UNION CITY, INDIANSA.
Every now and then, but quite rarely, a man struts across the stage of life, changing all he comes in contact with. And, after his passing, things aren't the same again.
Some called him, 'The Editor', others, 'The Preacher', or 'The Reverend still others preferred 'Uncle 'But by far the most knew him as 'Elmer'. And 'Elmer' he was to most of us just plain 'Elmer'. For, unlike the brotherhood of the holy ordainedmen of the cloth who strut in their priestly robes to the Reverend Elmer Ritzman farm overalls were the holiest of garb. A firebox poker was his 'sheperd's stave' for the leading of his flock. He never preached on the unquenchable fires of hell, for to him the hot coals and roaring flames inside an engine firebox were the greatest sermons of all. With his eye on the steam gauge, and his hand on the throttle, his pulpit was the swaying deck of a steam engine at workhis congregation the teeming thousands that came to 'tend the threshermen's reunions which his faith nurtured from humble beginnings by his praying and preaching. Though the Reverend Elmer Ritzman may once have been ordained of God a Methodist pastor, to serve his village and town, the hand of the Lord led him into vaster fields to pasture flocks numbered among the stars. All were blessed by his presence and all mourn at his passing.
To those who have held onto the illusion that all preachers are a separate breedstuffed shirts, aloof and uninteresting let me say they have just never met the Reverend Ritzman. Somehow they have been denied one of life's richest experiences sitting beside him, elbow to elbow, sharing his rich loquations on every day philosophy, delicately interwoven with Divine Theology. To him the hard facts of life were never divorced from the gentle humor of the Pennsylvania-Dutch idiom. Though his sermons were without jokes, one could often detect sermons in his jokes. And whenever it came to the telling of jokes, Elmer always had a big bagful from which to draw and select, depending on whether his listening audience, happening to be within ear-shot, demanded the feminine or masculine touch.
It was at the National Threshers Reunion, held on the Blaker Farm at Alvordton, Ohio, back in '48, that I first met the Reverend Elmer Ritzman or Elmer. He had invited me earlier, by letter, to come and 'learn a little about steam engines' which I did (a little). And, of course, the first person I sought out on the crowded, busy grounds, as I made my way amongst the sweating men and steaming engines, was Elmer who had pitched his little tent just over by LeRoy Blaker's steam engine workshop and far enough away from the maddening throng to out-shout the melee and hawk his little FARM ALBUM pamphlet across a thin and wobbly board which served both as counter and something to lean on.
'Are you Reverend Ritzman?' I yelled his hands reaching for pencil and subscription pad in the hopes I was a customer.
'Yes, I am,' he replied, shouting back over the stack stacatti of Gilbert Enders' Case, belted to the Prony Brake. 'I don't believe we've met before.'
'I'm the fellow from Union City, Indiana, who sent you the engine record,' I screamed back. 'You told me I'd better come up here and learn a little more about steam engines.'
'Yes I like that record of the old Aultman-Taylor. And the argument on the other side between the Edger boys and their father about which is best gas tractors or steam,' he retorted in a stentorian voice betraying his pulpitized demeanor, as if to out-shout a devil's din of screaming steam engines whistling in the background.
'Now, if you want to record engines and learn about them, go over to that man standing beside the Port Huron by the water tank,' he confided. 'He'll tell you all you need to know and help you get set up.'
'I'm so busy I can't talk now,' said the man LeRoy Blaker, who appeared the very center of the hubbub and fury of the day's activities. 'Ask that man over there. He's Ormann Keyserhe can tell you anything you want to know about the engines.'
Thus it was that my acquaintanceship with the Reverend Elmer Ritzman, President LeRoy Blaker and Professor Ormann Keyserall three came about and I was sort of enrolled in the 'college of steam engine knowledge' in but a single day. But, let me say, though my engine knowledge has remained more 'college' than knowledge, over the years I've been matriculating, my shortcomings can in no wise relate to any lack in this eminent triumvirate. For truly we had all the 'makin's' of a steam engine collegea professor to lecture, a president to administrate and a preacher to preach at the bacculaureate, should I, the 'student body', ever graduate.
It was all a jumble of unknown engines to me, a 'town boy' at my first year ever to attend a threshermen's reunion that summer at the Blaker farm. But I always returned to the little FARM ALBUM stand for a few words of comfort from the Reverend Elmer who lent encouragement by saying, 'You'll get acquainted with the men and their engines and soon know your way around.' And that I did, learning to associate the names of certain engineers with the names of their favorite engines Blaker with Port Huron, Enders with Case, Forrest Williamson with Baker, Ashbaugh with Minneapolis, Charlie Harrison with Reeves, Emory Brindle with Rumely, and of course the astute A. D. Baker with old No. 1.
I was learningthe Reverend Elmer Ritzman's prophecy was coming true. And I began liking a threshing reunion so well that I returned the next yearagain to rub elbows with the preacher, the professor and the N. T. A. president.
