Special delivery brings hobo caricature to life



Classes were almost done for the year when the Collegian’s office received a call from the office of the State College president.

The Brookings Chamber of Commerce was gearing up support for the start of commercial airline service, which would start just a few days later — June 1 — at the new Brookings Airport. College President Fred Leinbach asked for student backing

He got it in the form of 500 students, including one who had been on campus since 1941, but would be taking a higher profile.

That one was Weary Willie, a hobo caricature drawn on the wall of the Pugsley Student Union in 1941. It was Walt Conahan, then the Collegian editor, who brought Willie to life. “I probably volunteered for it. I don’t think anybody really thought about it,” he recalls.

In other words, the incarnation of Hobo Day personification Weary Willie wasn’t the product of a long-planned scheme.

At 11:42 a.m. Thursday, June 1, a DC-3 propeller-driven aircraft landed in Brookings. Dressed inconspicuously, Conahan was there when Western Airlines executives stepped out of the plane. He boarded the plane with Leinbach, local dignitaries and bags of airmail.


Presto chango

It was a short flight to Huron, where there was a brief welcoming ceremony to that community.

Conahan spent that time changing into Weary Willie’s wardrobe. When the plane landed in Brookings, Willie was greeted by Gayle Gilbert, Hobo Day chairman; Richard Rindels, Students’ Association president; and 500 students — about one-fourth of the entire student body.

The hoopla followed Willie from the airport.

He jumped in the Bummobile with driver Bill Matson, and Rindels and Leinbach, both of whom carried signs welcoming Wil. After photos, Matson drove the Bummobile around town followed by nearly 30 cars and lead by a police escort, the Collegian reported.

This was an era when students were often asked to promote Hobo Day, which drew 40,000 to Brookings.


Making history without knowing it

An enthusiastic group of Staters took the Bummobile to parades in the region. Conahan remembers going with the group to Box Car Days in Tracy, Minn., Sept. 4. For that event, he was dressed as a hobo but didn’t parade himself as Weary Willie.

“I never did that Weary Willie thing again” that year, Conahan recalls.

Today, Willie is immortalized in a bronze statue outside the Student Union and takes a prominent role in Hobo Weekend events. But on June 1, 1950, “I don’t think that it dawned on us” that a major character in State’s history was being brought to life.


Next time by train

Conahan does have the distinction of twice taking on the role of Weary Willie.

Vance Sneve, Hobo Day chairman for 1954, asked Conahan to return as Wil. “We used the train. The train stopped about a block or so away from the depot. I got on the boxcar step and I got off at the depot. They did have the pep band there,” Conahan says.

Sneve drove him up to campus in the Bummobile Thursday night to oversee the frosh-soph tug-of-war.

Weary Willie has returned to campus every year since 1950, but Conahan is believed to be the only person to fill his shoes twice. The hobo is chosen by the grand pooba with input from the Alumni Association.

Current Grand Pooba Abby Settje notes, “They are usually have served on a Hobo Day Committee or have dedicated an immense amount of time and effort to the tradition of Hobo Day. They embody the true hobo spirit and are outstanding advocates for the “Biggest One Day Event in the Dakotas.”

In recent tradition, he appears anonymously until being revealed at halftime of Saturday’s football game.


STATE Magazine is published by University Relations for the SDSU Alumni Association. This story was published in the Fall 2012 issue.