Old Iron's Funny Man

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The gas tank from an old tractor

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But then, Roger, a noted humorist, essayist and television personality, has a soft spot in his heart for farm-related nostalgia - one that he has successfully mined in the development of his chosen career.

And it truly was 'chosen.' In 1974, when their daughter was 4, Roger and his wife, Linda, decided to move to the country, leaving Lincoln, Neb., where Roger had been an English and anthropology professor for 18 years at the University of Nebraska.

'I walked away from a full professorship, something a lot of people would kill for, because I wanted my daughter to grow up in rural America,' he says. Along the way, Roger discovered he knew very little about rural America, until he started studying the humor of rural people.

The Welsches bought a tree farm near Dannebrog, in central Nebraska, and Roger set about establishing himself as a humorist and essayist who authored magazine pieces and full-length books, and offered television commentary.

'Now I see that moving here and living here has changed me substantially. What I partially did on the CBS 'Sunday Morning' show was to tell viewers that the people on small farms out here are more interesting than we think they are. They are wise, bright, interesting and fun. I see what it means to be a kid growing up in rural America, and it's something we can't surrender easily.'

Putting The Farm Into The Man

Roger was not a farm boy. He grew up in Lincoln, and only occasionally visited an uncle's farm. The closest he came to rural living was owning a piece of property near Pikes Peak.

He wasn't very funny as a kid, either, he says. 'I was a hopelessly boring nerd with nothing going for me, and I was a perfectly dreadful student. I wasn't interested in much of anything.'

That changed in the 1970s at graduate school. 'I was teaching English and anthropology at the University of Nebraska in 1973, and one day I went into the mimeograph room, and there was my favorite English professor, a man I still adore. He said, 'You ought to see this paper I'm copying.' It was a humorous paper 1 had written for his class in 1954. He said, 'I've used it ever since in my classes on humor and writing.' I had no idea, but he had spotted something.'

As a consequence of that encounter, Roger began writing a column on tall tales of the Plains and pioneer humor for The Nebraska Farmer magazine. Using information from old settlers he had accumulated 10 years earlier, he wrote about weather, bad crops and whatever else struck him as interesting, and funny.

'In the 1960s, the pioneers I had interviewed told me that humor was a weapon of survival. Here were people facing death and disaster every time the sun came up, but they still managed to laugh. Textbooks never tell you about a lot of laughter going around on the frontier, so I started to relish those stories the old-timers told about their humor.'

Roger says his 'Tall Tales' column proved very popular, resulted in several books and landed him an invitation to write for Successful Farming magazine. 'I hated to leave Nebraska Farmer, but with Successful Farming I have such a gigantic audience, so when I was offered a chance to work with them, I didn't have much choice.'

Roger says his personal favorite of his books - about 30 to date - 'probably' is It's Not the End of the Earth, But You Can See It From Here. He likes that one because it has to do with real life. 'But that said, my most recent book is always my favorite; Love, Sex, and Tractors was the most fun to write, and the one people probably get the most kick out of reading.'

Welsch fans who visit Dannebrog often stop at Al Schmidt's, formerly a filling station, to inquire about Roger. 'That Roger Welsch,' they'll say, 'all he does for a living is writing?'

On 'Postcards from Nebraska,' which was a regular segment that Roger did in the 1980s on CBS News' 'Sunday Morning' show, he does appear to just sit around on his front porch, and whittle and spit while he talks. But that's not the real story.

In real life, Roger says, he prefers to meet his fans at farm shows. 'We can't run a reception center here at home, because I just wouldn't get any work done. At farm shows, I get to talk with the people who enjoy my material and answer questions, and even get some new material off and on.'

Bitten by 'old iron' bug

For the first few years of farm life, Roger says, he wasn't interested in old iron - but he did inherit a tractor with the place. 'When we moved down here by the river, we had a 1936 Allis-Chalmers WC tractor that ran every time you turned the crank. When there was snow and mud, the only way in and out of here was with that tractor. I appreciated the Allis, but I never changed the oil in a car, much less a tractor. 'Mechanicking' was nothing to me. I avoided it.'

One day though, 'for some reason,' Roger decided to tighten the brakes on the Allis, and when he opened it up, he was changed for life.

