Thursday, September 13, 2018

My Dad, the Snake Man - Part Three

My dad, Chuck Naidl, with a beaded lizard
at one of his educational presentations about reptiles, likely in the 1950s.
Dad had a cherished beaded lizard for many years.
Although the lizard was eventually stricken with arthritis
that was visible in its spine, Dad tenderly cared for his friend all the way until its death.

This post is Part Three of five posts that will highlight aspects of the life of my late father, Roy Paul "Chuck" Naidl, who dedicated his life to educating people about the value of reptiles in the ecosystem.  He was often referred to fondly as "the snake man." This year, Dad would turn 100. (To view the My Dad, the Snake Man - Parts One and Two posts, please scroll down to July 30, 2018 and August 21, 2018.)

My father was an educator, but he never taught in a classroom, graded a paper or issued a report card. My dad, Chuck Naidl, was an educator who saw his classroom as anywhere and everywhere. My father gave educational presentations about the importance of reptiles in our world. He spoke to audiences, particularly school-age children, across much of the United States for more than three decades. Dad felt that if he could inform, educate and enlighten audiences--especially children, they would lose their fear of these often-maligned and little-understood creatures and come to co-exist with them respectfully and appreciatively.


As noted on this photo, Dad presented this educational program about reptiles
in the gymnasium of the Newburg, Missouri High School.

From the early years of their marriage, my father and my mother, Barbara, spent their summers at the property they purchased in the late 1940s on U.S. Highway 12 south of Baraboo, Wisconsin--a property that would quickly become a reptile farm bearing Dad's name. After busy summers opening their reptile farm to the public, my parents spent the remainder of the year traveling. They appeared at sport shows and presented educational programs in schools, universities and even a prison or two.



In the early years, Dad presented his educational programs about reptiles in schools and at sport shows.
The look on the face of the little boy wearing the striped t-shirt and overalls is priceless.

My parents' travels took them from the Midwest to along the eastern portion of the United States, moving north to south, where Dad presented educational lectures about reptiles. My parents often booked the programs themselves. However, Dad wanted to up his game in the early 1960s, so he auditioned one summer in Lakeside, Ohio to become recognized as an International Platform Association (IPA) member and, thus, move his career into the professional speaker circuit. My father's program was accepted and he began a new chapter in his lecturing journey by being professionally represented by booking agencies located as near as Chicago and as far away as Kansas, Florida and New York.


Dad's business card,
noting his membership in the International Platform Association
as a professional public speaker.

Dad's presentations were often given on stages in big school auditoriums and even more often right on the floor of school gymnasiums, with the audience sitting in the bleachers and on the floor. Those environments weren't conducive to high-tech (1960s-style) presentations, so he relied on his own words and live reptiles to convey his educational message. 

In preparation for his potential IPA membership status, Dad developed a new look for his presentations. Live reptiles were placed in specially outfitted wicker baskets. A T-shaped stand held the hides of snakes that weren't shown live in his program. Cal and Maida Bergner, neighbors of ours on Highway 12 who were professional sign painters, painted a sign that promoted our reptile farm for Dad's lectures. They also lettered in bright yellow a brown burlap tablecloth for a card table on which Dad placed smaller items for his programs. 


In the 1960s, this was how Dad's presentations looked from the audience.
Cal and Maida Bergner, neighbors of ours and professional sign painters,
painted the framed sign and the burlap tablecloth in the photo.

Given the size of his audiences and his desire to truly reach them with his educational message, Dad spent a portion of each show getting close to the audience, allowing them to pet a snake or see a tarantula up close as it crawled up his arm. As you can well imagine, such opportunities to get close to someone holding a snake and even getting to touch its cool, dry skin and muscular body created quite the sensation with the audience.



Dad gets up close to the audience to give them a better look at a snake
that likely could be found right in their own neighborhoods.

My father liked to include in his presentations reptiles from other parts of the country and world, but he also featured those from the areas in which he was speaking. It was important to him to be able to relate his program to the regions of the country where he spoke.

