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Donovan Ketzler, The Last of the Rough Riders

June 18, 2010 1 comment

1st Cavalry Shoulder Patch

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The subject of this profile, Donovan Ketzler, is like one of those romantic adventurer  figures from a Jack London or Rudyard Kipling yarn. I believe you will find his adventures as a cavalryman and recreational horseman will enchant you as much as they did me. The Omaha, Neb.-based boot manufacturing company he headed for years, Dehner, earned a national and international reputation for the superior craftsmanship of its fine boots.  Its customers have  included heads of state and celebrities of all kinds. The story originally appeared in the New Horizons.

Last of the Rough Riders

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally published in the New Horizons

Sitting astride his pale gelding, Snowdrift, Donovan Ketzler is the very embodiment of the gallant, weatherworn horse soldier of frontiers past. He looks the part too with his leathery skin, cropped mustache, squinting eyes, gnarled hands, erect posture and stern but jaunty deportment. Then there’s the way he uses a nudge of the boot, a tug of the reins and a brush of the riding crop to expertly guide his mount.

The rough rider image he projects is no facade, either.  The 74-year-old retired president of the Dehner Co., Omaha’s renowned manufacturer of hand-made custom boots, is, in fact, an ex-cavalryman. During World War II he served in the U.S. Army’s Cavalry Replacement Training Center at Fort Riley, Kansas, instructing troops in the 1st Cavalry Division and participating in combined horse and mechanized maneuvers on the Great Plains.  He later mule-packed with Chiang Kai-sheck’s Chinese troops fighting the Japanese in Burma and mainland China.

This consummate horseman and inveterate adventurer is the last of a dying breed of men with any link to the rugged cavalry troopers who roamed the American West.  Although his own cavalry days are long behind him, riding is still a large part of his life.

He rides for sport and pleasure today in the hills and river valleys north of Omaha.  He boards his horse at a stable just inside Washington County, near Neale Woods.  “I know Ponca Hills like the back of my hand,” he says.  “We ride from there clear down to the river.”  For him, there’s nothing grander than being atop a fine animal with the sun at his back, a jump looming ahead and a fox on the run.

“I tell you, when you’re on horseback and you get behind a pack of hounds that’s in full cry, you’re just hell bent for leather,” he says in his rough-hewn voice.  “The old adrenalin’s going, you’re flying fences, going cross-country, down ditches, up hills, and there ain’t nothin’ nicer.”

As much as he likes the thrill of the chase, he enjoys watching  animals at work amid nature’s splendor.

“It’s fun working with a horse and seeing success.  And I love to watch that pack of hounds circling and trying to pick up a scent.  One will pick it up and the rest of ‘em will come over to honor it and when two or three of ‘em honor it, why they’ll take off and follow the scent, then they’ll lose it and have to find it again.  To watch those animals working is tremendous,” he says.

Son Jeff Ketzler, who succeeded him as Dehner president in 1991, says his father likes his outdoor recreation wild and woolly. “That’s his favorite thing. He likes to tread where no man has tread before. He always likes it a little bit rougher than I do.”

A frequent riding companion of Ketzler’s is Vicki Krecek, vice president of communications with the Greater Omaha Chamber of Commerce.  She admires his desire to make riding a lively group affair.

“One Saturday he went down by the Missouri River and spent all day making this one trail with all these little jumps, so that it became a real fun, challenging course to ride,” she says.  “He’d really thought it out and done it beautifully.  He got such a kick out of doing that.  I thought it was so neat that somebody would take the time just so we could have some more fun.”

Equestrians feel you can tell a lot about a person by how he/she handles a horse.  While Ketzler insists he’s nothing special —  “I get on the horse, I look like hell, and at the end of the day I get off the horse” — others disagree.  Krecek says: “He’s an excellent rider.  He rides with a real assurance.  And he’s also really compassionate about the horse, even though he’s very much in control. He won’t tolerate bad behavior on the part of the horse, but he has a very gentle hand.  He’s very conscientious of the land too.  We never set foot on anybody’s planted field.”

