Book chronicles tales spun by ‘roving reporter’ who plied the backroads for human-interest stories

Dean Terrill of the Lincoln Journal was one of a brotherhood of writers who focused on rural communities and people

By: - December 23, 2023 6:00 am
Dean Terrill

Dean Terrill of the Lincoln Journal was among a generation of “roving reporters” who plied rural towns and rural areas for stories of all kinds. (courtesy Nancy Terrill-Amundson)

LINCOLN — Reporter-photographer Dean Terrill would often leave his home in Fairbury, Nebraska, for a destination in southeast Nebraska without knowing what story he might write that day.

Such was the life of a “roving reporter,” deployed by major newspapers across their rural circulation areas in search of tales of every flavor and style.

Terrill plied the byways of 14 southeast Nebraska counties for the Lincoln Journal and Star from 1958 to 1988, covering everything from town festivals and local characters to sensational murders and spectacular tragedies.

Covered RFK

He also accompanied Bobby Kennedy and his dog “Freckles” during the Democrat’s “whistle stop” campaign across Nebraska in the 1968 presidential primary.

Terrill was among a brotherhood of road warriors who wrote about rural life that included Tom Allan and Jim Denney of the Omaha World-Herald; Chuck Offenburger, the “Iowa Boy” columnist for the Des Moines Register; and James Fisher of the Kansas City Star. 

“They were someone who was trying to capture the flavor and character of the people and places that they covered,” said Warren Francke, a retired journalism professor at the University of Nebraska at Omaha, of the roving reporters. 

Dean Terrill
The daughter of roving reporter Dean Terrill has assembled a book full of his favorite human interest stories from three decades of covering southeast Nebraska. (Paul Hammel/Nebraska Examiner)

Francke was one himself for a while, traversing southeast Iowa for the Council Bluffs Nonpareil. 

It was a great beat, he said, where a reporter got to know the small-town movers and shakers and the unique characters who still farmed with horses or could recall dancing with Calamity Jane in the gambling houses of Deadwood.  

Now Terrill’s daughter has compiled a collection of the favorite human-interest stories — the bread-and-butter of a roving reporter’s diet — penned by her father, who died in 2009.

‘Hunted’ for stories

The book, “Story Hunter: Stories from the Southeast Nebraska News Bureau,” is available via Amazon or by contacting author Nancy Terrill-Amundson via email. 

The title comes from Terrill’s love of bird hunting, but also because “hunting,” or finding stories, was a big part of the job, according to Terrill-Amundson. Her father, she said,  just had a knack for finding them, whether it be over coffee at small-town cafes, while leaning on a pickup at a grain elevators, or during a visit to the local newspaper or courthouse.

She said her father would often drive off to places like Red Cloud or Tecumseh without knowing exactly what story he’d find that day.

Coffee shops and grain elevators

“Back then, you could pull into a coffee shop or elevator or police station and strike up a conversation,” Terrill-Amundson said. “He could go in there and they’d point him in the direction of a story or an interesting person.”

Terrill had a knack for making rural people comfortable when talking to him, according to Michelle Hassler, a former editor of Terrill’s at the Lincoln Journal.

“He was just a genuinely nice, humble and kind person. People really liked him,” said Hassler, now an associate journalism professor at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. “He took the time to get to know people in the rural communities he covered – and they soon realized he was someone they could trust.”

Today, reporters who devote full time to rural, on-the-road stories are as rare as a telephone booth on a main street.

Years ago, the Journal and Star employed two roving reporters, one covering southern and southeast Nebraska, and the other covering territory to the north.

Shipped stories via bus, friends

Terrill worked out of an office and darkroom in his home in Fairbury. Back in the day — before email and fax machines — it was a challenge to get stories, film and photos to the home office in Lincoln. So he relied on people he knew were driving to the Capital City, or would ship materials via bus.

teleram machine
Before laptop computers, an early device used to transmit stories from remote locations was a Teleram P-1800. (Courtesy of Ryly Hambleton)

Terrill-Amundson said she can recall her father using a suitcase-sized machine to transmit stories to the newsroom. The 32-pound “Teleram P-1800” machines were a forerunner of today’s laptop computers.

A 62-year-old stay-at-home mom, she said that it was amid the COVID-19 epidemic that she began to go through the materials left in her late father’s home office and darkroom.

She found hundreds of newspaper clippings of his stories, in tubs, shoeboxes and plastic bags, that provided a window into the history of rural southeast Nebraska, its people and places.

He must have cut out every story he wrote,” Terrill-Amundson said. 

Rattlesnake hunters, raccoon feed

Terrill-Amundson said she picked her favorites, organized by county, for the book.

There are stories about a raccoon feed in Crab Orchard, a rattlesnake hunter in Imperial, a refugee in Beatrice from Hitler’s Germany, and the rescue of five sons from an icy river by a father from Oak. Other yarns concern a unicyclist, a squatter in a small-town cemetery, and a wheelchair-bound man in Blue Hill who produced greeting cards by typing with his tongue — as well as a final chapter about the RFK campaign.

“Dad was not a Kennedy supporter, but he was after spending two days with him,” Terrill-Amudson said.

Kennedy, according to History Nebraska, said he learned one thing about Nebraska during his whistle stop campaign: “It is a long way across Nebraska by train.”

Overall, Terrill-Amundson said that the book will take readers “back to a lot simpler time.”

He just ran into the most unusual stories,” she said of her father. “It makes you wonder if there are still stories like that out there, or do people not appreciate them anymore?”

“I haven’t figured that out,” she added.

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Paul Hammel
Paul Hammel

Senior Reporter Paul Hammel has covered the Nebraska state government and the state for decades. Previously with the Omaha World-Herald, Lincoln Journal Star and Omaha Sun, he is a member of the Omaha Press Club's Hall of Fame. He grows hops, brews homemade beer, plays bass guitar and basically loves traveling and writing about the state. A native of Ralston, Nebraska, he is vice president of the John G. Neihardt Foundation.

Nebraska Examiner is part of States Newsroom, the nation’s largest state-focused nonprofit news organization.

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