'I was struck by the mechanical ingenuity and incredible simplicity of it,' he recalls. 'Even a dullard like me could work and adjust it. That was a moment of triumph in an area that had nothing to do with my regular life, with making a living and keeping a household going and being a married, working, decent father.'

He'd decided to fix the brakes himself knowing it wouldn't matter whether he succeeded. 'I figured if the tractor only ran on one brake after I was finished fooling around with it, it wouldn't make any difference in the grander scheme of things. After I fixed it, the bug bit me, and went through my system like scours. All at once old iron was just a passion, and ever since, it's been partial therapy.' In time, Roger completely restored the Allis. He says that an Allis-Chalmers tractor 'has four wires, one to each spark-plug. If you hand me any part of an Allis-Chalmers WC, I'll tell you where it will go -unlike complex modern engines, which no longer have any relevance to me. I like that old stuff.' When he was finished with the Allis, he recalls that someone asked what he was going to do with it. 'That had never occurred to me. The process of doing it mattered to me, not getting it done. But what I figured I was going to do was haul another one in and start on it.' He also started writing his trademark funny books about old iron.

Restoring that old Allis changed Roger's life in other ways, too. 'I had been living in this town since 1974, and I knew everybody and everybody knew me. I had many very dear friends in town, but I didn't have a lot in common with them. I was a professor; they were mechanics, farmers, welders or whatever. We had a good time, and they were good company. But they knew me as a professor.

'When I started going into town with questions about the Allis, or welding, or how to do this or that, our roles switched. I became the student and they became the intellectuals. They knew tractors, and suddenly they could understand what they knew, and they saw my respect for them. That gave me a new role in town, and a new relationship with dear old friends. Now we thought about the same old things. It gave me a new way of looking at old friends.'

- From Old Tractors Never Die

On CBS News with Kuralt

Since 1973, Roger also had known Charles Kuralt, who did his popular 'On the Road' TV program from 1967 through 1980. Whenever he came through central Nebraska with his van and crew, he'd stop to visit. 'We'd sit down together and go through a file I kept of possible stories in this area. One time I was speaking at a Chamber of Commerce meeting in the little town of West Point, Neb. Charles waited in the back of the room for me to finish the program. On the way back, he said, 'There were at least five things you said that would work for CBS News' 'Sunday Morning.' He asked whether I wanted to continue giving free speeches to Chambers of Commerce or if I'd like to make some money.'

Roger first appeared on 'Sunday Morning' in 1988 and continued regularly for 13 years. His segment was called 'Postcards from Nebraska.' Occasionally he still does a piece. 'The last one was for the 9-11 disaster.' Also, he has done occasional TV specials, voice-overs, and more recently, some PBS projects. 'I suppose it's because they see so much of Paul Newman in me.'

Though Roger makes his living through humor, he says he isn't the funniest one in his family. 'My wife is witty. Her timing is perfect, her diction is absolutely on the mark. I'm not witty that way, though I have a very good ear. I hear and remember things.'

With limited time to devote to collecting, Roger focuses on antique Nebraska maps, old tractors and tall tales. 'I do have a nice collection of tall tale postcards, like the ones with exaggerated ears of corn, or the jackalope, or that kind of thing,' he says.

The old machinery in his yard has been accumulating through the years. 'There's nothing that I use much, though, because this is ostensibly a tree farm. But I have a one-bottom plow to plant trees, a two-bottom plow, an International farm tractor disc harrow that I use in my wildlife patch down by the river (where I plant millet for birds and deer), a post hole digger and a blade for clearing roads. Stuff like that.'

- From Love, Sex and Tractors

Roger says he's encouraged about the future of old iron. 'I see a lot of kids, 12, 14, 17 years old, at tractor shows, and they say this old iron is something they can do and enjoy. It's not even just a harmless pastime, but a really productive, positive kind of influence in their lives. Not just an old man's pursuit. It's a way for young and old to get together and talk about something in common. Not music, but old tractors.' FC

- Bill Vossler is a farm toy collectibles expert, author and freelance writer. He lives in Rockville, Minn.; e-mail: bvossler@iuno.com.