Everything Dad used in his programs fit neatly into a station wagon. Given all of his loading and unloading experiences from presenting three programs per day, Monday through Friday, Dad was adept at making everything fit. He could assemble and disassemble his display quickly. He effortlessly drove in reverse in order to back up to a stage or gymnasium door. Often, older students were assigned to help him load and unload. Some of them got the opportunity to get up close and personal with the reptiles that Dad presented in his program.




Hey, Mom! Guess what I did at school today?

Dad's lecture tours took him from Maine to Florida, the Carolinas to the Rockies, the Upper Midwest to the panhandle of Texas. Along the way, he met many interesting people, often the very teachers who taught in the schools where he lectured. Dad's tour took him to Texas during my third-grade year. We spent my Thanksgiving break hunting diamondback rattlesnakes on a ranch owned by a teacher Dad met while giving his program. By the time I entered kindergarten, I had traveled through at least 15 states, all because of my father's career and the opportunity for my mother and me to travel with him.



Using a chalkboard, Dad explained to audiences the differences
between the heads of poisonous and nonpoisonous snakes.

Dad's programs were always given exceptional scores by his audiences. His lecture "report cards" were pretty much straight A's. His lectures were also memorable. I recall a teacher from my hometown of Baraboo, Wisconsin telling me several years ago about a conference she had recently attended in Atlanta. A fellow conference attendee from a faraway state commented that she was familiar with Baraboo because she had seen Dad's program at the school where she taught many years earlier and she remembered our community as the home of "the snake man."



Dad had a way of wowing his audiences,
as evidenced by the expressions of the children in this school audience.

A few months ago, I received a surprise message from my dear friend, Pam, who now lives in North Carolina. She was at her local veterinarian's office with her dogs when, as she put it, "The vet warns me that snakes will be out soon and to be aware. So, I mention that my best friend's dad was a herpetologist. He asked where and I reply Wisconsin. He says that he knew of some (herpetologists) in Florida but was surprised about Wisconsin. I explain your dad went around to schools doing educational lectures. He then proceeds to tell me his daughter had a similar lecture she attended in grade school. He has the picture on his desk. Sure enough, the man in the picture with this gaggle of kids was none other than your dad!! The vet and I both had this weird wow moment. It was back in the 60s." 

It touched me deeply to know that my father's positive, instructive message about the value of reptiles in our ecosystem continues across the miles and decades.



Dad delivered his program at his alma mater, Washington High School
in Two Rivers, Wisconsin on October 12, 1962.
From the looks on the boys' faces, Dad's message must have resonated:
Replace your fear of reptiles with knowledge, understanding and respect.
They are interesting creatures who can teach us. There is a place for all of us on this earth.

In addition to Dad's lecture tours, our reptile farm was open most days of the week throughout the summer. There Dad, Mom and I took turns giving educational and experiential tours to visitors about the reptiles in our care. My father hunted for some of those reptiles himself. At other times, he purchased them from zoos or from individuals. There were also countless occasions when local people would call, asking for Dad to come get a snake that had somehow found its way into their home or barn or well. There were even situations when he would receive a call because someone's pet snake, lizard or alligator had grown bigger than the owner had expected and it now needed to find a new home. (Take that to mean our reptile farm.)


Dad climbed the Baraboo Hills many times over the years in search of reptiles
to study and present in his programs,
for television appearances and at our reptile farm.
He can be seen in this photo wearing snake-proof boots and carrying snake tongs,
so that meant he was looking for rattlesnakes.
Note the ease with which Dad appears to walk down the boulders.
Mom used to say that Dad could climb up and down the bluffs "like a billy goat."

During the summer months when our reptile farm was open, Dad also presented his programs to children, youth and teens at Camp Upham Woods, a 4-H camp located in nearby Wisconsin Dells. The programs would take place in the evenings after our reptile farm was closed for the day. Dad, Mom and I would make an adventure out of it, often driving through busy Wisconsin Dells to see if there were still any vacancy signs on the motels and ending our evening with root beer floats in frosty glass mugs at the nearby A&W stand. The smell of the campfires, the scent of the pines, the beautiful surroundings of Upham Woods, and the interesting professors and University of Wisconsin-Extension professionals who became our family friends were an important part of my happy childhood summer memories.


