Karolevitz more than a writer


Bob Karolevitz was known as a prolific writer, churning out 37 books, more than 3,000 columns and a wealth of other articles.

But for the Yankton County author, it wasnt about numbers. His stories shared a mixture of warmth, humor and a love for people and everyday life.

He was inducted into the South Dakota Hall of Fame in 1986 and the South Dakota Newspaper Hall of Fame in 1996. He was named Yanktons Citizen of the Year in 1997 and wrote columns for both the Yankton Press & Dakotan and the Vermillion Plain Talk.

In May 2010, Karolevitz penned his farewell column, sharing with readers the end of his writing career because of failing health.

And now, the final chapter has been written in his life.

Karolevitz died last Friday at age 89. His funeral was held Wednesday at Sacred Heart Church in Yankton.

Karolevitz was known by many as a writer, but for others he was much more.

He and Sister Ann Kessler of Sacred Heart Monastery in Yankton shared common bonds: a strong Catholic faith, German-Russian heritage he was also proud of his Polish ancestry and their passion for history.

Bob always mentioned the Sacred Heart School and the Sisters who taught him through eighth grade, how much of an impact they had on his life, Sister Ann said.

I would greet Bob and his wife, Phyllis, at every Sunday Mass (at Bishop Marty Chapel), until his health problems kept him from coming to church more often.

Sister Ann taught history at Mount Marty College in Yankton. She marveled at Karolevitzs personal touch and his ability to make history come alive for so many people.

Sister Ann was also in awe at the thoroughness of his research, with the assistance of his wife, Phyllis.

Bob left a tremendous legacy, not only for those interested in history, she said. He didnt just use a bunch of facts. The people were real in his books.

Karolevitz served on the South Dakota Historical Society board, and Sister Ann received the societys award for her history of the Benedictine Sisters. They appeared together on a radio program discussing his book on Bishop Martin Marty.

Despite his reputation for writing history, Karolevitz didnt see himself in that light.

Bob always said, Sister Ann, Im not a historian, Im just a writer, the nun said. I said, But Bob, you write about history! And he said, But Sister, I dont use footnotes!

He was an outstanding historian, even if he didnt use footnotes, Sister Ann said with a laugh.

Karolevitzs popularity was evident by the number of readers who sought an autographed copy of his work, Sister Ann said.

Bob wrote for the popular audience, she said. He was very interesting, and he wrote extremely well. He was a brilliant man, and this is a great loss.

While known as a writer and historian, Karolevitz also played a crucial role in the states health care, said Mike Healy, the Avera Sacred Heart Hospital vice president of finance from 1968-2009.

Karolevitz was one of the hospitals first lay board members in the 1970s. During that time, final decisions were made on construction of the current hospital facilities and acute care services.

He played a key role in working with the Legislature in the mid-1970s when the University of South Dakota Medical School expanded from a two-year to a four-year program, Healy said.

Karolevitz also helped develop the regional concept for delivering health care, years before the rest of the nation, Healy said. And Karolevitz helped develop the current ASHH Foundation to fund medical services.

Bob had the ability not only to generate ideas, but also the written and speaking talents to work with many stakeholders to ensure success, Healy said. Bob effectively brought consensus in meetings where differences of opinions many times prevailed.

A Great Guy

Karolevitzs talents also inspired generations of journalists, including Brian Hunhoff of Yankton.

Hunhoff was just starting his award-winning journalism career with the Observer weekly newspaper when he met Karolevitz.

Bob Karolevitz was an exceptionally nice man. The first time I met him was in the late 1970s I had just turned age 19, Hunhoff said. My plan was to interview Bob out at his farm for an Observer feature story on his career. This was going to my FIRST interview as a newspaper man, so I was naturally a bit nervous and flying by the seat of my pants.

Karolevitz quickly put the new reporter at ease.

In 30 minutes, I had completely filled up my little notebook with his quotes, but I still had lots of questions left! Hunhoff said. So I continued writing down every word Bob was speaking on the backs of envelopes, post-it notes and any other scraps of paper we could find in Phyllis kitchen.

The interview continued to flow far beyond Hunhoffs expectations.

When my cache of questions finally ran dry, I gathered up a pile of notes that surely looked like a scribbled mess to Bob, but he did not judge or criticize, Hunhoff said.

He just kept treating me like I worked for the Washington Post, and (he) later sent us a nice note saying the story turned out well. It also opened up a line of communication with Bob that eventually led to him becoming our star columnist for 30 years.

