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Nebraska County Countdown: 48 - Red Willow: The Hoyt Murders And The Worst Way to Die I Know

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The good news is that there are only 48 days until 2018 Nebraska football.

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Kinda looks like a courthouse should, doesn’t it? Or a hospital. An old hospital.

Red Willow County is south of Frontier County where I grew up. The biggest town and county seat is the city of McCook. McCook and North Platte were both about the same distance from my hometown, Curtis. They were both considered “cities” when I was young. When we wanted to go somewhere “special”, we went to North Platte or McCook.

Here’s what Wikipedia says about Red Willow County:

Red Willow County was formed in 1873. It was named after the Red Willow Creek. The name is reported to be a mistranslation of the Dakota Indian name Chanshasha Wakpala, which literally means Red Dogwood Creek. The Dakota referred to the creek as such because of an abundance of the red dogwood shrub that grew along the creek banks. Its stem and branches are deep red in color, and it is favored in basket making.

I don’t have a lot of stories about McCook.

Our high school spent an entire season of track having our meets a McCook’s high school because our track was being rebuilt. Consequently, every track meet we got out of school early and went to McCook where one of our favorite treats was to go to A&W restaurant. We affectionately referred to it as “Ants & Worms”, but one of the greatest joys in life then was getting an A&W root beer float.

Since I don’t remember stories about McCook, I’m going to lie a bit. We’re going to pretend that two of the better lakes in Nebraska, Red Willow and Harry Strunk Lake, are in Red Willow County when they’re actually in my home county, Frontier. This means that I grew up in a pretty good county as far as lakes go in Nebraska. This is a big deal to me. I now live in a state which proclaims itself as the “Land of 10,000 lakes”. There are lakes everywhere. I loved going fishing when I was young and I still do although I don’t get to do it as much as I’d like.

Notice the two lakes - Red Willow on the upper left - Harry Strunk “Cambridge Lake” on the upper right

I remember fishing at Red Willow Lake while the crappie were spawning. They were close to the shore and they were incredibly easy to catch. Our fishing party collectively caught and kept around 600 crappies.

As anyone now knows this is a good way to wipe out an entire population of panfish. If you’re wondering why you have restrictive panfish regulations in Nebraska, that’s the reason.

We caught all them crappies, took them home and dumped them at a guy’s house. We filled multiple bathtubs full of crappies and dumped the rest into barrels. He cleaned them all later, and that’s what their family ate, so at least they didn’t go to waste.

Harry Strunk Lake, or as we referred to it, “Cambridge Lake,” was the epicenter of a horrific story that occurred in 1973. I was 11 years old. An elderly couple, Wilma and Edwin Hoyt, were murdered in McCook.

I’m not going to tell you the entire story of the Hoyt murders. You can read more about it from this 2014 story from the McCook Gazette, and this interview in 2015 with James W Hewitt who wrote “In Cold Storage,” a book about the murders.

The critical part is that the bodies of the elderly Hoyt couple were cut up and dumped in Cambridge Lake. The murderers, not being geniuses, apparently didn’t bother to weigh the bodies down or did a poor job of doing so. Pieces of the bodies were found not long after the murders.

The murder set off a wave of terror throughout the region. People were so paranoid that when we went to see my sister Julie, I opened the door to their trailer to find my brother-in-law Dennis standing there with a baseball bat. This was in broad daylight.

I remember a really crude joke that one of my sisters told me:

”Did you hear that they caught the murderer and he escaped from the Curtis Jail?”


“He drew a nude lady on the jail cell wall and crawled out through the crack.”

It isn’t a joke you get when you’re 11 years old. It is, however, the kind of sophomoric joke that I find hilarious all these years later.

People were terrified to go fishing or swimming in Cambridge Lake. They were terrified that they might find another body part. They were terrified of what all of this meant to a region that wasn’t accustomed to such a grisly murder.

There was a joke about that too.

“Don’t go swimming in Cambridge Lake!”

“Why not?”

“You might get Hoyt!”

The only other thing I remember about McCook is that it was where my father was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer in 1974. He died on September 14, 1974. Pancreatic cancer is horrible now; the worst way to die I know. Imagine what it was like over four decades ago, considering how far we’ve come with medical technology.

I wrote a story about his death a few years ago before my brain got exploderated. I’d like to share it with you now:

My father died on September 14th, 1974. He had pancreatic cancer. It was the worst form of cancer then and remains the worst form of cancer now. In 1974, pancreatic cancer was horribly painful, one of the worst deaths you can imagine and they didn’t allow the kind of drugs at home that they do now.

I was 12 years old.

