Urban "Punk" Hess
Posted By: Errin Wilker (email)
Date: 2/6/2017 at 12:49:16
"Punk" Hess a Fixture in Lansing
By Ken Brekke
Everyone calls him Punk, a strange name to hang on a nearly 6-foot-tall man who once weighed 275 pounds.
As the years have accumulated, the poundage has dropped, Urban J. "Punk" Hess, who will be 84 on June 1, now weighs a relatively svelte 190.
But his weight never had anything to do with his nickname. "My dad said they found me on a pumpkin vine," Hess recalls. His school chums heard that explanation, "and I was Punk from then on."
That was shortly after the turn of the century, and Hess has been one of Lansing's more visible characters ever since.
He now hold the honored, and self-assumed, position of chief handyman at Thornton Manor, a nursing home on the western outskirts of Lansing, which has grown from its confined location between the Mississippi River and the bluffs by squirting up the valley just south of Mount Hosmer.
Mount Hosmer, which towers over this community and whose slopes allow humans a few precarious perches, may be the only thing in Lansing that is more visible, more permanent, and more enduring than Hess.
Hess, you see, loves this place. He never wanted to leave, and never has. His longest trips have been to La Crosse, and he went there only in medical emergencies.
He also went to Waukon as an 18-year-old to register for the draft just as World War I was winding down. "We were supposed to be there at 9 o'clock, " he remembers. "When we got there, they said we could go home. It was all over."
Hess was born on a farm near Village Creek, a settlement along the old stage road about six miles west of Lansing. "There's nothing much left there now," Hess says.
His family, which numbered five brothers and four sisters, moved to a nearby farm, which is still in the hands of descendants of one of his brothers. Hess worked there himself, mostly cutting, hauling and selling wood, until 1935.
The he operated a rock crusher and pulverizer and delivered lime to farmers, until 1940, when he joined the Lansing Company. "I was the first general superintendent they had. I was the highest paid man they had then...I was getting 50 cents an hour; the rest were getting 25."
On April Fool's Day in 1952, Hess started working as a night watchman for the community, and soon became Lansing's marshal and street superintendent, positions he held until retiring at age 65 in 1965.
Were you a tough cop, Punk?
"Boy was I tough," he says, the gruffness in his voice not matching the twinkle in his eye. "I used to take the beer away from 'em, and drink it myself. I never issued a ticket in my life."
Between full-time work, he also found time to dabble in stone masonry. "Did you see all them rock walls back there," he says, gesturing toward downtown Lansing. "I should have my name on 'em."
Work is still his main hobby. He doesn't have much time for card games or socializing with the other residents of Thornton Manor. You see, there are gardens to tend, table decorations to create, and woodworking that needs to be done.
He has planted roses near the home's entrance, made a windmill, used old buttons to decorate wall-hangings, and has even planted what he calls a roof garden, which promises to beautify the top of the steel tool shed located at one end of his garden out towards Clear Creek, which flows by the home.
Hess is also planting grapes, although he laments that " it takes four years for them to come, I maybe won't see them, but the kids will find 'em."
He smiles frequently, revealing a slight browning about the corners of his mouth from a lifetime of chewing tobacco. He laughs almost as often, even when discussing his medical problems.
He produces a bill from La Crosse Lutheran Hospital. It is for $28,171.17, and covers open-heart surgery and the installation of a pacemaker. That visit also resulted in the loss of the little toe on his left foot, a victim of gangrene resulting from his battle with diabetes. Hess only had to pay $208 on that bill, however, thanks to Medicare.
Two toes were removed from his right foot last summer also, due to the same problem. "I decay quick, and heal quick," he says, peeling off his sock and displaying his scars.
He has no feelings in either leg now. "You could run over them with a wagon," he says, thumping a heel on the floor for emphasis. He keeps a wheelchair nearby for long trips, but is able to scurry about his room, bad knees and all, whenever he wants.
Hess likes to contrast his $28,000 hospital bill with the one he received in 1936, after his gangrenous appendix was removed. That eight-day stay in a La Crosse hospital cost him $150. But, he adds, those old hospitals weren't as well equipped as modern ones. "They only had a cross-cut saw and a double-bitted ax."
