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A master of his craft

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Ink has run in the veins of printer, journalist and community supporter since he was a boy pushing The Boy Ranger News

By CHUCK POEHLEIN
Guest Columnist

Successful people are always looking for an opportunity to help others. And for some that can start at an early age. For Tell City resident B.L. “Louie” Heitkemper, it started at the age of 12 dabbling with a hand-cranked printing press his father bought him. Plunging himself into that endless vat of printer’s ink, Heitkemper learned the printing art through experience, followed his patriotic instincts and later served his community beyond the call of duty.

Little did Heitkemper know at that early age that his printing interests and personal connection to that world would cast him into several roles of significance with the county’s only newspaper business community.

It all started at the News Publishing Company in Tell City, where Louie’s dad, Bernard “Jolly” Heitkemper was a compositor in the old days of lead type. Louie started hanging out there after school, sweeping the floor and collecting the used lead type and taking it to the back shop where it was melted down into ingots or “pigs” as they were called.

“As the twig is bent, So grows the tree,” the old saying goes, and “Jolly” noticed his son seemed interested in the linotype machine and the printing business in general. It was about 1941 and Louie’s dad asked him if he would be interested in having a small printing press of his own. Louie thought that was a great idea and it was about that time that he saw a Jimmy Stewart movie called “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.”

Louie saw something in that movie that really piqued his interest.

“There was a boy in that movie,” he said, “with a small press and he was printing something he called The Boy Ranger News. I got the idea that I could do that, too.” It was just a short time later that his press arrived in the mail.

The miniature, hand-cranked press could print a professional job, but on paper no larger than five by seven inches. Louie learned to set the type himself and ink the rollers to get good copies. Then he went around to neighbors’ houses and the local restaurants and Schultz’s Grocery Store, asking for news for his newspaper. “I printed sports news, births, deaths and school news and I called my paper The Boy Ranger News.

As word got around, his business grew and soon he was printing 100 papers, one at a time, and delivering them on his bicycle. A half-page ad cost five cents. He sold his papers for a penny each. “I had to pay for the paper I used,” he said. “I got a lot of experience but not much money.”

Louie printed a new paper every week and did the job faithfully for two years. He quit when he was 14 because he got interested in football and other sports in high school, but his printing press was to figure in his life again later.

After graduating from high school, Louie volunteered for the Navy in 1947. It was supposed to be a three-year enlistment, but just before he was to be discharged, the Korean War broke out and all enlistees’ terms were automatically extended for two years. Louie re-enlisted for three. He was stationed mostly at Norfolk, Va., at first, serving on the USS Mt. Olympus and the USS Marquette. He was then assigned to a NATO command called the Allied Forces of Southern Europe.

With the U.S., that coalition of nations included Britain, France, Italy, Turkey and Greece.

He was then transferred to recruiting duty in Chicago and when he came home on leave, he grabbed his printing press. “They needed to print business cards and there was no money for it in the budget,” Louie said, “so I stuck my neck out and said I had this press at home and if they would buy new rollers for it, I’d print the cards. This is the way Louie would continue to conduct his life . If he saw a need he would do what he could to fill it or help correct a problem.

Working alone in the evenings, Louie started printing business cards – at least 100 cards for each of 50 recruiting stations. “That’s 5000 cards,” Louie explained, “and I did them one at a time and I worked on them at least a month for free. I got no money for the printing.” He said he should have learned a lesson from that experience, but he took on an even bigger job. A neighbor in the trucking business had 10 terminals and happened to say one day he needed some business cards. Louie said he could do the job. He can’t remember what he got paid, “but whatever it was, it wasn’t enough.” Louie printed 20,000 cards, one at a time, on his hand-cranked press. “I thought I never would get done. After that,” he said with a grin, “I went out of business.”

After advanced training at a Navy school at San Diego, Louie was assigned to Honolulu and Pearl Harbor for three years, then served his last three years as Admiral’s Writer for the Commandant of the Naval District at the Navy Yard of Washington, DC. He retired from the Navy in 1967.                                          

Louie had a job waiting for him in his hometown of Tell City. Edgar Schergens, editor of the News Publishing Company, hired him as an advertising manager and reporter. Later, Louie would be editor for three years.

In 1975, he went into the job printing business, founding Swiss Printers Inc., this time with power machinery. The business was in the old William Tell Hotel building for four years, until it was moved into a new Main Street building. Louie sold the business and retired in 1997.

Louie retired from the printing business but he never tired of helping his community wherever he could fit in. Eventually, his community began to take note of his untiring service and officially honored him for his contributions. He was an Ivy-Tech advisory board member for 32 years and a member of the Tell City Economic Development Commission for 27 years. He has been on the board of the Perry County Redevelopment Authority for 20 years and served as its president for 15.

In 1981 the Tell City Jaycees named him Boss of the Year and in 1988 he was the Kiwanian of the Year. In 2003 he received the “Sagamore of the Wabash” award presented by the late Gov. Frank O’Bannon. The same year the Tell City Historical Society honored him as the “Distinguished Citizen of the Year” and he earned a lifetime membership in the Perry County Chamber of Commerce. In 2009, Louie and his wife, Marcie, received the Jim Mansfield Memorial Award for supporting swimming programs for Tell City youth. Always humble when speaking of himself, Louie is very grateful to be recognized by the community for his services over the years.

Louie and his wife, Marci, have three children, Mark, Marci Liz Tabor and Michele Gentry.