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1915 - Wyoming full of interestng facts and figures

There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies, and statistics. – Mark Twain


         You could always find lots of cars and trucks around my home.  I am an admitted car nut and just love vehicles of all kinds.

         Perhaps out here in Wyoming it is a throwback to a time when your wealth was tied to the number of horses you had. And if wealth were connected to the number of cars you own, my friend Joe Kenney would be a multi-millionaire.  I think he has ten vehicles, two motorcycles, and an airplane at last count.

         I am down to an old Ford Excursion, a six-year old Lincoln and a 17-year old hail-damaged Lexus convertible.  Oh yeah, we also have a 14-year old motorhome.

         So here is my question for all of you: Wyoming has 579,315 people.  How many cars and trucks are there?  Do you think there are more vehicles than people here in Wyoming?

         Our local Fremont County Commissioner Mike Jones sent me the current most updated 2018 statistics from the United States Census Bureau, which measures all these things. It has some surprising info about my own county and even more surprising data about the state of Wyoming.

         If you guessed that, yes, Wyoming has more vehicles than it has people, you were right.  The 579,315 people in the state own 603,717 licensed cars and trucks.

         People (especially wives) repeat the old saw: “The only difference between men and boys is the cost and size of all their toys.”

         Toys? Yeah, here in Wyoming, we have toys. And most of them are registered with the state government.  Besides cars and trucks, we have 294,164 “other” vehicles.

More importantly, this total includes trailers, lots of trailers. Including RVs, this amounts to an astonishing total of 207,413 trailers. It also includes 26,144 motorcycles.

         Snowmobiles, boats, airplanes, and ATVs are not listed in this total but obviously would add big numbers if they were.

         Wyoming people drive more miles per year than folks in any other state. That average is 16,800 miles for every man, woman, and child. Amazing.  No wonder my tires keep wearing out.

         These miles are traveled on our 30,430 miles of highways and roads in our state. Of this total, 6,075 are federal.  Did you know that the longest highway in America is US 26?  Closely followed by Interstate 80, which I believe is the longest interstate highway in the country, stretching from New York City to San Francisco, closely following the route of famous US 30 Lincoln Highway.  It was Honest Abe who first proposed this national road along about 1863, when he was pretty much preoccupied with the Civil War and getting the transcontinental railroad built.

         In Wyoming, we like to brag about our low taxes but the state collected $686,766,223 in sales and use taxes.  That is a pile of money.

         Property taxes collected across the state amounted to over a billion dollars with a total of $1,344,432,107.  

         My columns are limited to 750 words so I have to cherry-pick items here.  It would fill a whole bunch of pages to write about all of this detail.

         In my business career, after starting out as a reporter and ad salesmen, I developed a love for data and numbers.  This surprised everyone. To me, numbers are not just numbers – they tell big stories.  I used to love the early IBM advertisements for computer systems where they pictured businesspersons pondering spreadsheets. The caption read: “Not just data but reality.” Just love that concept.

School statistics could take up an entire column.  There are 48 school districts in Wyoming with one-sixth of them in Fremont County.

There are 355 schools located from one end of the state to the other. There are 7,248 teachers and 736 administrators. According to these reports, there are 6,884 other staff to help keep things going.

Total enrollment is 93,647 students.  We have a graduation rate of 81.7 percent. The composite ACT score for juniors in high school was 19.5 in 2018.

Total general fund expenses for education were $1,493,600,712 for a per-student average of $17,694. This is one of the highest rates in the country.  In my county of Fremont (with its eight districts), the average per student cost was an amazing $22,299.

I will wrap this up by sharing that the U. S. Government owns 46,313 square miles out the state’s total of 97,093 square miles. The Bureau of Land Management controls 27,162 square miles of this total.

It is a big place with big numbers.

1914 - The Greatest Generation

The few surviving members of the Greatest Generation from Wyoming who fought in World War II are now nearing 100 years old or even older.

         A few weeks ago would have marked my dad’s 100th birthday. He died 19 years ago and was proud of his service in World War II. He has been on my mind a lot lately.

         He was an Irish Catholic businessman in a little town in Northeast Iowa most of his life.

         But he always said he spent 13 of the most fun years of his life here in Wyoming. He moved my mom and three youngest siblings to Lander in 1978.

My three youngest brothers, Jerry, Ron, and Don graduated from Lander Valley High School and also the University of Wyoming.  Ron works in Cheyenne as executive director of the Wyoming Education Association. Although she did not go to high school here, my sister Susan Kinneman is a teacher in Fort Washakie and lives in Riverton.

         Our mother will celebrate her 95th birthday in Broomfield, CO.

         But back to my dad. 