Krecek also echoes others in describing his bold, macho side.  “He’s definitely a hard charger and he’s definitely very fearless,” she says.  “I can’t believe some of the things he’s done.  Once, we were in a hunter’s pace and his horse refused a fence and kind of reared around, and Van fell off and hit his head.  I said, ‘Are you okay?’  ‘Yes,’ he said.  ‘Well, hurry up, get on,’ I said, because we had another half-hour to ride at a pretty fast pace.  Later on, he said he thought he was having a heart attack because he couldn’t breathe very well.

“I couldn’t believe he would think he was having a heart attack and wouldn’t tell me to stop.  It turned out he had a couple broken ribs, yet he rode that extra half hour.  When he says he’s hurting…he’s really hurting.”

In a lifetime with horses Ketzler’s taken his share of spills and suffered a medical dictionary full of sprains, strains, tears and broken bones.

“He gets himself hurt in the most spectacular ways,” Jeff says.  “When I was a kid he was brought home in an ambulance after a horse he was trying to shoe kicked him in the head, and to this day he has a horseshoe scar on his forehead.  Another time Dad tried to drag my horse Gizmo into a trailer.  He had wrapped the lead shank around his hand, and when Gizmo took off, Dad took off with him.  He always tells the story how he was in a helluva foot race for about 75 feet, but then that lead shank came undone and he fell behind very quickly.  He tore his hamstring and rotator cuff, and busted this and that.”

Ask what’s the most outlandish thing his father’s done, and Jeff pauses, laughs and says, “He’s done so many spectacular things it’s hard to narrow it down to just one.  He’s trained in the cavalry way…you’ve got to be up front, doing it all…and no type of terrain or obstacle will keep you from getting to your objective, and that’s always the way he has been.  Always forward, always going, always full blast.”

Then there are the times, entirely apart from horses, Ketzler’s heeded his fanciful, slightly mischievous nature.  Like his penchant for dropping everything in the middle of the day to go gallivanting half-way around the world.  He’s been known to drag his wife Bette along on military hops out of Offutt — with little or no advance notice — to destinations like Hawaii.

The ever-spontaneous Ketzler once surprised her with the news that in two hours they were leaving that afternoon for Great Britain. “I called her from the office at 2 and said, ‘I’m picking you up at 3 and at  4 we’re going to be gone,” Ketzler recalls.  “Pack what you think you need.  If it’s too much, we’ll throw it away.  If it’s not enough, we’ll buy it.  And it was the best trip we ever had.”

Jeff says his mother, who’s gotten used to such unpredictability, sometimes endures more than she bargains for.  Like the time his father  swept her away to Australia.  Sounds romantic and exotic, right? Except they traveled in the tail section of a C-5 Hercules military transport. “Mom, of course, didn’t like it very much, but Dad had an absolute blast.  He loved every minute of it.”

Ketzler is a restless sort whose rash sense of adventure and wanderlust causes him to fidget if he’s forced to sit very long.  He’s always itching for action.  “If there’s something happening, you can be sure he’s always right in it,” Jeff says.  “He cannot sit down.  He never stands still.  He’s always the first one out during a tornado warning, looking around.”

Donovan Ketzler himself likes telling the story of how as a brash teen smitten with Bette, he took her riding in the bluffs overlooking the Missouri River.  While already an accomplished rider used to the steep terrain, she was quite green.  “We ran these horses to the edge of the cliff and dropped about 40 feet,” he says.  “She was just hangin’ on by the horse’s neck.  She hasn’t been riding since.”

Her swearing off riding the last 60 years didn’t get in the way of their love for each other, as the couple recently celebrated their 51st wedding anniversary.  Neither did she stand in the way of their four children riding.

“She’s as knowledgeable about horses as any woman I know,” Ketzler says, “even if it’s mostly from the ground.”

One thing Bette did disapprove of was her husband’s habit of taking the kids riding on the Sabbath. “We never got to church because we were always out fox hunting on Sunday mornings,” Jeff says. “Dad has always been a spiritual man, but never much of a churchgoing man. He always felt going over a snowy field early on a Sunday morning put him a lot closer to God than he could ever get in any church pew.”

