Herald and Journal, Nov. 22, 1999

War veteran, truck driver, Santa Claus ­ now high school graduate

By Andrea Vargo

A natural Santa Claus laugh, warm, twinkly eyes, and a thick mop of white hair: no wonder little kids run to Kenneth Conrad in restaurants and on the street to tell him their wishes, year a round.Ken Conrad

Although the Biscay native has a host of other things to tell, the first and most loved is the fact that he looks like Santa Claus.

Conrad is a retired military man and truck driver, and now a high school graduate.

He was awarded the first honorary high school diploma to a veteran in the area by the Howard Lake-Waverly-Winsted School District, Nov. 11, during the Veterans Day program.

While he was a trucker, driving all over the country, he was known nation-wide as Santa Claus by other truckers.

He even dressed in a red suit, while driving his truck and talked to children wherever he stopped.

Recently, while eating at a Perkins restaurant (in his street clothes), a little girl came running across the room yelling, "Mommy, it's Santa Claus."

The little girl would not be content until Conrad held her, so she could tell him all the things she wanted for Christmas.

Everyone in the place got a laugh, and a tiny tot was very happy, he said.

Conrad said he tried working commercial stores, once. A Santa can get $1,000 a day in Nevada, he said.

He didn't like it at all, and sticks strictly to local events.

He only plays Santa for children. The only exceptions are senior citizens' and church events.

He said it is somewhat strange to have children he held as babies come back with their own children to see him.

Being Santa has its advantages, according to Conrad.

One night, about 1 a.m., he was coming home from a Christmas party, dressed in his red suit.

Conrad was driving a borrowed car and had his reindeer going about 90 miles per hour, he said.

A state trooper stopped him. Conrad got out of his car, and the trooper's mouth dropped open.

Santa got a warning, but everyone in Hutchinson knew the trooper had stopped Santa for speeding.

Since many people know Conrad as Santa, he got a bit of ribbing.

High school diploma

Conrad applied for an honorary high school diploma from HLWW, after the school board approved the state's offer to provide diplomas for veterans.

"I've always wanted one," he said.

He volunteered for the army in 1943, when he was 17 years old and not yet out of high school.

He attended the army's armored school in Fort Knox, where he was first in his class.

Conrad ended up being an instructor there at one time, during his service years.

The end of World War II found Conrad in Plzen, Czechoslovakia.

A prisoner of war camp located there was stacked with bodies, covered in lime, he said. This was May 8, 1945.

Luckily, his outfit moved on through, and another was responsible for the clean-up and care of the remaining Russian and Polish prisoners.

Conrad's ancestors came from Germany, and on one street in one of the towns, he said he got the strangest feeling.

"I felt I'd been there before," he said.

Then, on one of the buildings, he found the name, Conrad.

After that, he was shipped to Japan. His outfit was on a ship, following a typhoon across the ocean to Japan.

"We were supposed to be an invasion force," he said.

Two or three days after the war ended with Japan, his outfit landed.

Conrad was in a reconnaissance division with armored cars and half-tracks, he said

Recon does the sneak and peek stuff for the infantry division, he said. The work was done mostly on foot or in a Jeep.

At one point, the jeep's machine gunner was killed, and Conrad drove the Jeep to safety from the floor of the vehicle, he said.

Korea

"Korea was better, even though I saw quite a bit of combat," said Conrad.

"We were attached to a Turkish Brigade (about 10,000 troops).

They were all volunteers, because they could get paid $5 a day in Korea. In Turkey, they didn't get paid anything," he said.

Since Korea is a peninsula, the front line was from coast to coast, explained Conrad.

There was a sharply defined combat zone, and anything that moved in it got shot at, he said.

The Turks didn't drink at all, said Conrad, but one night, they set a lot of bonfires on a ridge line and pretended they were drinking and partying.

Slowly, they drifted off into the brush, leaving just a few that could be seen sleeping by the fires.

The Chinese troops came in to kill them, and the Turks closed the ambush. Most of the Chinese were killed, said Conrad.

Vietnam

In Vietnam, Conrad was in an ammunition ordnance division.

He got blown out of bed one night when the Viet Cong blew one of the ammo dumps, he said.

It was about four miles away, and about 5,000 tons of ammo exploded. Conrad landed on the floor.

Working in an ammo dump was a little hairy, he said.

Maybe getting a haircut could have been just as bad. A barber for the base was later shot as a Viet Cong, said Conrad.

Changing military

When Conrad was in World War II and Korea, there were very few drugs used, he said.

In Vietnam, it was a different story.

Some of the dope users would shoot themselves in the foot to get sent home, Conrad said.

Those changes were also quite evident when Conrad made his last tour of Germany.

Before, when a person had any kind of rank, he was always available. Here, people treated it like a job they could work from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m.

Also, officers were not allowed to go in the barracks to wake anyone up.

This time in Germany, Conrad was in charge of a maintenance section, the Cold War was still going on, and he took troops out on a maneuver.

Most of the troops rode in the back of transport trucks equipped with heaters.

Conrad had to ride in an open Jeep with no heater. He chose a particular soldier to ride with him as his maintenance person.

This guy's uncle was a congressman, and the next thing Conrad knew, he was the subject of a congressional investigation.

The investigator wanted to know why he made the poor soldier ride where there was no heat.

Conrad said he needed a maintenance person. He didn't say anything about the soldier being a known pot smoker, which might possibly have been the reason that soldier was chosen.

The investigator dropped the charges.

Conrad retired March 1, 1971 after 26 years of service.

Home again

Conrad was born in Biscay in a house that used to stand where his home is now.

The house is built of salvaged lumber from the old one, with only about a half dozen 2x4s that are new.

Conrad and his wife brought many things back from Germany, and about 200 of those were antique clocks.

When they needed money to finish the house, none of the banks would give them a loan. Bankers felt Biscay was not a good place to build, said Conrad.

The Land Bank finally loaned them the money, and they sold clocks to make the payments, he said.

Conrad started driving trucks, when he came home from military service.

First, he drove a milk truck, and his last job was with Sterner Lighting Systems, Inc. in Winsted.

Conrad made it through three wars, but almost got killed driving a truck.

He was on the interstate, just south of Ames, Iowa. It was snowing heavily, he said.

Another truck side-swiped his. Conrad's rig went off the road, through a barbed wire fence, and down a 35-foot embankment into an ice-covered creek.

Three young ladies witnessed the accident and went to report it.

"It was a good thing they came back," said Conrad.

The heavy snow obscured his tracks through the fence, and the police thought there was only one truck and some cars involved.

The girls and some others make a human chain through the snow storm. They discovered some of Conrad's scattered load beyond the fence, and one of the young boys that was helping, looked over the bank of the creek and discovered Conrad floating on a chunk of ice.

He was "pretty well busted up," he said, and remained unconscious for a week.

Conrad doesn't remember anything about the accident, other than what he was told.

He apparently unbuckled his seat belt and crawled out of the truck.

It took two years to recuperate, and Conrad was back to driving his truck.

Retired

Conrad and his wife, Agnes, look forward to the holidays. Agnes said that she handles the bookings for Santa, and usually gets him from one to the other on time.

Now that he has a cell phone, it is easier to keep everything organized, she said.

Conrad is known as the "real" Santa by local people. One small boy saw him on the street in his street clothes and said to his mom, "It's him, Mom. It's really him."

Small children can't be wrong on something like this, can they?


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