Badger lived on beans, bacon – and poetry

Badger lived on beans, bacon – and poetry
Phyllis and I have two daughters, and when I said we should have a son – who I would name after South Dakota's poet laureate – she fairly shouted disapproval:

"There will be no Badger Karolevitz!"

And that ended the thought right there.


Badger Clark was one of my heroes, and I once was going to write a book about him. I gathered lots of information about his life; even took pictures of his grave in Hot Springs.

But, like lots of things, the biography of Badger Clark was pushed over to the back burner and has languished there ever since.

He was born on New Year's Day, 1883, in Albia, IA, the son of a Methodist minister who almost worked himself into an early grave because of his intense dedication. As a result, his dad was advised to leave the pulpit and find a less demanding occupation.

He chose homesteading, and so his son was raised on a prairie claim in Aurora County four miles south of the railroad town of Plankinton.

Reverend Clark, though, was not cut out to be a farmer. After three years on the homestead, he accepted a pastorate in Mitchell, D.T. He ultimately ended up in a church in Deadwood where young Badger graduated from high school in 1902 with an unimpressive record.

He then spent a year at Dakota Wesleyan University in Mitchell which was even less distinguished. Though he was only 20, he next went to Cuba with a party of colonizers, but � after the proposed ranch didn't pan out � he wound up in prison for allegedly stealing coconuts and carrying a gun.

Freed, he returned to South Dakota where he joined a surveying crew, worked briefly as a sales representative for a correspondence school before landing a job as a reporter for the Lead Daily Call. Then he discovered that he had tuberculosis which had killed his mother and a brother.

On a physician's advice, he went to Arizona, to a ranch near Tombstone where � as he later wrote � "The only men I knew were cowboys."

He began to write poems about them, one of which he sent to his stepmother, who in turn sent it to the Pacific Monthly magazine. Ultimately he got a check for $10, which caused him to say:

"If they'll pay money, good money, for stuff like that, I'm fixed. A job without a boss, without any hours and without any responsibility � it's made for me!"

That changed his life. He returned to the Black Hills and eventually took to living in the "Badger Hole," a cabin he built himself. Never a true recluse, he became known as a lecturer and commencement speaker throughout the state, reading his poems and telling eager listeners of his experiences.

There is much more I could tell you about Badger Clark: How he was once engaged and how he avoided what he called the double harness, usually insisting that the sad condition of his bank roll make him a notoriously bad catch as a husband. (When he died on Sept. 26, 1957, at age 74, his annual income was figured "well below $500," enough for the beans and bacon he mostly lived on and the $10-a-year that he paid to the state for the one-acre plot in Custer State Park on which his cabin stands. He hauled water from a spring, chopped his own wood, bathed in a washtub, scrubbed his clothes on a washboard and cooked his own simple fare on a kitchen range.)

Oh, and by the way, the Badger in his name did not refer to the nocturnal animal by the same moniker, but came from his maternal family.

The six-foot, two-inch Clark � who was named "poet lariat" by Governor Leslie Jensen � often called himself Mr. Anonymous when his poems were usurped and attributed to that name.

When, like Badger, I gave commencement speeches, I always finished my talk with a quote from one of his verses. I gave him credit, because he was not Mr. Anonymous to me.

"It never is verboten

for any South Dakotan

to laugh and talk as freely as he'll vote,

And if he hasn't riches

to carry in his britches,

he always carries laughter in his throat!"

� 2006 Robert F. Karolevitz

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