Chuck Childs is good at finding missing people.
Perhaps that particular skill comes from his years working as a state probation officer. But whatever its source, the 92-year-old Rapid City man put it to good use again this year as a member of the 40th anniversary committee of the 1972 Black Hills Flood.
His task was to find the next-of-kin for the 238 people who died in it.
Forty years ago, Childs had a more harrowing missing persons job.
Back then, he was a 52-year-old probation officer working out of an office in the basement of the Pennington County Courthouse. The day after the flood, he was working on a body-recovery crew when Mayor Don Barnett tapped him to direct the missing persons office.
For the next six weeks, Childs and a group of 18 women volunteers, including his wife, daughter and daughter-in-law, worked in round-the-clock shifts to winnow a missing persons list of more than 4,000 names down to a list of 238 confirmed fatalities.
“It’s quite a coincidence that 40 years ago I was doing that job and two months ago, I get a call from Barnett and he says, 'Chuck, I want you to do another job. I want you to find as many next of kin as you can for the deceased,’” Childs said. “Forty years ago, I was finding missing people and 40 years later now, I’m finding next-of-kin to the missing people.”
Childs has located family members for 212 of the 238 flood victims. An estimated 272 family members from across the U.S. are expected to attend the 40th anniversary memorial weekend, Remembrance and Renewal, on Friday, Saturday and Sunday in Rapid City.
He got help with that herculean task from Rapid City genealogist Ellen Bishop, another member of the anniversary committee.
Bishop lost her childhood home to the flood and, partly as a way of coping with her own grief, she took on the task of doing a genealogy search on each of the 238 flood victims.
“I love Canyon Lake Park, but I still find it difficult to go there,” she said.
She also did it to honor all the dead, two of whom were the parents of her second husband.
“I’m a family tracer. I just can’t help myself,” she said.
She has found out as much about their lives and their deaths as she could, because she wants them to be remembered as more than just the names of the dead carved into a stone monument in Memorial Park.
“Originally, they were victims. But they’re not victims any more. They’re sacrifices. I see them as sacrifices to all that Rapid City has become,” she said.
Bishop knows it is an awful thing to contemplate, that tragedy changed the course of Rapid City’s future for the better.
“Without them, without those 238 people who lost their lives, would Rapid City be what we are today? Would we have the beautiful greenway that we have now without it? It’s an awful thing to have to say, but we all know it,” she said. “It was a cleansing, of sorts, it seems to me, and it would never have happened on its own.”
Bishop joined the anniversary committee to make sure that the estimated 60 to 70 percent of current Rapid City residents who weren’t here in 1972 realize that sacrifice.
Without commemoration events, she worries that someday in the not-too-distant future some may have to ask, “What is Memorial Park a memorial to, exactly?”
“Their deaths were not in vain. Their deaths had a meaning and a purpose for Rapid City,” she said. “Without their deaths, we would still have people sleeping in the floodway along Rapid Creek.”
Using Bishop’s research, Childs accessed obituaries and mortuary records -- as well as Facebook and other Internet search sites -- to contact family members.
“And at much expense on my telephone bill,” he said. “For two months, I’ve been making calls to names we found in obituaries. That’s the way we’ve been finding them.”
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A letter was sent to every family member that Childs contacted explaining the 40th anniversary event and asking for a photograph of the deceased. So far, 62 of those photos have arrived in his mailbox, bringing difficult memories with them.
“When I look at these pictures, they’re beautiful people. And, in at least one instance, I know for sure I picked that lady up. It brings tears to my eyes, really,” he said.
Childs, along with his son and son-in-law, was on the official body-recovery crew in the immediate aftermath of the flood. He remembers recovering the bodies of two small children from a house located at what is now the bottom of Memorial Pond. After that gruesome task, the volunteers once more descended into the muddy waters that filled the bottom floor of the house to bring out the body of the dead children’s mother. As they did, Childs looked up to recognize one of his probationers, who was helping him lift his sad burden.
“Isn’t that a coincidence? That the guy I had on probation was holding on to the feet and I was holding the arm. And that woman is one of the pictures that I have. It’s sad to look at,” he said.
But there are happier memories.
“There was a phone call that came in from New Zealand,” Childs said. “The caller said, 'I’m concerned about my daughter who is living in Rapid City.’”
The volunteer answering the phone that day in the missing persons office immediately recognized the voice at the other end of the line. “She said, 'Dad, this is me.' Can you imagine that coincidence?”
Childs credits his experience as a military fighter pilot with helping him cope with the emotional trauma of the 1972 flood.
“It might be my make-up, I suppose. I flew 37 combat missions in B-17s,” he said.
Childs saw plenty of death and trauma during the Korean War, where he also pulled mortuary duty.
“So, I’m used to that," he said. "I’m used to bodies, but to think that here’s a lady and her two children that died. To think that there were whole families – in one instance seven in the same family that died – that’s really horrible.”
His own family was spared personal tragedy in the 1972 flood. Childs and his wife, Grace, were headed to Keystone for her birthday party on the evening of June 9, when rising waters along Highway 16 forced them to change their plans. Turning around, they went to dinner at the Imperial Restaurant in Rapid City, instead, as the thunderstorm raged outside.
When they headed home at about 10:30 p.m., water was up to his car’s doors, Childs remembers.
“We went home and went to bed,” he said.
Early the next morning, his mother-in-law called from North Dakota to ask about their safety.
“What flood?” Childs asked. “We slept through it.”
The entire Childs family would get very little sleep in the coming days and weeks.
Like so many other city residents, they pitched in to do what they could. A son and son-in-law picked up bodies; another son cleared debris; his wife, daughter and daughter-in-law worked under him in the missing persons office.
“It was a family situation. I was very proud of my family,” he said.
The worst tragedy to ever happen to Rapid City brought out the best in its community members, he said. People stepped into difficult jobs that they could never have imagined.
“We just kept going. Everybody did their job and everybody just kept pushing,” Childs said.
Forty years later, Childs and the other members of the Remembrance and Renewal Committee have done the same thing.