.
Sheppard soon became one of KOTA’s most recognizable personalities, starting on radio as a news and sports announcer, farm-and-ranch director and country music DJ, then transitioning to television as the host of a noon news show and country music shows.
“He grew with television and television grew with him,” said longtime friend and broadcast colleague Tom Rudebusch.
Former Pennington County extension agent, county commissioner and state legislator Lyndell Petersen of Rapid City recalls Sheppard’s impact on the region’s agriculture community.
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“He knew the people. He knew the agricultural community. He made himself a part of it,” Petersen said. “He did everything he could to make sure people knew what was happening out in the rural areas. People knew him and recognized him as a partner in the whole thing.”
Sheppard stayed with KOTA for 37 years, then moved to KTOQ where he continued his radio career for more than 10 years.
Al Decker, of KDSJ radio in Deadwood, remembers Sheppard helping longtime sports sidekick Bob Laskowski with broadcasts.
“He was always a true gentleman. He was very friendly and always had time to talk to you and answer your questions,” Decker said in a text. “A kind and gentle man.”
Rudebusch said Sheppard and Laskowski, who died in 2016, mentored his start in radio in 1974.
Sheppard also helped Rudebusch during broadcasts of South Dakota School of Mines games for several years.
“In everything he did, whether it was civic events or ag reporting, sports, doing his morning show on radio, he was the ultimate professional,” said Rudebusch, who will emcee today’s celebration.
Rudebusch said the on-air banter between Sheppard and Laskowski could be as entertaining as their game coverage.
He doesn’t recall any of Sheppard’s particular trademark sayings or catchphrases, with the exception of his pronunciation of a particular soft-drink sponsor of many of his broadcasts.
“Co…ca Cola!,” Rudebusch repeated, with the requisite pause between the first two syllables. “We joked with him about that for years.”
One of Sheppard’s final public appearances was last fall at a banquet in Rapid City hosted by Barnett, recognizing past and present leaders of Rapid City.
Barnett also visited Sheppard, by then in failing health, while in Rapid City for a memorial service for Sheppard’s wife, Donna, who died in January. Sheppard is survived by a daughter, Becky, of Denver.
“We had a nice visit,” Barnett said.
Sheppard is a member of the South Dakota Hall of Fame, Black Hills Stock Show Hall of fame, and Rapid City Sports Hall of Fame, recipient of the South Dakota Broadcaster of the Year Award, and a Life Member of Elks Lodge 1187.
He served as a lay minister, often lending his recognizable voice to services at the First United Methodist Church in Rapid City.
“I’ve never been around a man like Verne, who worked as hard as he did during his years to be a part of the community,” said Rudebusch. “Everybody trusted him.”