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Journalism, not farming-sorry Grandma

I experienced a light-bulb moment a few days ago when I realized where my love of sports, which led to my becoming a newspaper sportswriter, may have come from. For that, I thank my grandfather, Jacob “Jake” Gaub, father of my dad, William “Bill” Gaub, a lover of high school, college and professional sports himself. And a onetime athlete at the small Eastern Montana high school, from which he graduated in 1945.

That decision to make a career in the Fourth Estate, however, did not come without a cost: a degree of distress to my grandmother when told that farming wasn’t in my blood.

Here’s how Jake Gaub indirectly—or maybe directly—turned me into a sports guy:

In October 1957, when I was a first-grader at Terry (Montana) Elementary School, I lost my grandpa, Jake Gaub. He succumbed to a heart attack at age 57 on a Friday afternoon while involved in one of his favorite activities: watching his beloved Terry Terriers in action on the football field.

And it wasn’t any six-man football game on that October 4 afternoon. It was a battle of the Protestants, the Terriers, versus the Catholics, the Sacred Heart Shamrocks, from neighboring Miles City. The Shamrocks prevailed that afternoon. They rolled to a 14-0 halftime lead and scored two more touchdowns after intermission en route to a 26-0 victory.

At 2:30 that afternoon, my grandpa, sitting in the Terry High School stands, cheering for the Terriers, suffered a heart attack. He was rushed to the hospital in Miles City but died later that day.

The hometown Terry Tribune published a small tribute to my grandfather in its October 10, 1957, issue:

“Terry lost one of its most ardent sports fans last Friday when Jacob Gaub passed away. ‘Jake,’ as he was known to all, rarely missed a sports event in Terry, and this one-man home team booster will be missed.”

It would have been natural for me to follow in my father’s footsteps and become a sugar-beet farmer. My father had purchased one of twelve farms on the Buffalo Rapids Irrigation Project made available by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. This transaction occurred in early April 1950, about two months before my father married Mathilda “Tilly” Neiffer, a product of neighboring Dawson County. I, their first of six children, was born in Glendive at the Northern Pacific Hospital on July 14, 1951.

My dad grew up on a dry land farm, with wheat the cash crop, east of Terry near Marsh, Montana. His parents, Jacob and Bertha Gaub, also purchased farms in the Buffalo Rapids project and began sugar beet farming in 1950.

My dad loved farming, one piece of evidence being that he brought in the first load of sugar beets to the Terry dump in October 1955. Beets from Terry were shipped to the Holly Sugar Factor in Sidney for processing.

Soon after I finished the second grade in Terry in the spring of 1959, my parents sold their farm. My other grandfather, my mother’s father, John Neiffer, who farmed sugar beets south of Glendive, had retired and moved into town. So we moved into John’s solid, two-story stone-masonry family house and resumed farming on land my dad rented. I became a “town” kid, riding a school bus for the first and only time, to make about a 12-mile daily trip to and from Jefferson School in Glendive.

By 1962, however, our farm days were coming to a close. I turned 11 that summer, and I remember a succession of events that turned farming for the Gaub family into a financially losing proposition. First, a hail storm wiped out our beet crop just as the beets were getting a good leaf cover. I don’t know whether my dad had hail insurance or not. I do remember him deciding to plow up the main field of beets and plant oats in early June, hoping to salvage feed for the small herd of cattle we kept both for meat and for milk.

Then came grasshoppers. They feasted on the oats stalks emerging from the ground, resulting in another crop failure.

My parents decided that they couldn’t support their family, five kids then with the youngest, my brother, Tim, not yet even a twinkle in their eyes, through farming. So, they sold our farm equipment at an auction sale, and we moved to Miles City in late summer. That started our move up the Yellowstone River valley; when I was a junior at Custer County High School in the fall of 1967, we moved again to Billings and I graduated from Billings West High School in 1969.

Now to my grandmother. Widowed in 1957, she continued living as a farm wife for 27 years until her death in 1984. The construction of Interstate 94, which bisected her farm immediately southeast of Terry, caused her to purchase another sugar-beet farm a few miles east of her original home place. There, she remained active in operating that farm with the help of her two younger sons and one of my aunts, all unmarried.

Meanwhile, I had found my passion as a budding journalist. First, I joined the staff of the high school newspaper in Miles City, and later I became a member of the staff at the Kodiak, the West High paper. And early in my senior year in high school, I landed a job as a part-time sportswriter at the Billings Gazette. I learned the ropes under the tutelage of Norm Clarke, a Terry guy who hired me after an introduction by my dad.

Like young people then and now, I heard that big question early in high school: what are you going to do when you graduate? What are you going to do in life?

I’m sure my grandmother asked me something to that effect. And when I said, “Grandma, I want to be a newspaper reporter,” I’m sure disappointment was written on her wrinkled face.

“But, Dennis, don’t you want to be a farmer?”

“No,” I’m sure I said. I probably continued to explain that I was hooked on writing and wanted to make it my profession.

That didn’t ease the letdown she undoubtedly felt in a double blow to someone who had been around farming her entire life. First, her oldest son, my dad, had been unable to make a living off the land. And then to lose her oldest grandchild in Montana, me (I have a cousin in Seattle who is about six months older than me), turn his back on farming.

Grandma, after all these years, I’m sorry but working the soil in our community garden here in Billings puts enough dirt under my finger nails. I suspect I would have been a pretty bad farmer had I gone into farming and lost my shirt. I never became rich as a newspaper reporter, but I found a lifetime calling to do creative writing. Is that good enough for you?

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Jamie Larson