Over the span of more than 50 years, Nancy Hamar lived long enough in Wayne County to become one of its most respected citizens. It was a reputation earned. A person must possess a certain degree of character to drive a school bus for a living down gravel roads covered in loose rock, surrounded by adolescents just learning how to swear.
Speaking directly to the adults who once trusted their safety as innocent children to her driving skill, Hamar joked, “All you kids got the joy of riding with me.”
For 23 years, Hamar was also a reporter and columnist for publisher Hugh Doty at the Times-Republican.
“I learned journalistic integrity from him,” Hamar said.
One year, she took the summer off from her literary work.
“After enough of the little old ladies asked to have my column back, the newspaper published it as a Christmas present for them,” Hamar said. “And I was ready to go back to writing a column.”
In the spring of 2017, Hamar moved to Pleasant Hill, Mo., just east of Kansas City.
“For me, it’s a very large town,” Hamar said. The population is around 8,000, more than all the people in Wayne County combined.
She followed her daughter Becky and husband south to the edge of the city. Her grandson Levi, his wife, and their triplets live in town. Her daughter-in-law Sandy lives in nearby Blue Springs.
All four of Hamar’s children graduated from Wayne Community High School—Becky in 1977; Bob, now sports editor at The Grand Island Independent in Nebraska, in 1979; Marty, a cowboy, in 1983; and the late David Hamar, who graduated with Tork Hook, the Honorable Dusti Relph and others in the Falcon class of 1985.
David played on the offensive line that opened holes for First-Team All-State football star and future Iowa Hawkeye free safety Hook. David scored one touchdown for the Falcons in his four years of play, from his defensive line position after intercepting a pass and stumbling a few yards into the end zone. He became another college player on that fantastic high school team from the fall of 1984, suiting up one year for Graceland University before a broken sternum ended his football career.
A broken hip while boxing up seven decades of possessions slowed Nancy, but in the end hurried the process of moving. The fall required surgery in Kansas City. Like most rural Midwestern areas, her neighbors rallied around Hamar to assist the relocation. Bruce and Cindy Miller were just a few friends to help pack.
And it wasn’t because they were anxious to see her go.
“I have a lot of friends I miss,” Hamar said. “I miss just knowing everybody. I could go to the grocery store and visit with half a dozen people. I don’t know one [here] when I go into this grocery store. I use a cane just for balance.”
Go East, young man
In the 1960s, Hamar and husband Smoky traveled east from Nebraska to find land suitable for agriculture. Their search dropped them in the middle of southern Iowa, where their children attended Allerton schools before the formation of Wayne in 1966.
“My husband wanted to be a farmer,” Hamar said. “Well, you can’t farm the sandhills.”
Hamar was born in Ainsworth, a small town around the same size as Corydon, in northcentral Nebraska. In 1958, three years before she and her husband moved to Wayne County, she graduated from Valentine High School, less than 10 miles from the Rosebud Indian Reservation in South Dakota, home to a branch of the Sioux Tribe known as the Sicangu Lakota.
Her family was not far removed from the snowy days and lifestyle of the Wild West.
In contrast to the flat, dry plain slit by Interstate 80, the land in the northern part of the state is filled with rivers and waterfalls.
The Hamars’ settled on a farmstead near Clio. They moved again from one poorly-insulated house on their own land to a bigger home with less mice. One of their neighbors was Paul Jackson.
“Paul used to tell my young children,” Hamar said, “when it was Christmastime, he was going to shoot at Santa Claus when Santa flew across his farm. Oh my gosh, they just had a fit.”
The good-natured old joker was just kidding. Jackson was quick to reassure Hamar’s children he would not kill Old Saint Nick, nor would Santa’s reindeer draw flack that Christmas Eve.
“Nice people,” Hamar said of the Jackson family with its four daughters. “Good neighbors. You couldn’t ask for more.”
During the farm crisis of the 1980s, the Hamars moved to a home in Allerton.
“It hit us pretty hard, so we sold off some land, satisfied some debts and bought our house on an auction for $3,000. I lived there for 30 years.”
It is the human condition that Hamar would know tragedy in her lifetime. Her husband passed of leukemia in 1999 after fighting the disease for several years. He took his radiation treatments at the VA Hospital in Kansas City.
Like his wife, Smoky was a school bus driver, but he did not step away from his duties until he knew his body could no longer take it. Nancy came out of retirement to fill his route.
“Cancer gets a lot of us,” Hamar said.
Hamar suspects the improper application of herbicides and pesticides as a contributing factor in rural America’s cancer epidemic. After mixed, these liquids slosh in tanks behind tractors before running off into drinking water, cisterns and shallow wells.
“They didn’t know when they started using that how dangerous it was,” Hamar said. “My husband would add water to the sprayer, stand there and look into it while it was agitating. They sometimes stuck their hands into it. They didn’t wear a mask. They had no clue the danger that was in it.
“My husband didn’t have a cab on his tractor, so when he was out spraying, he was right there in the middle of that stuff.”
The consequences gradually took shape, but for the manufacturers of these substances it was simply a profit.
“Of course the kids were affected deeply,” Hamar said of her husband’s death. “They lost their dad. His mother was still alive. She was 93. Becky and I went in to tell her. She happened to still be in bed that morning.
“She said, ‘You’re not supposed to outlive your children.’ And she died a week later.”
Hamar’s brother-in-law Bob Hall served in Vietnam, and he suffers from Multiple Sclerosis as the result of another herbicide.
“They just now decided it was caused by Agent Orange.”
As well, Hamar’s youngest son David was killed in an industrial accident in 2007 when he was only 39-years-old.
“He was just at work,” Hamar said, “and he fell off a scaffold, and it killed him. And he had three younger children. He was too young to die, and that was not the way I wanted it.”
