Visions of another era: Iconic Greensburg soda jerk, a rare job these days, now retired after tornado destroyed fountain.

Free Mymms coupon Codes

May 18--Sometimes in his dreams at night, Dick Huckriede is still a soda jerk, pouring a customer a Green River or serving up an ice cream sundae.

Reality, however, hits the 79-year-old when he awakens in his Pratt home -- two years after a tornado decimated his hometown of Greensburg, his apartment and his long-time place of work.

For after nearly 55 years of working behind the counter at Hunter Drug's soda fountain, it took an EF5 tornado to get him to retire.

"I'll wake up at night sometimes and think I need to be getting ready for work at the fountain," he said from his senior-living apartment where a few relics of his past that survived the twister are now displayed. "Then I realize, 'No, that can't be right.'"

Huckriede's profession dates back to a simpler time -- when kids scurried into the local corner store, plopped their elbows on the marble countertop with dime in hand, asking for vanilla Cokes, cherry phosphates or a chocolate soda.

The term jerk comes from the motion of jerking the lever to add the carbonated soda water. It's a job rare in the modern era. Soda fountains, once a staple in most drug stores on a town's Main Street, have almost disappeared.

Which is why Greensburg's little soda fountain was iconic, especially since Huckriede himself was a legend.

From October 1952 to May 4, 2007 -- the day the tornado hit Greensburg -- Huckriede walked through the door of Hunter Drug. He was 23 when he first took the job as soda jerk behind the 1950s fountain, and he didn't figure he'd have it too long.

However, years went by, and the first children he served soon were bringing their own children. He had regulars, including Pratt resident W.E. Stewart, who said he never had to have his order taken.

"Dr. Pepper and cherry flavoring," Stewart, a Greensburg native, said of what he'd drink at the counter of Hunter Drug while taking a break from selling Fuller Brush supplies. "I just sit and wait for Dick to serve it."

In 2002, Huckriede celebrated a milestone for 50 years as a soda jerk. The feat graced newspapers across the state, as well national ones, including the Chicago Tribune.

He's appeared in "Ripley's Believe it or Not" and is featured in the book "Soda Fountain Wisdom, Wise Words From the Countertop From All Over the Country," published in 2004. He helped put the town on the map before the news of the tornado hit the national press. And in his honor, Greensburg residents raised money for a life-sized cardboard cutout of his image to be displayed in the town's museum.

Several thousand visitors came to the town of 1,450 each year to see the "World's Largest Hand-Dug Well." Many stopped by to see Huckriede.

Retirement, he said, was never a question.

"I told (owner and pharmacist Jaime McElwain) that I'd call it quits if I started making mistakes," he said. "I was going to stay as long as I could."

On May 4, 2007, he went home for his normal weekend break. He heard storms were coming, but didn't think much about it as he took of his shoes and sat down to read the paper and watch the television.

When the tornado hit, Huckriede, still shoeless, crouched in his closet. When he emerged, the closet and part of the hallway were the only part of his living quarters still standing.

"I was lucky the ceiling didn't drop," he said. "I had to raise the plaster wall to get out. When I got through, I could see that my living room wall wasn't there anymore. There wasn't a front door.

"And I never did find my shoes."

His neighbor, whose apartment wasn't as damaged, loaned him a pair. The two stayed up, talking by flashlight, until rescue crews relocated them to shelters the next morning.

Days later, nephews and other relatives arrived, digging through the debris to rescue some of Huckriede's belongings. Posters sent by Coca-Cola in honor of his 50th anniversary were damaged. His family, however, found a Coca-Cola tray unharmed, as well as a few articles and furniture.

Meanwhile, as Huckriede and his family sifted through the rubble, McElwain and husband Vic began salvaging what they could from Hunter Drug. They had the old soda fountain lifted from the basement where it had fallen during the height of the storm. They also managed to find a few dishes and other miscellaneous items.

McElwain, however, said she was already past retirement age. Rebuilding the old-fashioned drugstore wasn't economically feasible.

"We saved the soda fountain in hopes of putting it in the museum or someplace up town if they rebuild," she said, adding that the life-sized cutout of Huckriede was saved.

Fortunately, it was on display in a Greensburg booth at the Kansas Sampler Festival the weekend the tornado hit.

Sitting in his living room in Pratt, Huckriede said his life has moved on. These days, he spends time taking walks and talking to neighbors in the senior living apartment complex.

The man once known across the country for his profession has faded from the spotlight.

He doesn't miss the fame, the dipping of ice cream or mixing of Green Rivers and cherry Cokes.

"I miss the people," he said. "Everyone was so nice."

Credit: The Hutchinson News, Kan.