Each year the National Threshers grew, under the guidance and leadership of these eminent men, along with the imposing list of founding charter members, until the following year it was moved to the Williams County fairgrounds at Montpelier, Ohio, to accommodate the crowds and exhibits. And each year that the Reverend Elmer Ritzman opened the official N. T. A. proceedings by his benedictions and closed them by his sermons, an increasingly impressive list of imposing figures throughout the general area and the nation were attending. I'll never forget the year that Edgar Bergen, of Charlie McCarthy fame, arrived from Beverly Hills, California, in the company of Ralph Lindsey. How Bergen appeared to be having the time of his life, running the Lindsey Case, and the Blaker Port Huron while, at a specially called session in the assembly hall, he gave an impromptu program of Charlie McCarthy, Mortimer Snerd and Aunt Effy, to the delight of all.
During the more than twenty years I have attended The National Threshers, I don't recall ever missing one of the opening exercises. First of all I was greatly impressed how Reverend Ritzman could plead with the Lord in so diversified a manner, year after year, for the blessings of all who attended as well as their safety, without duplication in verbage. One particular morning I listened intently to his words of benediction, wondering just how he was going to invoke the Lord's guidance that day for the crowds that had come, without at least some repetition held over from the years before. But alas, there was no duplication. His prayer was, as usual, straight from the heart 'Oh Lord, we thank Thee for this beautiful weather and these wonderful people who have congregated here. Grant us a day of much joy and benefit to all. Protect us from dangers, both seen and unseen, that we may give Thee the praise. In Jesus' name we ask it Amen.
Of all the preachers, evangelists and pulpit-pounders I've heard in my lifetime, no one could say 'Amen' with the utter significance and finality as the Reverend Elmer Ritzman-your chaplain and my chaplain over these many years. Somehow the rest of the reunion days always seemed more productive and the conviviality sweeter, after Elmer had pronounced God's official blessing and asked His protection then enunciated his own particular pastorial 'Amen'. That was the final word like the crack of a gun at the start of a race, sending everyone scrambling in willy-nilly directions all over the National Threshers' Reunion grounds.
But, when evening of the first day came, immediately following the business meeting, there were the memorial services with the Reverend Elmer Ritzman presiding. Following the list of the departed, which seemed to get longer each year, Mrs. Blaker would tearfully ask the chaplain to say a few fitting words in memory of those who had gone on. Rising to the task, as he always did, Reverend Ritzman said, 'Life is like a busy air terminal. Some friends depart for distant lands, while others are arriving to take up their abode with us.' Then, with a befitting plea, which seemed to express the innermost feeling of everyone in the audience, he prayed, 'Oh Lord, somehow tell our departed friends that we still very much love them. Amen.'
Then there were the dedicatory services, commemorating the bronze plaque, mounted on an engine drive wheel, erected in front of the Blaker farm home near Alvordton, Ohio, marking it as the birthplace of the first organized steam threshermen's reunion in America. The Reverend had ridden to the farm with my wife and me, to participate in the dedication. The visiting dignitaries had made their eloquent addresses. Then the Reverend Ritzman said a few very appropriate words, after which he closed the services with a prayer, 'Oh Lord, we are gathered here to mark an important and significant milestone in our organization and we ask Thy divine blessing on these services and everyone here that we shall somehow be inspired to greater efforts and goals in furthering the noble endeavor that had its humble beginnings here. Amen.'
I was reminded of the Gettysburg Address, when Lincoln waited on a hot summer's day till the main addresses were delivered, only to end the services in but a few appropriate words that would live forever in the hearts of men. But Elmer Ritzman was not a sad man by nature only when the occasion demanded sadness and reflecting. His was a bubbling spirit, infusing the rarest of Pennsylvania Dutch humor into whatever the conversation of the moment inspired. There was the hot summer day that the Wauseon show was just grinding to a close. I rushed over to Elmer's stand, out by the fairgrounds race track, and said, 'Reverend, I think it would be a good idea if you wrote a column, entitled, 'Iron Man of the Month' in your magazine.
I was rather taken aback, when he demanded instantly, 'You take over that column yourself.' Then came the arrival of Elmer's entourage the following year, to set his Iron-Man stand up in the shade beneath the grandstand, right beside mine. Before I knew it, he came over and said, 'I could kiss you for those stories you are writing.' And then, eyeing my wife, he continued, 'But, if I began kissing youI might keep right on going and, before I stopped, it's hard to predict where I might wind up in the family.' I laughed outwardly, while Elmer laughed inwardly, keeping a straight face throughout.
Then there was the time at Wauseon, when we were sitting 'neath the grandstand at the N. T. A. and my wife complained to Elmer about some nittygritty that she wished I would quit doing. And Elmer, speaking loud enough for me to overhear, said, 'Tell that so-and-so husband of yours to straighten up or I'll tell him so.'
One meeting with the Reverend Elmer Ritzman, however, I'll never forget. It was the summer that my crippled friend, Homer Halladay, who went to many of the early reunions with me, wanted to attend a steam engine reunion in another state.
