WWII bomber pilot, Kearney Hub publisher of 20 years dies at 92
Posted: Wednesday, September 17, 2014 12:09 pm
By Mary Jane Skala and Mike Konz / World-Herald News Service
KEARNEY — The newspaper publisher who flew B-25 bombers in World War II and later documented Kearney’s growth with aerial photography has died.
Robert S. Ayres, 92, died late Monday afternoon at Edgewood Vista Assisted Memory Care facility in Hastings.
Ayres was president and publisher of the Hub from 1965 to 1985, but he said his affiliation with Kearney’s daily newspaper began in the mid-1930s when he caddied for Hugh Brown, the Hub’s publisher from 1932 to 1939. Brown’s father, Mentor A. Brown, established the newspaper in 1888.
Ayres’ newspaper career included stints as a carrier, circulation manager, business manager and eventually publisher when he succeeded his wife Jane’s father, Ormond Hill, in 1965.
Ayres delivered the Hub as a teenager. His route was west of the University of Nebraska at Kearney campus and stretched along U.S. Highway 30, which Kearney residents at the time called the “Seedling Mile” because it was Kearney’s first paved section of the Lincoln Highway.
Just as street names and the landscape of Kearney changed, so did the manner in which newspapers were produced. Ayres’ interest in photography provided him a valuable skill as newspapers evolved from pages with mostly headlines and text into more visual formats with lots of photos.
Ayres wrote that when he became publisher, veteran Hub Editor Ed Chittenden wouldn’t allow him in the newsroom because he couldn’t spell. However, Chittenden did allow Ayres to carry a camera for the newsroom, a bulky Speed Graphic.
“He (Chittenden) wanted to make use of the photo skills that Frank Raasch, a local dentist, had taught me as a teenager. That camera was so big I almost had to use two hands to lift it.”
Ayres said collecting photos for the Hub allowed him to build a massive file of 15,000 to 20,000 images. Some of those now are stored at the Nebraska State Historical Society.
According to a 1999 interview, Ayres was about 10 years old when Raasch talked to his young dental patient about photography and planted the seed for a lifelong interest. The boy turned the family’s only bathroom into a darkroom. Later, when he was a bomber pilot for the U.S. Army Air Corps in World War II, Ayres occasionally sneaked a camera along on bombing missions.
He said the wartime images were real conversation starters after the war.
“The photos were great years later at reunions.”
He returned to Kearney after the war and started a flying business with a friend while he finished college. “I took a few more pictures from the air,” he said. “It started an interest because it was fun.”
After earning a business and finance degree at the University of Colorado, Ayres joined the Hub in 1951 as circulation manager. When he wasn’t supervising carriers, he often was aloft, collecting news photos, sometimes of fires or train wrecks, and frequently shooting aerial images of the city below.
When Ayres began as circulation manager, Kearney’s population was a little more than 12,000. Today, 63 years later, the city has grown to 32,000.
The Hub published two books of Ayres’ aerial photos. The first “Kearney from the Sky” rolled off the press in 1999 and featured 104 photos from the 1950s to 1990s.
“This is a unique record for Kearney because of Bob’s interest in photography and being a pilot,” said Steve Chatelain, Hub publisher from 1993 to 2012. He worked with Ayres on the two “Kearney from the Sky” books.
The latest edition with 140 photos was published in 2012 and still is selling at bookstores in Kearney.
“Kearney is surely among only a few communities that can chart their growth with a comprehensive record of aerial photos,” Chatelain said in a 2012 interview about the book.
Ayres said in 2012 his photos of homes, schools, businesses and streets show “how the town was developed, where people live. Now, Google gives us pictures, but back then, there was no Google.”
City officials have used Ayres’ work. His photos hang in banks, in Kearney City Hall, at the Kearney Public Library and at UNK.
“This was just my hobby, but I ended up making a historical record that will be useful to the city,” Ayres said.
In 1965, Ayres became general manager, and then chairman of the board of the Hub in 1970. He was publisher until late 1984 when The Omaha World-Herald Co. purchased the Hub.
Ayres was active in civic affairs during his career. He served many years on the Good Samaritan Hospital Board of Directors and played a role in the drive to purchase Kearney’s old post office to house the Museum of Nebraska Art. Among his interests in recent years was the development of Spillway Park near UNK.
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