Dad spent summer evenings presenting his educational programs
at Camp Upham Woods in Wisconsin Dells.

During the summer months, Dad also regularly appeared for many years on Stan Bran's Outdoors Calling, a popular television program for outdoor enthusiasts produced in Madison, Wisconsin. The show aired on Madison's NBC affiliate, WMTV (now also known as NBC15). Stan Bran was rather afraid of snakes, yet he and my dad presented wonderful television programs together over the years and you could tell that through their friendship, my father had helped Stan's fear of snakes lessen some. 


From left, my late mother, Barbara Naidl; my dad, Chuck Naidl;
and the host of Outdoors Calling, Stan Bran.
Outdoors Calling was a popular, locally produced program in Madison, Wisconsin
that aired on Saturday afternoons for many years.
Note that Mom and Dad are not only holding snakes,
but also flashlights provided by one of the show's sponsors, Rayovac.


It was always exciting to go to the TV station for one of Dad's appearances. He was usually featured on Outdoors Calling three times each summer. For many years, the programs were live. In later years, they were live and taped. I am fortunate to have a DVD of Dad's final two programs with Stan Bran. After so many years since his passing, it is a blessing to be able to hear my father's voice and watch his mannerisms. 

One Outdoors Calling program each summer would generally be dedicated to poisonous snakes. The station's crew even built a special glass-enclosed area in which Dad stood so that the poisonous snakes could be presented safely but still be easily seen on camera.



The glass enclosure at WMTV allowed for poisonous snakes,
such as this timber rattlesnake seen in the left foreground,
to be seen on camera while ensuring everyone's safety.
Dad is wearing his snake-proof boots and using snake tongs.

Mom would often be featured with Dad on Outdoors Calling as the trusted person handing him each reptile as he talked about it on camera with Stan Bran. I even had the opportunity to be that assistant to Dad every now and again. Such fun memories.



I love this particular photo: the vintage television camera circa 1950;
the show's host, Stan Bran, looking at his notes;
Dad in his snake-proof boots so that his pants looked like jodhpurs;
and Mom, all dressed up, complete with high heels.

On the last evening of my mother's life, I was alone with her, seated by her bed, witnessing her move more and more toward death. After such a wonderful life with my parents, I was now about to become an orphan in my mid-50s. Dad had been gone for 30 years and Mom was now about to join him. I silently asked my dad if he could give me some sign that he was there with us, that when I eventually let go of Mom's hand, he would be there to take it. In Mom's hushed and darkened room in the skilled nursing facility where she lay dying of cancer that evening, the staff had turned on the television to an easy-listening music channel. As I sat there, asking Dad for a sign of his presence, I suddenly realized that the piece of music that came on the television was the theme song from Outdoors Calling. I smiled through my tears, feeling confident of Dad's presence. He had indeed provided me with a sign and I knew that the three of us, our little family unit, were together in that space--each of us in our own form, our own way, but still and always together. 

My mother died on this day, September 13, in 2011 at age 85.



On the set of Outdoors Calling in 1957.
As always, Mom is by Dad's side and looking lovely in her skirt and pumps.

My father's adult life, whether lecturing in schools across much of the United States, giving a tour at our reptile farm, presenting at Camp Upham Woods or being a local television personality, was spent exactly how he wanted it to be spent: educating people about the value of reptiles so that they wouldn't look upon them with fear, but rather with appreciation, understanding and respect. Dad believed that humans could co-exist with reptiles, that we were all placed here for a reason. It's no wonder that years after they first heard his program, people would still remember "the snake man."



Dad, creating quite the sensation with his boa constrictor at a sport show circa 1950.



In next month's installment, posting on October 2 at 9:00 a.m. central time, I'll explore Dad and Mom's life together. Although she enjoyed her own career, my mom helped make my dad's career what it was. See you then.

2 comments:

  1. What amazing stories and photos! Your father lives on in these wonderful memories you've shared.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thank you so much, Kristie! It's been a wonderful experience for me to probe into my memories to share his story. I am fortunate to have such a rich archive of photos and illustrations. Thanks again!

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