         He was a member of the Greatest Generation that served during World War II. He served in the 363rd Engineers Co, which was charged with building camps and bases. “Seems like we always built the Officers’ Clubs first,” he used to joke.

He spent most of his time in Tehran, Iran, and I can remember marveling at a dagger and a sword he brought home along with various dishes, plates, plaques, and rugs.  Many of them had “Persian Gulf Command” inscribed on them.

         As a young Iowa kid he got to see a lot of the world.  He sailed across the Pacific on a voyage that lasted 57 days.  He visited Egypt twice and among the family heirlooms are photos of him in front of the pyramids.    

         Perhaps the most exciting part of the war for him, after four years, was getting out. The guys in his unit were afraid they would fight with Japan. But each day, a certain number of guys would be given their discharge slips and would head home. 

         Finally, he got his.

         He boarded a plane and flew with stops at Cairo, Tripoli, and Casablanca before boarding a C-54 for a flight back to the states.  Once in Miami, he got on trains that took him back to his home in Wadena, Iowa. He arrived there on July 6, 1945.  (I might point out that I was born eight and half months later – the first real baby boomer!)

         Dad described his service in WW II as,  “A million dollar experience that I wouldn’t give 10 cents to experience again.”

         I remember dad as a very honest person.  He always emphasized that we must never lie. When I was growing up at home, he emphasized to me that I had never lied to him.

         On one occasion when I was about l2, one of my brothers had pulled some stunt. I don`t remember what it was, but I remember the aftermath like it was yesterday. 

         Dad called me aside and firmly told me, "Bill, I know you`d never lie to me.  Now, look me in the eye and tell me what you boys have been up to."

         I don`t remember what I told him, but I do remember I looked him in the eye and I lied!

         So what kind of man was dad?  I would say he measured up pretty well if you note the unconditional love given him by his wife Betty for nearly 60 years.

Dad was an Irishman.  He had freckles and always a twinkle in his eye and a great sense of humor.

         In his old age, he had become the perfect grandfather figure. He could tell you exactly which of the kids or grandkids were travelling and he would monitor the weather and say prayers to get them safely where they were going.

One of my forever visions of him is seeing him asleep in his favorite chair with a little baby also asleep on his chest.

My dad was a man of high principle, lofty ambitions, and passionate political beliefs.  He stressed education to his children and pushed them to achieve their highest potential.  It is interesting that at the time of his death in 2000, his 11 kids had accumulated 44 years of college education – an average of four years per child.

Finally in 1978 with the Iowa economy crumbling, dad left that pretty Iowa valley and moved west to Wyoming. We were sure glad.


1913 - The murder story of Gerald and Alice Uden

Some unsolvable and heinous Wyoming murders were the topic of a cover story of People Magazine a couple of years ago.  They were even the topic of a biopic TV cable program that features unsolved murders.

         The murders of Riverton’s Virginia Uden and her two sons back in 1980 was a 34-year mystery that appeared to be the ultimate mystery.

         Casper native Ron Franscell has written Alice & Gerald: A Homicidal Love Story, which is on sale across the state this month.

         Franscell, 62, is a fantastic author.  His prose is among the best I have ever read. His writings about Wyoming are just wonderful. He now lives in San Antonio, TX.  Prior to that he was a national award-winning editor and publisher of the Gillette News-Record.

         His books The Darkest Night and The Sourtoe Cocktail Club are two of the finest books I have read in the last twelve years.  The first one is about horrific murders of two young sisters in Casper; the second is a personal memoir that tugs at the heart of any man with a son.  He has written 13 books.

         But back to the Udens.

         I am close to this situation because Virginia was a part-time employee when we owned the Lander Journal.

         Franscell has put together a mini-tour around Wyoming from April 10 to April 15. He will be signing books and in some cases, making a presentation.

         One of the best bookstore owners in Wyoming, Vicki Burger from Wind City Books in Casper, has been accompanying him, handling book sales.

         Franscell’s schedule had him in Casper April 10, Cheyenne April 11, Riverton and Lander April 12, back to Casper April 14, and in Douglas April 15. 

Franscell seems to have had unparalleled access to Gerald and Alice and to law enforcement officials working on the case.  He paints a vivid picture of how Virginia Uden and her two sons were murdered. The detail included in the book is amazing and close to home, since so much of it occurred in Wyoming.

         However this mystery seemed destined to be perpetually unsolved. Then, just like that, it was solved.

         And the answers to all of those one-third of a century-old questions are as horrible and grisly as anyone could have possibly imagined.

         Gerald Uden was a worker at the U. S. Steel iron ore mine at Atlantic City, some 25 miles south of Lander in the Wind River Mountains.  Co-worker Kim Curtis remembered him as being  “scary.”

         Virginia must have seen something in the guy as she was married to him for six years.  Uden even adopted her two sons.

