When it comes to his career, former NBC Nightly News anchor Tom Brokaw considers Darold Loecker part of his start.
As a teenager, Brokaw had just moved to Yankton with his family when he landed an on-air show at radio station KYNT. Loecker started at the station as a radio announcer, then became a sales manager and eventually served as the station’s general manager.
“I was just 15 when I started doing a teenage record show shortly after we moved to Yankton,” Brokaw said. “That’s when I fell in love with broadcasting. Later, I worked full time in the summer months.”
Brokaw fondly remembers Loecker from those early days at the radio station. “He was a wonderful presence,” Brokaw said, noting other memorable staff members as well.
In particular, Loecker displayed a dry wit.
“Darold had a wonderful, understated sense of humor. Droll seemed to be his middle name,” Brokaw said. “Those early days at KYNT were so memorable for me.”
Brokaw left Yankton to become a revered journalist, while Loecker remained rooted in Yankton near his boyhood home of Menominee, Nebraska.
Loecker died Nov. 23 at age 86, passing away at Avera Sacred Heart Hospital in Yankton.
A MAN OF MANY INTERESTS
During his lifetime, Loecker established himself as a man of strong religious faith. He was always looking for ways to make Yankton better. He supported causes ranging from health care and church activities to Little League baseball and local history.
South Dakota Magazine founder Bernie Hunhoff noted that Loecker was always searching for ways to build Yankton and the surrounding region.
“Darold was one of those guys who figured he was living in the best place in the world,” Hunhoff said. “And yet, (he) was sure we could make it better yet if we would just do this or that — whether it be a project through the church, the Knights of Columbus, the health care community or the city of Yankton.”
For most of his career, Loecker helped establish and grow an educational agency that greatly expanded health care in the Yankton region.
In the late 1970s, he was appointed the director of Lewis and Clark Rural Health Education and Service agency and served in that capacity until his retirement in the late 1990s.
Established in 1979, the non-profit organization — now known as the Yankton Rural Area Health Education Center — serves a primary 24-county area in southeastern South Dakota. YRAHEC also serves an extended area of 10 counties in the western part of the state.
YRAHEC works with partners to create a sustainable health care workforce in the rural South Dakota service area.
The creation of the organization — and hiring Loecker as its director — were both a matter of good timing, Hunhoff said.
“South Dakota’s rural health care facilities were facing tremendous change and challenges in the 1980s. Fortunately, Darold Loecker was one of the leaders who recognized early that our hospitals, clinics and nursing homes had to work together to survive,” Hunhoff said.
“He had the vision and the social skills to bring competing interests together under a shared mission. He did it with everything from golf tournaments to even publishing a statewide health newspaper called the South Dakota Monitor, which our South Dakota Magazine staff helped him write and edit for several years.”
Loecker used the partnerships as a way to promote health care, Hunhoff said.
“(Darold) felt health professionals needed to be take a more active role, and that they needed a forum for activism and advocacy,” he added.
Loecker advocated for preventative health care before it became popular, Hunhoff said.
“Darold was ahead of his time in promoting prevention and healthier lifestyles — especially seat belts and smoking bans,” Hunhoff said.
“He was a patient man, — a fisherman and mushroom hunter, after all. But I know from experience that his patience was sorely tested by politicians who took too long to see things his way.
“By the time seat belt laws and smoking bans were passed, he was on to the next project or cause.”
WORKING AS PARTNERS
Yankton resident Mike Healy saw many of those same traits during his association with Loecker in health care and other avenues. Healy was employed with the Avera financial administration for about 42 years.
“Darold never talked about how “I’m going to do it.’ He always asked, ‘How are we going to do it?’ He was always thinking about working together with others,” Healy said.
Loecker held a knack for detecting needs and going after the resources to make it possible, Healy said.
“Darold’s talent in marketing was developing a means of delivering services for what you needed — not what he had to try to convince you that you needed,” Healy said.
“An example of this was the 20-30 years he provided, through Lewis and Clark AHEC, health and administrative services to 30-plus hospitals and nursing homes in northeast Nebraska and southeast South Dakota.”
Loecker worked with health care facilities to hire professionals on a contract or part-tine basis, usually sharing the staff with other facilities. In that way, a hospital or nursing home could receive a service which it otherwise couldn’t afford.
Those professional included dietitian consultants, social workers, medical records reviewers, therapists, in-service education, grant writers, staff recruiting, staffing agency resources, financial planning and physician recruitment.
“By sharing a similar service with others, one’s costs were significantly reduced for all,” Healy said. “The traveling specialists, who were all from the area, were paid for contracted hours — not employed full time. Many (of those specialists) only desired to work full time. It was very efficient and effective for all.”
In addition, the AHEC provided continuing education and ongoing training for health care professionals.
Loecker advocated for another method of sharing with group purchasing of supplies, Healy said. The arrangement cut costs and made medical and surgical supplies available for rural areas.
Healy compared the idea to a modern online shopping site.“Darold’s model was Amazon over 30 years ago,” he added.
Loecker ran his office on a shoe string, consisting of only himself and a clerical support person, Healy said.
“Darold was an innovator, delegator, persistent, visionary, doer, creator, entrepreneur, motivator and risk taker,” Healy added.
KEEPING THE FAITH
In addition, Loecker was an active member of the Knights of Columbus (KCs), a Catholic men’s religious and fraternal organization. At the time, Loecker was the youngest state deputy for the Knights of Columbus.
The membership reflected not only his Catholic faith but also provided him with another outlet for charitable work.
“Darold was a major fundraising coordinator for the Knights of Columbus and other organizations. Today, many charities in Yankton receive annual contributions that started with those early efforts,” Healy said.
“Darold also organized the KCs so they would step forward as donors if needed for the blood bank. The members would provide walk-in donors, so the blood bank knew it had a base if needed. That started back about 50 years.”
Loecker showed a knack for soliciting the time, talent and funds for a particular need, Healy said. Loecker didn’t give up after one try.
“Darold had a way of re-packaging the request, and ‘no’ wasn’t an option,” Healy said. “He was still attending three or four meetings right up to the time he died. He was still working to raise dollars for charities.”
In his own way, Loecker even made provisions for needs after his death.
In 2011, he coordinated the centennial celebration for the local KC organization in Yankton, Healy said. Loecker established a way to update the local KC council’s information for another decade, until 2021.
Loecker also sought the Sertoma Club’s backing for an upgrade of ball diamonds to improve local recreation, Healy said. The complex on the east side of Yankton bears the Sertoma name.
Hunhoff described Loecker as a “longtime activist around town.” However, Loecker also loved studying the history of the region where he spent most of his life.
“We shared an appreciation for local history, so about 25 years ago he took me on a day-long tour of several old sites in northeast Nebraska that he knew from his childhood,” Hunhoff said.
“He showed me places like the old Bow Valley Mill, a memorial to the five Wiseman children who were killed in 1863 and the Menominee church and cemetery where his ancestors are buried.”
The two men considered revisiting those same sites a quarter-century later as a “then and now” experience, Hunhoff said.
“Last summer, we talked about retracing our tour to see how things have changed. We both had some health issues, so that return trip never quite happened,” Hunhoff said. “Darold would probably like it if I still went ahead and did it without him, but I’d probably get lost in the Brooky Bottom forest.”
Also, Hunhoff can’t imagine making the trek without his late friend and fellow explorer.
“It wouldn’t be the same anyway without him lobbying me along the way on his latest idea to make Yankton even better,” Hunhoff said jokingly.
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