'Let's go to the reunion at Pontiac, I'll.,' he insisted. 'I'll furnish the car, if you'll drive, Joe. Well see how the people in Illinois run things.'
So off we headed, across Hoosierland, and into Illinois to where Dan Zehr reigned forth as king over the steam engines at Pontiac. I had only known Reverend Ritzman a short time, but as soon as I stepped out of the car and got my friend Homer in his wheel chair, the first person we ran into was Elmer. Putting forth my hand toward the Reverend, in a grand and sweeping gesture of friendship and conviviality, my brand new thick-soled rubber gym shoes caused my one ankle to turn as I made the first step in the soft mudmy entire torso taking an immense flip-flop, first to the right, thence rebounding over to the left and before it all ended I wound up on all fours in the ooze. Righting myself and trying to keep my propriety while Elmer kept a solemn visage as if he didn't see my utter humiliation and red face, he shoved his mitt toward me and we negotiated the handshake. I made sudden and profuse apologies for making an ass of myself in his august presence, but, always the diplomat, the Reverend acted as if he didn't notice my clownish and unrehearsed acrobatics at all. I was the image of abject humiliationhe the epitome of composure when really he should have laughed at my plight. For it well would have been within the confines of perfect etiquette had he hee-hawed like a jackass.
There was the one summer I decided to take along my mother, to attend the Montpelier N. T. A. show. Being reared of Pennsylvania Dutch parentage, I especially wanted her to meet the Reverend Ritzman. And so the time arrived, for the introduction, just after Elmer had said his official 'Amen' at the close of the opening ceremonies that first morning.
'Reverend Ritzman, I want you to meet my mother,' said I, beaming with pride. Elmer extended his right hand in Pa.-Dutch fellowship. My mother began recalling the names of Pennsylvania relatives Dunkelbergers, Heffelfingers and the like.
'Mrs. Fahnestock, I know plenty of Dunkelbergers and Heffelfingers back home,' replied the Reverend in a stentorian voice. 'I'm very happy to meet you. Now I feel just at home with you.'
I'll never, no never, forget the summer that Elmer brought his new bride, Earlene, to one of the reunions. Introducing me to his blushing bride, Elmer suddenly turned away and whispered to mea bachelor at the time, 'Young fellow, you don't know what you're missing. Why don't you get married and begin living?'
Even at the thoughts of death, Elmer had his bag of jokes ready to pull one out to fit the occasion. The last reunion he attended of the N. T. A. at Wauseon. Ohio, a strapping young fellow came forward through the crowd that had gathered to take out subscriptions at Elmer's stand.
'You remember me, Elmer? I'm Mr. Plasterer. You are looking good,' the young man said, putting his hand forward and bending low to hear Elmer's answer.
'Yes, I guess I look all right. The Old Man with the Scythe is just taking his time, figuring out that when he does get me he aims to make a good job of it,' mused Elmer.
To another robust thresherman who had just come up to Elmer and made the brag that he had finished off a wonderful, four-course thresherman's dinner, with all the trimmin's, replied Elmer, 'Well, you might feel happier than I, but you won't live long, eating so much.'
When Elmer got a little tired, his last summer at Wauseon, he borrowed our folding cot, to catch a little snooze under the trees beside our trailer. Some man woke him up and began telling him all about himself. After the long-winded gentleman finally left, Elmer said to me, 'You know everyone thinks I should patiently listen to their life's story. But they never let me tell mine.' Then he laid down again and went back to sleep.
I have often thought that, had there been no W. C. Fields, and had Elmer Ritzman followed the vaudeville circuit instead of the sawdust trail, we might still be sitting up late at nights, watching the late, late shows of his re-runs, just so we could laugh once again. For, as truly as his sermons nudged 'us poor sinners' into the wisdom of living a better life, so his dry humor could change
He could sum up the most profound statements and human feelings into the fewest of words. Like at the threshermen's reunion at Allegan, Michigan, which we attended, because it was the first of the summer. And Elmer and Tom Smith were both there, though neither were taking any subscriptions for want of a crowd. Folding his tent up, and prior to stealing away like the Arabs, Elmer snapped, 'I've had it.' It would have taken me five pages to say the same thing. How often I've envied Elmer's masterful way of saying so much with so little. Many times I have tried, in vain, to fall into a similar pattern of sparse verbiage, to match him (and save typing paper), only to wind up with the long, drawn-out patter.
To paraphrase Elmer, we can say, 'Lord, let him know we are better and the world is better, and many steam engine's souls have been saved, as have our own simply because Elmer has lived among us.'
As one admirer was heard to utter, as he walked away from Elmer at the last reunion he attended at Wauseon 'Reverend Ritzman has done more for reviving the steam engine in the minds of the people of America than any other person.'
To the Head Iron-Man of them all, Editor, Preacher, Reverend or Uncle 'Elmer, your little child, The Iron-Man Album, has grown to manhood and outlived you. And because of it, you live also among us so long as there's a steam engine whistle to blow. And for you, Elmer, I'll say this one-'A-M-E-N.'