Indeed, whether camping at Custer State Park, riding in Ponca Hills or watching cranes in the Sand Hills, the great outdoors is Donovan Ketzler’s sanctuary and temple.  “I tell you, you get out in the woods and it’s like going to church,” he says.  “You’re really pretty close to your god out there.  You’ve got a good horse under you that you trust and really you just get back down to the basics and forget all about your frustrations.”

Even to this day he searches for new riding epiphanies.  Recently returned from a week-long horseback tour of County Sligo on the west coast of Ireland, he was still beaming with childlike glee over the experience.  “There were three of us that went.  They gave us two saddlebags, a horse and a map apiece and we took off, stopping at bed and breakfasts about 20 kilometers apart.  We were in the saddle about 6 1/2 hours a day,” he says.  “We started in a little village called Grange on the Atlantic Ocean.  Then we rode down the coast along Sligo Bay.  Then we went inland and up to the mountainous areas, then into a wooded area and around a lake called Gill.  We came out on the other side of Sligo Bay.”

The demanding horseman found the trek up to his rigid standards.

“The horses were good, the equipment was fantastic, and the trails and the maps were just exceptional. We lived out of those saddlebags.  I liken it to reliving my youth in the cavalry — going out with the horses in the field.  I was in seventh heaven.  We had a helluva good time.  Absolutely spectacular.”

Upon reaching the last stop, Ketzler and his riding partners were met by their spouses and together they toured, by more conventional means, western Ireland, staying on the Shannon side.

The party took several side trips, including a visit to the site of the Dehner factory Ketzler built and operated briefly in the mid-’70s in the village of Knocklong.  The plant now houses a packaging company.  During Dehner’s brief foray in Ireland, which was foiled by steep labor costs, Ketzler, wife Bette and their sons Jeff and Jon lived there at various times.

Donovan and Bette were most enchanted by the Irish huntsman’s apartment they resided in, located in the stables of a centuries-old manor house belonging to a local dairy farmer.  Ketzler felt at home because the farmer was also the area master of hounds and kept horses on either side of the couple’s apartment. Never one to skip a hunt, Ketzler rode with the hounds over there and has the black thorn shredded boots to prove it.

The failure of the Irish factory is one of the few missteps Ketzler made during his 20 year-reign as Dehner president.  The more than 120-year-old company, which bears the name of his maternal grandfather, C.C. Dehner, has always been a family-run concern.  Ketzler’s father, Harold, headed the firm until Ketzler, who started working there at age 12, took over in 1971.

Ketzler streamlined the operation dramatically increasing the output, sales and profits, and consolidating its hold in the English riding, law enforcement and military markets.  Dehner’s reach has even extended to NASA, making astronaut boots from Mercury to Apollo to the Shuttle.

Among its prominent customers over the years has been former President Ronald Reagan, a longtime rider who began wearing the Dehner brand in 1946 while still a contract motion picture actor.  Dehner boots have been worn by generations of West Point graduates, including Dwight Eisenhower and George Patton.  The always image-conscious Patton collaborated with Ketzler’s grandfather in designing a striking strap model that came to be called “the Patton boot.”  It was worn by the general’s tank troops, and later by U.S. Air Force personnel, including U-2, Thunderbird and test pilots, who came to know it as “the SAC boot.”

While stepping down from the firm’s day to day operations seven years ago, Ketzler retains chairman of the board status and holds veto power.  He keeps an office in the plant, nestled in a quiet residential neighborhood at 3614 Martha Street.  Customers trailing horses cross-country often let their animals graze on the Dehner lawn while getting a fitting or a tour of the plant.  A peek inside Ketzler’s office reveals his old McClellan cavalry saddle on display, walls laden with photos of him riding, inscribed photos from Reagan and Patton and a plaque thanking Ketzler for his efforts in supporting the Omaha Police Department’s mounted patrol.

Ketzler shows up to work every day because, he says, “I still want to know what’s going on.  I still want to get in the swing of it.  But by and large I bite my lip a lot and let ‘em run it.”

Jeff Ketzler says his father applied the same organizational skills and disciplined approach learned in the military to running the business, and the ramrod style paid off.  “When Dad took over I think our production was about 2,500 pair a year, and by the time he retired it was about 12,000 pair a year.  He took a very, very small company and turned into the largest handmade custom boot manufacturer in the world.  Everything was very, very organized.  Everybody knew what they had to do…and it was always kind of his way or the highway.  My dad is definitely a hard act to follow.”

