Central View: Travels with Charley Thone
March 12, 2018
Last week, former Nebraska Governor Charles Thone died at age 94. As his former aide and traveling companion, fond memories are harbored in my heart:
In 1979, the newly elected Governor of Nebraska, Charles Thone, was assembling his staff with the able help of his chief-of-staff, Kay Orr. She would later become Nebraska's and America's first Republican woman governor. Having completed 20 years service on active duty, yours truly was eligible to retire.
One day, Kay Orr called to verify that I was fluent in German and, if so, would I consider retiring to become Governor Thone's interpreter/translator on a fact-finding, trade mission to Europe. That is how I came to bond with one of the finest men I have ever known.
Growing up, Charley Thone's cradle language was German. The longer we stayed in Germany, the more his childhood German returned. Soon, he could understand what the Germans were saying. But he still needed me to reply.
At the mammoth agricultural trade show in Dusseldorf, a glass showcase of Nebraska popping corn in plastic bags was drawing zero interest. Governor Thone said, "Bill, find a corn popper and we will fill this huge hall with the aroma of popping corn."
After talking the French Pavilion out of a make-do, hot-oil device, the aroma of Nebraska pop corn filled the hall. Suddenly, commodity buyers were flocking to the Nebraska Pavilion, gobbling down samples.
Governor Thone discovered the European Union's (E.U.) beef packaging rules made it virtually impossible for outfits such as Omaha Steaks and others to "export" into the E.U. market. But we noticed the chain of Argentine beef restaurants throughout West Germany. Instead of "exporting" beef into the E.U., the Argentines created a domestic German corporation to "import" beef from Argentina. Clever, those Gauchos.
In Ireland, Thone discovered the Irish were exporting prime, grass-fed Irish beef into the Holy Land. The Catholic Irish arranged for a handful of Jewish Rabbis and their families to live on Ireland's cattle farms. The Rabbis slaughtered the cattle, making Irish beef Kosher for sale in Israel.
In Rotterdam, he investigated why European wheat buyers were complaining about broken kernels, Thone insisted on getting down into the holds of the grain-carrying vessels. He discovered small, tracked-vehicles moving the wheat around, smashing kernels. Governor Thone extracted a promise from the shippers to use shovels rather than machines.
In addition to hard work, modesty and honesty were two of Charley Thone's endearing traits. We, who served as his speech writers, were forbidden to use the personal pronoun "I." Good things had to be accorded to others. For miscues, he took full responsibility.
He was so honest he would not permit us to use state-paid stamps on any mailings that were laudatory of him. If we insisted on writing good things about him, then campaign funds had to be used to pay the postage.
As a youth, Charley Thone waited tables at The Pine Cone Inn in Grand Lake, Colorado. Now, Pancho and Lefty's. At a garage sale, Penny found a tattered copy of the Inn's old cookbook. When we visited Governor Thone at his home in 2015, she gave it to him. He was delighted. We left teary-eyed.
Nationally syndicated columnist, William Hamilton, is a laureate of the Oklahoma Journalism Hall of Fame, the Nebraska Aviation Hall of Fame, the Colorado Aviation Hall of Fame, the Oklahoma University Army ROTC Wall of Fame, and was a recipient of the University of Nebraska 2015 Alumni Achievement Award. Dr. Hamilton is the author of "The Wit and Wisdom of William Hamilton: The Sage of Sheepdog Hill."