         Five years ago, if you were watching TV or reading the newspaper, you knew what happened next.  The story was on CNN, ABC and The New York Times among all the other state and national media outlets.  The story was impossible to ignore; if you proposed to write about the Uden crimes as fiction, the story would not sell because it is so unbelievable.

         Gerald Uden and his new wife Alice both worked at the iron ore mine on South Pass.  As it turned out, Alice had earlier murdered her 25-year old husband and dumped his body down a mineshaft in Albany County.

         Then they conspired to rid Gerald of his obligations.

         An acquaintance of Alice’s, who worked with her at the mine, reported that Alice was always complaining about Gerald never having any money because he had to support Virginia and her boys. Thus, money appears to be the motive for the taking of these three lives.

         On a fall day in September 1980, Gerald Uden convinced Virginia and her boys to meet him in Pavillion, Wyoming, for some target practice.  He waited until Virginia and Reagan had their backs turned to him and shot them both in the back of the head. He had to chase down Richard before shooting him in the head, too

         The photos of the Uden boys may still be appearing on milk cartons.  There were millions of images of the Udens spread across the country over the decades. 

         Officers finally found Alice’s murdered husband’s body five years ago and that led them to her and Gerald, then living in Missouri. 

         Meanwhile, Fremont County officers never gave up trying to connect the dots.  Credit also goes to a UW archeologist who, with eight students, spent some awful summer days in 2008 digging around in Uden’s old pigsty in Pavillion, looking for evidence of the Uden bodies.  They were unsuccessful.

         At this point, Gerald Uden, 76, has confessed as has his wife Alice, 79. Both are serving the rest of their lives in Wyoming prisons.

         What happened to the bodies, which was a mystery for more than three decades, is now known. Gerald claims he put Virginia, Reagan, and Richard in barrels and sunk the bodies to the bottom of the deepest lake in Wyoming, Fremont Lake east of Pinedale.

         Franscell has some theories about all this and his book is one that is impossible to put down. If you attend his book signings, you will be enlightened.

1912 - Is the RV life definition of real freedom

It seems like a constant for most people to find themselves, while driving Wyoming’s vast network of highways, being stuck behind some lumbering motorhome. While you are cussing them out, keep in mind that it just might be your old friend Bill making his way down the highway.

         Some eleven years ago, our daughter Shelli convinced Nancy and me to rent a CruiseAmerica Class C motorhome for a week to join them at the Grand Canyon.

         Despite all kinds of stupid problems, we had a ball and were sold on the whole RV life. Soon we bought our own 26-foot Class C motorhome. This is a model that looks like a U-Haul truck with windows. We put 10,000 miles on it in two years. Then we felt the need to upgrade. So we bought into the whole enchilada – buying a full-sized Class A motorhome in December 2010.

         We were the proud new owners of a used 40-foot diesel pusher with faded paint and decals that looks like an old Greyhound Bus. It was a 2005 Alfa Gold and we were thrilled. We were also completely stumped about how all the systems worked.

         To make it more complicated, we bought it in Iowa where we were visiting relatives at Christmas. It was minus 24 wind chill. We could not get propane to pump into the coach to run the furnace. Cold?  It was beyond cold. It was like driving a freezer. Did I mention that the heater in the cockpit was also on the fritz?

         We put on all the clothes we could and then fired up the beast. We headed out of there and did not stop for the next 740 miles. We dashed down to Dallas to visit another daughter’s home, where we thought we could thaw out, and find out just how this new rig worked.

         We aren’t the only Wyomingites with motorhome adventures. Tom and Rita Lubnau of Gillette relate the following:

“We have a motorhome and a 1993 Chevy Van, Rita calls Van Helen.   Rita and I, and our two dogs, just returned from a long weekend in Las Cruces, NM, in Van Helen.  

“In October, Rita and our dog Callie, went on a 5000-mile adventure to the East Coast.   While we love the motorhome, the simplicity of living in the old van is attractive, although it does look comical parked between the million-dollar Class A motorhomes in the campground.  Rita’s caption on that photo would be, ‘Which one of these is paid for?’”

         Over the years, we Sniffins have spent some glorious times in our motorhome. We fondly call it Follow My Nose.  The coach works well as a camper but is at its best as a winter home somewhere.

         One fun camping trip included meeting our daughter Shelli, her husband Jerry, and their three boys in Goblin State Park in Utah.  A huge rainstorm came up and they abandoned their tent and joined us. We all enjoyed warmth and comfort inside our big coach while other families were scrambling around in the wind and rain trying to keep their tents from flying away.  That was one of our finest moments!

         As a winter home, it has been wonderful. We started spending a month or so in the winter north of Dallas but discovered that the Polar Express reaches all the way to Texas. We froze up two years in a row in eight degrees one time and eighteen degrees another time. So, we up and headed to Las Vegas.