To this day, I believe that my dad starved to death as much as died of cancer. My sisters, especially the one that is the nurse, might disagree with this sentiment, but as I said, I was 12. I had as much clue as to what was really going on in the world as you did when you were 12, and possibly less. Dad was never a fat man, few men of that generation were, but when he died, he looked like a concentration camp victim. He weighed maybe around 90 pounds and his skin had a green tone about it that wasn’t right; wasn’t human.

He died on a Saturday. I was at my best friend Dale’s house playing that morning, and my brother Jerome came to get me. I could see his eyes were red, clearly he had been crying. The only thing he said was , “Jon, it’s time to come home.”

He didn’t have to say anything more than that. I knew what had happened. That’s the funny thing about cancer. You know that one you love is dying, and they’re going to get there eventually, but when it happens, it’s still as shocking as a heart attack or car accident; the only difference being that you tried to plan ahead for death only to find that there is no plan to understand how badly it hurts when the end finally comes.

Once I got home I was told to go into the room where dad was and “take one last look”. Dad was lying in bed dead, eyes still open looking at whomever was sitting there when he died and I was sitting there now. His body was so wasted, so skinny, but his eyes still seemed full of life. I remember those dead eyes to this day, so full of love, and when I sat there, I felt that love.

That feeling is in stark contrast to my relationship with my father. He was an alcoholic, a smoker. I have no doubt that both contributed heavily to his death. He was rarely in my life; he was either working, or at the bar, or somewhere else that I can only imagine. There were a few times when he realized he was ill that he took me fishing as if it were a gesture to give me part of him, as he knew the only pieces that I had of him were bad, and he tried hard in that short time to make up for it.

I was given a few minutes, and then told to leave the room, with no guidance as to where to go. I walked outside, and looked up at the sky. Western Nebraska clouds were flowing by, moved by western Nebraska winds, and I wanted them to stop, if just for a moment. I wanted time itself to just wait, just a moment, just a moment for me to understand what had happened.

I looked up at the heavens, and I asked God, that if he were there, could he could stop the motion of the planet for just a moment so that I would know he was there.

I waited.

I watched the sky.

Nothing happened.


Western Nebraska clouds continued to flow by propelled by western Nebraska winds, not a single one of them bothering to stop for me, not a single one who would change itself to even say hello.

I gave myself another moment.

It was not a long moment.

It was just enough; enough to realize that life goes on. Time is constant. It does not wait for us after a death.

Many might have concluded that God was not there, that there is no God and that my moment of asking was waisted.

That was not my conclusion.

I had already seen the affect that God had on the end of Dad’s life. A few days before he died, he was baptized. Father Hotovy came to the house, baptized him with Mom and I as witnesses, and that point the change in Dad was amazing. It seemed as if a huge burden were lifted from him. He was no longer in pain. In that short time, Mom would walk around the house swearing, while Dad laid in bed, sometimes saying “Praise Jesus”; both of them becoming human beings I did not know nor recognize for at least that short time.

Standing outside, that moment, staring at the sky, I concluded that life would go on. Even though Dad’s death would have a profound affect on my life, I realized that the world stops for no one. Life continues and there isn’t a damned thing we can do to stop it.

I went to school that Monday. A teacher saw me, greeted me at the door and said “Jon, you shouldn’t be here. You should go home.”

I looked at him and replied “Life goes on.”

And that was it.

I realized that life is fleeting, that as humans we spent so much time in small talk, never saying what we really feel. We spend much of our lives, wasting time, trying to make each other feel comfortable with each other, worrying about every possible offense, and way too much time worrying about someone else might think of us. We hold grudges over the simplest offense.

That moment in which God did not stop time has had a profound affect upon my life. It’s left me fascinated with time. I obsess over it. I spend an inordinate amount of time trying to stop it, not because I worry about my own mortality.

This is why I’ve always carried a camera; trying to capture moments when they come, trying to stop time. Sometimes you have it, those moments, the perfect photo, that piece and place together. You seal them in an image and that way you have them forever.

But you cannot have them all. You cannot be both a participant in life and a voyeur. Your first kiss, your baby’s smile, the way a woman’s breast curves in just that certain light, maybe even that one great tackle you made in high school football; these are all all things in which you participate.

The only image I have of my father’s dead eyes is in my mind. It is indelible. The rest, it seems, I don’t want to lose. They are precious, these moments in time. Life is beautiful, one piece at a time.

Husker Stuff!

This year’s #48 is Bryson Krull, a freshman tight end out of North Platte. AND Lane McCallum, a redshirt freshman defensive back out of Norfolk.

There are a lot more than 48 players on this year’s roster.

George Clark coached Nebraska football in 1948. For one season. He was the athletic director from 1945 to 1953. I’m sure there’s a story here, but this is an era of Nebraska football of which no one cares about.

Our beloved Cornhuskers had a 2-8 record in 1948. These were dark times.

Nebraska and Iowa have met 48 times. Nebraska leads the series 29-16-3. At least we’ve got that going for us.