Hunhoff enjoyed seeing Karolevitz deliver his column each week. He was always smiling, and he usually had an encouraging word, or an Ole joke or a political comment to share.

Karolevitz will be remembered as more than a gifted writer, Hunhoff said.

He was a talented author and columnist and humorist, but that is not what I will remember first about Bob Karolevitz, Hunhoff said. The first words that come to my mind when remembering this classy gentleman are, Great guy.

Thats how (Yankton native and former NBC News anchor) Tom Brokaw described (Karolevitz) to me on one of his visits to Yankton, and I think that sums it up Great guy.

Karolevitzs impact was felt across the region and state, including his colleagues at small-town weekly newspapers.

Freeman Courier publisher Tim L. Waltner first met Karolevitz when the columnist came into Pine Hill Printery in Freeman in the late 1970s.

Glenn Gering's book printing company was printing one of Karolevitzs books, and Waltner was editor of the Courier that Gering published out of the same building.

I confess to having been somewhat in awe of Bob initially, given his credentials as a first-rate author and the fact that I was a young, green, small-town weekly newspaper editor and he was older than my own father, Waltner said.

But I quickly learned just how gracious and down-to-earth he was. And as Bob continued to stop in at Pine Hill Printery periodically in the months and years that followed, we began a friendship that would grow and last a lifetime.

Waltner said he was honored when Karolevitz asked him to review some of his copy for With A Shirt Tail Full Of Type, his history of South Dakota newspaper published in 1982.

I overwhelmed when he included my name in his acknowledgments at the end of the book, Waltner said.

After purchasing the Courier in 1984, Waltner became more involved with the South Dakota Newspaper Association (SDNA) and developed a strong friendship with Karolevitz. Their families traveled and shared countless experiences in a variety of professional and social settings over the past three decades.

As a journalist, I have a profound appreciation and deep respect for Bobs ability to tell a story, Waltner said. I appreciate his wonderful spirit, his consistency, his insights and the humor that made him so accessible to so many people.

But, ultimately, it is Bobs genuine warmth that is at the heart of a wonderful, affirming and sustaining friendship that I will treasure all my life.

Telling The Story

Karolevitz retained a lifelong pride in his journalism degree and his alma mater, South Dakota State University in Brookings.

Karolevitz was one of the first to be designated as a Distinguished Alumnus of the journalism department, said retired SDSU journalism professor Richard Lee. Karolevitz was also a Distinguished Alumnus of SDSU and held an honorary doctorate from the school.

Bob was a marvelous researcher, historian and writer. And, he was a kind, gracious and fun human being, Lee said.

Keith Jensen and Karolevitz became friends through both SDSU and SDNA. Their association spanned 40 years, first when Jensen served as executive director of the SDSU Alumni Association and Karolevitz was the associations president. Then, Jensen became SDNA manager while Karolevitz remained an active SDNA friend.

Many people have mastered one or more skills, but few that I have ever known were as multi-faceted as Bob Karolevitz, Jensen said

His great writing skills, his terrific research capabilities, and his interest in, and sense of, history, were the reasons he was chosen by the South Dakota Newspaper Association to write a history of newspapering in South Dakota, With a Shirt Tail Full of Type.

That book helped in his selection by the National Newspaper Association to author From Quill to Computer, a history of America's community newspapers.

Karolevitz served as the witty master of ceremonies for the banquet at the annual SDNA convention until stepping down in the late 1990s. His patented One Clap remains a humorous tradition at the start of the banquet.

As each (special guest and board member) was introduced, they got one simultaneous clap from the audience, Jensen said. It was extremely successful, not only because it took less time, but it also saved on the wear and tear on the hands of the audience.

Much as the One Clap started the banquet, Karolevitz ended each banquet with the same humorous story about the proposed purchase of a chandelier for the Mission Hill First Norwegian Lutheran Schurch (not a misspelling).

Ole Olson objected to the purchase because nobody in the schurch knows how to play one of the d… things, and what this schurch really needs is more light! Jensen said. And while Bob may have wearied of telling (the story), the audience always wanted to hear it!

The entire state has lost a friend with Karolevitzs passing, Jensen said.

South Dakota was lucky (Karolevitz) chose to return to his home state (after living near Seattle), Jensen said. For my wife, Cherie, and I, our roots with Bob and Phyllis run deeper than our professional contact. They are more than friends they are family. In our remaining lives, Bob will be sorely missed, but eternally remembered.

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