One of the city’s characters, Dick Hatfield’s sense of humor still shines

Credit: Bill Lackey

Credit: Bill Lackey

May your days be merry and keen,

and may all your Labor Days be green.

- From “Labor Day Carols,” lyrics by Dick Hatfield

Springfield has its business hall of fame.

But for decades, I’ve entertained the idea of creating a sort of funny business hall of fame, though not solely for comedians.

It would honor the most distinctive characters of every era of Springfield history, the characters people tell stories about over a beer, whiskey, sarsaparilla, latte or Red Bull, depending on their times.

Dick Hatfield, Springfield’s reigning Imperial Debubba, will be honored in that way Friday when an 8-by-10 foot character study of him joins those of boxing legend Davey Moore, silent film star Lillian Gish and world-renown photographer Berenice Abbott on the exterior North Street wall of Mother Stewart’s Brewery.

What’s being billed as a brief, unceremonious ceremony will begin in front of the photo at 5 p.m. during Springfield’s First Friday celebration.

Anticipating all this, I found myself in the Debubba’s lair/study last week in search of a succinct way to describe the special sauce of his humor. I think of it as a kind of an epoxy bond of a debonaire man in a stylish tuxedo with nyuk-nyuk hijinks of the Three Stooges.

I needn’t have worried.

Like a Buddha sitting under an Onion tree, Hatfield himself provided a perfect example when answering my most perfunctory question:

“I’m 86,” he answered, “but I’m reading at the 87-year-old level.”

It’s the very kind of thought that seems to be swirling around the mind of the strikingly handsome and apparently clueless 29-year-old Hatfield in the picture that will memorialize him.

Taken in 1966, it shows him chin in hand, lost in his thoughts while sitting desk in the middle of a phalanx of railroad tracks, seemingly oblivious to the possibility that a locomotive might turn him into a smashed penny for his thoughts.

A hysterical part of the joke is that, at the time, Hatfield was in his first real job as tower operator New York Central Railroad’s train dispatching facility.

Of historical importance is that the word “Hort!” is written on the briefcase at his feet.

It was a staged publicity photo for Hatfield’s appearance on the Dick Curtis’ show on WDTN (Channel 2). Hatfield and others associated with Ohio Air National Guard’s 178th Fighter Wing were invited to appear on the show after the film the station had made of the unit and its family was inadvertently destroyed.

“I got on the show with my silliness,” Hatfield said, a silliness that kept him there “for almost a whole year three times a week.”

What might be called “Hortic Culture” goes back to 1953, the year Hatfield graduated from Springfield Catholic Central. In a visit to Urbana he got a kick out of but didn’t understand why a bunch of guys his age were shouting the word in the streets. On the other hand, he was immediately adopted by them when, in primate-see, primate-do style, he did the same.

It became a club when Curtis asked him on air what it was and Hatfield had to ad-lib an answer. The thing caught on like David Lettermen’s endless repetitions of United Nations Secretary General Boutras Boutras-Ghali’s name and was picked up by the Springfield and Columbus newspapers, making Hatfield something of a celebrity.

After the widely circulated Grit newspaper ran a story, Hatfield said, “People as far away as the Netherlands wanted a membership to the Hort Club. I footed the cost and sent them all membership cards.”

All this led to a job offer from WBLY’s Bob Yontz for a Springfield radio show, a job Hatfield took in part because he was worn out from working night shifts for the railroad, catching an hour’s sleep and heading to Dayton for the morning television show. And, by then, he and Kathy’s first born, Rod, had arrived.

Two years later – just before Playboy Magazine named him among the top 50 Jazz and Pop DJs in the nation, a bigger fish came calling.

“One day, I’m on the air at and I get a call from George Schlatter,” who would produce the television megahit “Rowan and Martin’s Laugh-In.”

Schlatter wanted him to fly to New York City that night to meet with a friend and talk about writing material for him.

“I’ve got one baby and another baby coming in a week,” Hatfield said, “and I’ve got no money at all.”

It morphed into an offer for Hatfield to fly out to Burbank, Calif., once a month, to do comedy writing.

This is about the time “Dick’s Daffy Dictionary” had been published, in which Hatfield showed as fine an ear for the humor of aboriginal Ohio speech as he had for music. Part inspired by his railroad days in which he heard colleagues pronounce Lima as “llama,” it also recorded for history an Ohio variation of German word for thanks (“donkey shane,” my favorite) and informed us all that people with superior skills were said to have “expert teeth” (Hatfield’s favorite).

“I must have talked to (Schlatter) for a half an hour,” Hatfield said. " I didn’t -- I couldn’t do it.”

Asked if he has any regrets, he said no.

Eight years later, having made his mark in radio, “there was a job offer at Benjamin Steel with better hours and much better pay” – pay needed in a family that had three boys. And that’s where he worked until 2002.

Asked if he had any regrets, he said no – without a beat of hesitation.

“I guess the reason is I’ve had such a happy and beautiful life with Kathy and our kids (Rod, Rick and Joe) and all the things they’ve done,” among them, the provision of grandchildren.

Remaining in Springfield also has given Hatfield a chance to sink his “expert teeth” into a variety of things in and for the community he loves.

Since 1972, he’s maintained both his love for music and entertaining as a mobile DJ, by emceeing at scads of community events, including Holiday in the City, and amassing enormous amounts of information and trivia about records.

He’s still considering writing a book about the more than 1,200 weddings he’s attended in that capacity – one that would include stories of children running their fingers through wedding cakes and adults throwing fists at one another to celebrate the arrival of an unwanted guest.

In what might earn him a comedy oddball hall of fame nomination, Hatfield also not only wrote lyrics for Labor Day Carols but had a professional singer perform them to traditional Christmas music he assembled and arranged electronically.

Hatfield showed an even greater dedication to detail in “Beat the Block,” his effort to keep alive the many rich stories of the 103 storefronts that stood at the base of many of multi-level buildings in Springfield’s Core Block during his youth.

For the man who spent his school days at St. Raphael’s; his Saturdays watching cowboy double features at the Fairbanks theater; driving a 1953 Chevy around the block crowded with his fellow teenagers; and earning a “master’s degree in human behavior” at East High Street Billiards, it is a place and time not to be forgotten.

Which brings us to a sincere regret: That while he did use his Kodak Brownie 8 mm camera to film a fake robbery downtown, he didn’t use the same camera to capture all the buildings there at the time.

As the result of all this, the man who two years ago was honored as United Senior Services of Springfield and Clark County’s Senior of the years is “really glad to be immortalized” now in the heart of the city.

To all the people who have contributed their “expert teeth” in making that happen, the Imperial Debubba sends a heartfelt “donkey shane.”

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