His eyes dim a bit behind his thick glasses as he points to one of the many pictures on shelves lining one wall of the dormitory-style room. He says it is his wife, taken when she was a little girl. She died on Jan. 20, 1979. "She just went to sleep one Saturday night," he recalls.
They were married in 1952, when Hess was 52, and they had no children. He was too busy to get married before then, he says. "Besides," he adds, pointing to another old picture and patting his now-bald pate, "look at the head of hair I had then until the women started fighting over me."
Hess is most proud of his homemade wheelchair-wheelbarrow combination. "I could lift a wheelbarrow, but couldn't balance it," he recalls, so he took two wheels from an old weed mower and the seat from an old corn plow, and attached everything to the back end of a wheelbarrow. Now he can roll it wherever he wants outside, and if he gets tired or starts to lose his balance, he simply sits down.
"I can't walk," he says, "but I can sit on my hind end all day and work."
Working is what the full-blooded Dutchman has done best during his four score and four years in Lansing. "I helped build the road up to Mount Hosmer," he says, adding that the road was an improvement over one that was built on a cow path.
That first road, built in 1926, was carved with the help of dynamite charges planted along the route. However, Hess remembered stories about one of those charges not exploding, and not being found either.
Hess found out that old story was true when he was working on the second road up Mount Hosmer, in the 1950s.
A series of small explosions had been set, and they all exploded routinely, "just a poof," Hess remembers. Except for one, which must have been set next to the 1926 charge. That blast launched a rock high is the air, and Hess remembers wondering "where in the hell is that thing going to land?"
He didn't have to wonder long, as it soon crashed through the roof of a nearby house.
Linda Manning, activity coordinator of the nusing home, has been listening intently to this story, and now asks" "Did you get in trouble for that one, Punk?"
"Hell no," he answers through his laughter. "It only cost $12 to fix. You can still see the patch on the roof."
When Mrs. Manning is called from the room briefly, Hess notes that he is happy at Thornton Manor. "You couldn't pull me out of here with a team of horses."
He kept record of his expenses for the first few years in Thornton Manor: he moved into his room near the back and his garden, in 1979, about six months after his wife died. "My money's all gone now," he says, "I'm living on the taxpayer now. But I do a hell of a lot of work around here."
Hess says he was a finicky eater most of his life, but since coming to the home he has learned to enjoy many other foods. "I even eat spinach now," he says, along with many other dishes he once considered inedible. "If my wife had made this, I'd have thrown it out, and her with it, but now I like it."
Hess claims he wasn't so particular about his liquid refreshments though. "I used to drink a case of beer a day when I was working for the city," he says, though Mrs. Manning later notes that some of his stories should be taken with a grain of salt. "He's quite the Punk," she says, noting that he is popular with the other residents and staffers, "but once in awhile he gets in trouble. He's a mischief maker."
Hess shares his room with Leo Strub, who is 1-1/2 years older than Punk, and whose health is failing. He he was a friend for many years. "He was a great coon hunter," Hess says, nodding toward the bed where Strub is lying, seemingly oblivious to what is going on around him. "He didn't follow the dogs; the dogs followed him."
Just down the hall is a room that serves as the home's church. In one corner is a shrine made by Hess, a Catholic. It has figures that Hess changes to match the church's seasons. The home's residents, including Hess, regularly attend services here; although, Mrs. Manning notes, "Punk figures he can afford to miss once in awhile."
But this chat has gone on long enough. Hess decides, "We're gonna be late for dinner, tellin' stories here...and you aren't going to beat me out of my dinner."
As he rolls his wheelchair out the door of his room, and heads down the hall toward the cafeteria, his voice drifts back: "Come again when you can't stay so long."
As usual, Punk has had the last word.
Source: La Crosse Tribune, La Crosse, WI, Late April or Early May 1984
*NOTE* Urban "Punk" Hess died 05 Feb 1987 & is buried in Gethsemane cemetery. His roommate, Leo Strub, died 03 Jun 1984, about a month after this article was published.
Allamakee Biographies maintained by Sharyl Ferrall.
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Allamakee Biographies maintained by Sharyl Ferrall.