According to Jeff, his father employed a strict hand at home too.  “He’s always been a military-type guy. This is his life, and this is the way he’s chosen to live it.  He reveres those people and, I mean, he was one of ‘em.”

Living a Jack Armstrong adventure as a boy, Donovan Ketzler became exposed to the cavalry way of life accompanying his grandfather on sales trips to army outposts, where the troops adopted the eager lad. Not long after the firm’s 1930 move from Kansas (where it originated) to Omaha, Ketzler and his late sister Janne learned to ride at Fort Omaha and the 113th Cavalry Stables in Council Bluffs.

“Although my family were not military people, I was practically raised in the military,” he says.  “I was thrown in with a group of 7th Service Command officers’ children in a riding class.  I became very proficient at it.   I pretty much had carte blanche with the use of their horses.”

So proficient that by his mid-teens he was riding with the National Guard cavalry troops in Council Bluffs.  “I got in with the officers, and they allowed me to come along on an officers’ ride every Sunday morning.  We’d ride off into the bluffs and just do some hellish things.  I thoroughly enjoyed it.”  By the outbreak of the war the unit was federalized and Ketzler, still a kid, was told to “get lost.”

At 18 he was determined to serve in the cavalry, but after enlisting in 1943 found himself assigned instead to the infantry.  That is until he informed the brass he was already cavalry-trained, whereupon he promptly got his wish at Fort Riley.  He soon became a cavalry instructor.  Although cavalry units in the field had been dismounted, drilling with horses continued, he says, “because it was said a horse-trained soldier was more responsible than straight-legged infantry.  With a horse, you have to take care of it and you accept a certain responsibility.”

Later he went overseas, training “rag-tag” Chinese resistance forces in infantry weaponry (mortars and anti-tank devices) as a replacement to the 124th Cavalry.  While serving with the Chinese Combat Command he largely remained behind the front-lines, but occasionally got caught “in counter barrages.” He explains, “When I was in Burma the planes would fly over and parachute everything in — all the supplies — because they had no place to land.  And of course the Japanese would see these parachutes coming in.  Well, we’d wait about 10 minutes before going out there with our mules to pick up the supplies, and the Japanese would throw mortars in on us.  I lost a mule to shrapnel.”

His Far East duty spurred an appreciation for the region and its people, who endured appallingly poor living conditions and cruelties enforced by warlords.  He says it was a nation ripe for revolution.

Back home Ketzler briefly attended theUniversityof Nebraska-Lincoln before rejoining the family business, marrying Bette and starting his family.  He remained in the army reserves until retiring, as a major, in 1967.  He’s sure he would have stayed in the military if not for the family business.

In his post-war life he ached to see China again but the political situation made it impossible.  He finally got his chance in the ‘70s when the country was opened to foreign visitors.  He and Bette have traveled there several times since, trekking across the Silk Road, floating down the Yangtze River and visiting the back country where Ketzler served in the war.

Other favorite destinations have included his ancestral homeland of Germany and a bird watching haven in a remote Mexican coastal village.

His travels often intersect with his interest in frontier soldiering, an interest he cultivates by reading, collecting vintage weapons, visiting such historic sites as the Battle of the Little Big Horn and wearing reproductions of cavalry uniforms (complete with his own leathermade goods) on River City Roundup rides from Ogallala to Omaha.  While he does not romanticize the “hard, hard life” endured by the troopers, he does feel a strong kinship with them.  “Yeah, I really do.  Very much so. They were cavalry too.”

The intrepid spirit of the cavalry is what keeps him active today.  “We’re survivors.  You gotta have a reason for gettin’ out of bed,” he says.  Just as the horse cavalry’s days were numbered, Dehner will likely close whenever Ketzler’s son Jeff retires.  “This is the last of the line,” Ketzler confirms.  Does that sadden him?  “No, we had a helluva run…a good time.”  And like an old soldier, he’ll just fade away, riding to the setting sun.

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