During the early summer of 1963 as a small child growing up in Chicagoland, I was fascinated when one day as a construction crew showed up at our suburban home. Right outside the kitchen wall a huge digger began to tear up the ground right next to our house. I watched for hours out of the kitchen window as the hole grew larger and deeper. Over the next couple of days I watched as plastic sheeting, wood forms, and plumbing was put into place. What I remember most though, were the cement trucks coming in and pouring yard after yard of concrete and filling in the hole to make our new “patio”. Now a 5 year old knows little of geopolitics, but from that day on, I couldn’t talk about our new secret room in the basement.
Weeks later our family took a long Saturday drive west from the city to Wheaton, Illinois. There in a small wood frame store were tables loaded with camping gear, cots, lanterns, and survival supplies. As I turned around, a chubby, balding man bent down and stuck out his burly arm for a handshake. I was in shock! Gone was the top hat, red coat and tails. In its place a short sleeve shirt and slacks. His jovial look, chubby cheeks and toothy grin betrayed him though…it was Ringmaster Ned from Bozo’s Circus! (Ned Locke) Not handsome by the Hollywood standards of today, he was a media icon during those early days of TV. To children throughout Chicagoland he and the Bozo show were HUGE!
A little background on Ned Locke. Born in Minnesota in 1919 he first was on the radio at the age of 9. After graduation from High School he became an announcer at Des Moines radio giant WHO. During the 1940s he operated 2 Des Moines area airports training many pilots and served as the Director of Aeronautics for the State of Iowa for 7 years. By 1950 Chicago radio was calling and Ned merged radio with his love for flying by hosting the “Uncle Ned’s Squadron” radio show. His radio copilot during those days was fellow announcer Hugh Downs.
He provided not only entertainment but incorporated teaching, virtue, and patriotism during those shows. A few of the remaining copies of that show have topics such as loyalty or the importance of Armistice Day as the show’s theme. By 1954 he shifted from NBC radio to NBC TV in the Chicago Market. For many years he served as the Santa Claus for the yearly NBC Christmas Specials. By the late 1950’s he came to WGN TV which served as his media home for the remainder of his career.
Meanwhile at the store my parents continued about the place picking out stackable cots, a huge lantern flashlight, a large 50 gallon water tank and a metal device that growled when the crank was turned. At the checkout he talked to my mother and slipped her a few items for us kids. These turned out to be tickets to the Bozo show and were like gold since the waiting time was several years for show tickets. Returning home, the fallout shelter supplies were set up in the secret room. Metal shelves lined the walls and became loaded down with canned goods.
The galvanized tank was set up and filled. The bunk cots were set up and the growler box was placed next to big pipes that stuck out of the concrete wall. Thankfully we never had to use our shelter and decades later when my folks moved, we cleaned out the room leaving only the empty metal tank and the “growling” air blower for the next owners.
Compared to the narcissistic, weirded out entertainers of today, it is truly refreshing to remember a time when many media personalities were God fearing Americans! When he retired in 1976, Ned Locke moved to the Missouri Ozarks to go fishing and golfing. Never one to be idle, he reentered civic service as Park Commissioner, Chief of Police and then until his death Mayor of Kimberling City, MO. Now in my 60’s, in order to verify my fading recollections from about 55 years I called his surviving son and family. They informed me that yes, he had built a fallout shelter in his home and ran a business building them and selling survival equipment in the 1960’s. They gave me permission to tell my story to you all.
About 6 months after visiting the store my sister, mom and myself went to the WGN studios in Chicago and saw Bozo’s Circus. For a 6 year old that was truly a wonderful experience. May you rest in peace “Ringmaster Ned” Truly you were a man who loved kids, his community, his country and was an unsung prepper.