         Las Vegas is not as warm as Arizona, I have been told, but we love that it is just a one-day drive back to Lander. We tow a car behind the motorhome so we can come and go and leave the rig at a very nice park in Sin City.

         This spring we saw our first snowstorm in Vegas. It was their first snow in 10 years. Still warmer than Wyoming, fortunately.

         Over the past 10 years, we have put 45,000 miles on our two motorhomes and have been all over the country from Texas to California to Washington and Wisconsin.

         We also have been all over Wyoming from Devils Tower to Cheyenne to Evanston and Jackson.  Also everywhere in-between, including Wheatland, Buffalo, Worland, Greybull, Lovell, Newcastle, Laramie, Kemmerer, and Powell.      

         It has been a blast.  So I apologize to those folks who happen to get behind us on a two-lane road somewhere in Wyoming. It is just the Sniffins headed off on another adventure.

1911 - Rachel`s Challenger important to Wyo schools

Earlier this year in opposite sides of Wyoming, students were overcome with emotion as they explored ways to stop school shootings, prevent bullying, and keep fellow students from committing suicide.

         In Cheyenne, Mountain View, and Lyman, the program called Rachel’s Challenge enjoyed a huge success with students, parents, teachers, administrators, and community members.

         With school shootings rates and teen suicides rates both rising across the country, the good work being done by Rachel’s Challenge needs to be promoted.  Luckily, schools all over Wyoming are embracing it.

         The non-profit Rachel’s Challenge organization claims that its good work prevents more than 100 suicides a year and has prevented seven school shootings in its 20 years of existence.

         In Cheyenne, East High students Michelle Puente and Keeley Cleveland promoted the program after hearing about it. “It’s really inspiring to see you don’t have to do big things to make a difference,” Michelle was quoted in a Wyoming Tribune-Eagle article.

         That article also reported that East Sophomore Skyler Eidhead, his face blanched and wet with tears after hearing the program said he recently lost some people close to him. Hearing Rachel’s story gave him a sense of hope.

         Some 20 years ago, the most publicized school shooting in history occurred at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colorado. The first student killed was a 16-year old girl named Rachel Scott.  After her death, her parents found her personal journal predicting her death at a young age and her hope of ways to help people.

In a school essay titled “My Ethics, My Codes of Life,” Rachel wrote that she wanted to start a chain reaction of kindness.

Six weeks later, she was dead, the first of 13 to be killed during the 1999 Columbine massacre.

For students at Cheyenne’s East High, who have grown up in an era where school shootings are at the forefront of national conversation, Rachel’s Challenge brought an unexpected twist to those discussions.

After Rachel’s death 120 miles south of Cheyenne in Littleton, her parents, Darrell and Sandy Scott, began reading through their daughter’s journals and papers, and found proclamations of kindness and compassion. They were so moved by their daughter’s words they began speaking to community groups and student organizations on behalf of their late daughter, using the words she’d put down in her journals as the crux of their message: kindness.

These speaking occasions grew into what is now called Rachel’s Challenge, a nonprofit organization that seeks to share Rachel’s message of kindness with high school students across the country.

They focus on a few key ideas. They ask students to fight prejudice, to intervene when somebody is being bullied, and to look for the best in others. Though inextricably tied to the Columbine shooting, the presentation hinges less explicitly on school safety and more on kindness and its byproducts – safer schools among them.

“It’s about students’ hearts and getting them to that place where they are connected,” said Nate Rees, regional partnership manager for the group. “A direct result of that is less violence in schools.”

Rachel’s uncle, Larry Scott, gave the presentation to East High students Tuesday. He is one of dozens of the group’s presenters, but unlike most, his own children were inside Columbine High School at the time of the shooting. They got out unharmed.

         In a description of how this worked in Mountain View, the principal of the school, Ben Carr, wrote:  “Rachel had written about her desire to reach out and show kindness to everyone, but especially to three specific groups, including special needs students, students new to the school, and students being picked on and bullied.”

         Carr quoted Larry Scott: “He said one particular student who was being bullied reached out to the Scott family to tell them how her kindness and efforts to defend him were directly responsible for saving his life when he decided not to follow through on a plan to kill himself.”

State Supt. of Public Instruction, Jillian Balow, is supportive of the program and has been encouraging schools to use it to prevent bullying, school shootings, and suicide.

         Coincidentally, the biggest donors to Rachel’s Challenge have been Wyomingites Foster and Lynn Friess of Jackson. They gave $2.5 million to the program as a matching grant so more schools can afford to host this amazing program.

         Students who have attended this program in 30 Wyoming schools so far, say it changed their lives for the better.  It makes sense for all schools to use this program.  What a great message!