Hamar considers David’s widow Sandy a daughter. The grandchildren were added incentives for Hamar to move from Allerton after over 50 years.
“The older children got counseling,” Hamar said. One grandson is named David Hamar, to carry on his father’s legacy. “It just takes time.”
In 1971, the school bus job opened to Hamar by default. Her home was on the edge of the new Wayne district.
“They came from the school and offered me a job,” Hamar said. “It was economical to leave their bus overnight—the bus could just be parked there, and there wouldn’t be those extra miles back to the bus barn [in Corydon].”
At the same time, Wayne offered her a job as a fourth-grade teacher’s aide, so that for 10 years she had a ride to work and back, with a few stops to drop children off in-between.
The only time she regretted taking the job was when the weather was inclement.
“The worst one was Shane Hill,” Hamar said of the timber around seven miles south of Corydon, where around the turn of the century the Shane Hill baseball team perfected its craft and became regionally famous, sending one player to the Major Leagues.
“I dropped off at Dickerson’s [District Judge Dusti Relph’s old home], and had to build up enough speed for the next hill. I always made it, but it was iffy at times.
“I had a lot of responsibility with the children, getting them safely home. I drove wrestling too through the years. I enjoyed that.”
All three of her sons wrestled for the Falcons, so the arrangement was mutually beneficial for mother and school.
Wildlife was the highlight of those early dawns and late afternoons.
“One morning, Nicole Birkland was the only one on the bus,” Hamar said. “We came over the hill, and there were all these little animals down by the bridge on the road. I kept slowing down and slowing down.
“It was a whole flock of turkeys and a little deer in the middle. The deer just kept walking toward me, walking toward me. I told Nicole she could stand up and look at them. Finally, I had to honk the horn so I could go on about the route.
“Another time, we saw by Artie Partridge’s home south of Corydon—there were so many snow geese on that field, it was just amazing.
“I stopped and opened the door of the bus and let the kids put the windows down. They sounded just like bumblebees. When I honked the horn, they would raise up in waves. I had never seen so many geese in my life.”
After her youngest son David graduated, Hamar began work for her local newspaper in 1985.
“They said they weren’t going to have anyone to take photographs,” Hamar said. “And I thought, ‘oh no, we’re not going to have any horse pictures!’ I loved the horse projects, and that’s one thing Dave had.
“That’s how I got started. I worked the [Wayne County] Fair forever, it felt like. But I loved the fair. I liked knowing the kids.
“I got my education at the Hugh Doty school of journalism. He was an old-time editor/publisher, and he was strict. He said anytime copy came onto his desk, it’d better be accurate and truthful.
“Also, I will never forget how to spell ‘cemetery,’ because he called me in there and said, ‘don’t you know how to spell cemetery?’ I said sure. He said, ‘well, it’s wrong on your copy.’ He was tough, but he was a good teacher.”
Hamar also served as Wayne County correspondent for Our Iowa Magazine. After writing an article about the inheritance of her mother’s recipe box, the magazine named Hamar cook-of-the-month.
“A photographer came down with all of his equipment and took a picture in my kitchen.”
It was Hamar’s 15 minutes of fame.
A few years ago, Our Iowa editor Jerry Wiebel visited Wayne County as guest speaker at Prairie Trails Museum’s annual opening day soiree.
“It’s wonderful,” Hamar said. “I’ve been to the museum in Grand Island, Neb., which is a huge place—it wasn’t as good as ours.”
“My dad was 100 percent cowboy,” Hamar explained. “He was never happy unless he was on a horse.”
Those genes got passed down to her son Marty, an all-around Iowa rodeo champion who reached the high school national finals three times.
Long before that, Hamar grew up on a ranch in cattle country. Her parents got married in 1937, near the end of the Great Depression, and raised their children in a one-room log cabin. They had no electricity, no running water, no television and no radio. Hamar attended a country school.
“We had no car,” Hamar said. “And we lived on the south side of the river—my granddad, who was down the river a couple of miles, he had a car, so we would go to town with him.
“Dad packed me on a horse from the time I was little. Or, we had a two-wheel cart we put a pair of horses on, or a wagon.”
Her father did not buy a motor vehicle until Hamar was five-years-old. Until that point, she saddled her horse and rode the prairie alone.
“We were just out in the hills. I had freedom. I had a horse to ride from the time I was a little-bitty kid. You could just go.
“One time when I was five-years-old, Dad told me to take the milk cows out to the pasture where they would spend the day, and I did. I followed them on my horse to where they were supposed to be.
“And then the horse shied, and I fell off. I swore it must’ve been a bear. He wasn’t a horse that shied to things.
“Anyway, the horse ran home, which was about a quarter of a mile back to the barn.
“Dad heard the horse come in, so he drove—at that time we had a car—out there, and I had sandburs on my face, even. There are lots of sandburs in Nebraska. They had to pull the sandburs out.
“After dinner, I said, ‘Can I go ride my horse again?’
“They said ‘okay,’ so I did.”
Hamar’s winters on the prairie helped shape her ability to craft a sentence and turn a phrase.
“Back in those days, you didn’t talk on the telephone—you wrote a letter.”
Her favorite poet was Robert Frost.
“I always wanted to hear Maya Angelou,” Hamar said of the late United States Poet Laureate.
Hamar has kept every column she wrote over her 25 years of journalism in her personal possession. They traveled with her to Pleasant Hill. In none of them is ‘cemetery’ misspelled.
A single life is a shadow of what is real. And good school bus drivers do not go out of style, even if they need a cane to walk.
As Frost wrote of stopping by a timber on his horse to look far beyond a frozen lake—though it was New England and not a ranch in Nebraska—“The woods are lovely, dark and deep, / But I have promises to keep, / And miles to go before I sleep / And miles to go before I sleep.”