Photo by Bulletin graphics
Pictured from left: Chuck Hagel in 2003, and his father Charles holding young Chuck and his mother Betty in North Platte, 1947.
Chuck Hagel was born in North Platte in a two-room house on the edge of town, on Oct. 4, 1946. On Jan. 30, confirmation hearings will begin in the U.S. Senate to see if Hagel will become the U.S. Secretary of Defense -- a long ways from the little house were he was born.
His father, Charles Hagel, had moved to North Platte after World War II, where he served two-and-a-half years in the South Pacific. The Hagel family owned Hagel Lumber Company in Ainsworth. When Charles struck out on his own after WWII, he headed for North Platte. He arrived in December 1945 to manage the Cook Paint and Varnish Store.
A few months later, Charles married Betty Dunn of Grand Island and the couple settled into a small house near the edge of North Platte. Chuck was born at St. Mary’s Hospital. Six months later, the young family moved to Ainsworth where his father worked at his grandfather’s lumber store. They stayed there 10 years. Three more boys were born.
Although Chuck only stayed briefly in North Platte, he recalls it as a kind of magical place.
“There is a little romanticism to it, because you are shaped and molded by events and times and people,” he told the Bulletin during an extensive interview in 2003, complete with family photos.
“My godfather was a dentist there,” Hagel said. “In fact, he just passed away a few years ago. He and his wife were friends of my parents, and he and my mother kept in touch. They would communicate four or five times a year.”
As Hagel travels the nation and the world, he often tells people he was born in the same city where Buffalo Bill, the international showman who introduced the world to the West, had his ranch.
In those years, lumberyards seemed immense to the boy, like “Moorish Castles,” he said. By the time the family moved to Rushville in 1957, Chuck was 11 and was broadening his interests in the world, reading national and international magazines in junior high. He came across “Life” and “Time” magazines and read Hugh Sidey’s weekly columns on the presidency, enduring chiding from classmates for reading old men’s magazines.
“I always had an interest in history,” he said. “I was fascinated with biographies and history and the understanding that it is people who change the world. I was always fascinated with what motivates people and what leads their lives.”
Looking to improve life for his family, Chuck’s father moved to Scottsbluff in 1957, to the Cox Lumber Company near downtown.
In 1958 the Hagels moved to Terrytown, a village near Scottsbluff built around Nebraska’s only gasoline refinery. Two years later, the Cox Lumber owners sold the business and his father’s job ended. Charles moved to the E. S. Clark Lumber Company in York and the family followed.
They moved one more time, to Columbus and the Gerhold Concrete Company.
Hagel’s father died in 1962 when Chuck was a sophomore at St. Bonaventure High School in Columbus.
He graduated in 1964. He said those years shaped him for the better.
“Each individual is a product of his environment,” he said. “We are grounded and anchored in a sureness of values, of standards and expectations, and no where in a finer way than in western Nebraska or those areas that still have the flavor of a pioneering community.”
”“I am a fourth-generation Nebraskan, and it helped give me a strong sense of that spirit,” he said. “We had to live a hard life, which gave me some self-confidence.”
He said not only does small town life teach forthrightness; it develops tolerance of others, despite any differences with them.
“You play by the rules, you are what you are and you believe what you believe, and you are not ashamed of it,” he said. “And, we (in the Midwest) have a certain tolerance. You have to be tolerant of others because you live so near to them; you know so much about them. In the Midwest, you are able to get inside a person a little more, and you respect them. I think Midwesterners are far more tolerant of others than people in any other part of the country.”
After high school, Hagel attended Wayne State and Kearney State and followed an interest in radio. He studied at the Brown Institute for Radio and Television in Minneapolis and landed a job with radio station KLMS in Lincoln. In 1968, he enlisted in the Army and served in Vietnam. When he returned, he began working toward his life’s ambition – becoming a Senator.
“I never wanted to be anything else,” he said, “not a governor or a representative. I always wanted to be a Senator.”
He finished college at the University of Nebraska at Omaha and one day in April 1971, he used a Brandies Department Store credit card to buy two pin-stripe suits and headed for Washington, D.C. to find a job.
He came home one week later somewhat disillusioned that no one seemed to want him, but the trip paid off. Weeks later, Congressman John Y. McCollister from Omaha called and asked him to come to D.C. for a part-time clerical job in his office. One clerical job led to another as he worked for McCollister, and his career in government was underway.
“One day it was a perfect, bucolic spring day,” he told the Bulletin. “There was no wind and little humidity. The flowers were beautiful. I sat on the steps of the Russell Senate Office Building and just soaked it all in. I must have sat there an hour. My heart opened to it; I just fell in love; I couldn’t get enough of it. What that trip did was open the world for me. Current events do that; they teach you that you can be part of everything going on in the world.”
This report was first published in the November 2003 print edition of the North Platte Bulletin.