Bob Case retired as general manager of the Kingfisher Cooperative on Jan. 1, 1991 and hasn’t been back. But a telephone conversation proved he still has a good sense of the business.
We know Bob through his late-wife Velma’s fine history of the Kingfisher operation. They came to Kingfisher in 1967. By that time, the cooperative had a long history and Bob already had significant experience running things.
“I started out with management in Red Rock when I was 25 years old,” he says. “I was the youngest co-op manager in Oklahoma. They didn’t have people 25 years old managing cooperatives.”
The Cases went from Red Rock to Rogers, Ark., to run a poultry cooperative that was in ruinous competition with Tyson. A year later they moved to McPherson, Kan. The large co-op there had three different locations with a grocery market, grain elevator and mill, and large petroleum operation–the largest in Kansas, he recalls.
With Bob’s parents in their 80s, he wanted to get back to Oklahoma. The Kingfisher job came up, and the co-op board was ready to hire him on the spot. The co-op was “about to go under” after three years of losses. He took a little pause during the interview to let things cool off.
“I went outside for about 20 minutes. When I came back, they asked, ‘Would it be all right to have a used pickup to drive instead of a new one?'” This reduction of the offer didn’t stop him from accepting the job.
“The first full year, we made money. I built a spirit within the community to make them realize they had to work together to get things done.” Bob instilled the same spirit into the employees. They wore uniforms. The facilities received new paint.
There were two grain elevators. The south elevator, which we take to be the 250,000-bushel Tillotson house erected in 1946, was seamed in three locations where the continuous pour had evidently stopped, and of course there were leaks. To fund construction of this elevator, the co-op had reincorporated for $130,000. Then the existing 34,000-bushel elevator was knocked down.
“The old elevator was wearing out,” Velma writes in her 50-year history of the Kingfisher Cooperative Elevator Association published in 1984. “It had started leaning badly, making it necessary to fill the bins carefully and to distribute the weight evenly. Otherwise the cups would bind, and the cantankerous old machinery would refuse to budge.”
One of Bob’s first matters was to fix the big concrete elevator. “We had a company come in and go around and seal those places. I don’t recall what it was. It probably would be Gunite. The biggest problem was, they had that leakage of course, but also a manager who allowed wet grain to come into that elevator.” Instead of moisture content below 13 percent, Bob guesses it was more like 15 percent. “That’s going to spoil every time. It was very damaging and expensive to get rid of all that.” Greater care was used from then on.
“We tried to keep them running in good shape all the time. As we expanded we took in the flour mill that was just north of us.” The larger elevator not only provided the most storage but also handled grain faster. The first elevator, which wasn’t used as much afterward, was reserved for grains other than wheat.
While Bob was immersed in business, Velma wrote for the newspaper in Kingfisher. Her popular, regular features included a cook’s page and a long series of interviews with people 90 years old and up. She also taught music at a Catholic school.
The Kingfisher Co-op grew and expanded, becoming the largest fertilizer dealer and leading supplier of agricultural chemicals in Oklahoma, Bob recalls. All this volume of business led to its becoming one of the largest cooperatives in the state.
“I had made a prediction,” Bob says. “We’ve got to become larger to become competitive. We would have five to six major cooperatives in state of Oklahoma.”
And in fact, he sees fewer and fewer cooperatives all the time–and they’re regionalized. The collapse of Farmland Industries in 2002 “destroyed a lot of smaller and even larger ones that were invested them.”
Bob lost Velma to a heart attack on June 29. He is 90 years old and, as he says, “still active.” On Thanksgiving he hosted 23 people, providing a “huge ham and turkey.” Family support has sustained him, he says. “They’ve been very comforting to me.”