Memories of Neil Hanks
Wed, 03/10/2021 - 10:57am admin
My first inclination was to privately record all this and file away my memories of a co-worker who was a lifelong friend and had the most significant influence on my thirty-three-year career in the Missouri State Highway Patrol. However, I decided this is a story that needs to be shared.
Chief Telecommunications Engineer Neil Hanks beat me by a year, retiring with thirty-four years of service, all at the local Willow Springs Headquarters, Troop G. Our careers overlapped, and I was privileged to serve with Neil for seventeen years. I remained his friend for the rest of his life. Neil died on February 19, at the age of eighty-seven, and is buried in the Willow Springs City Cemetery beside his wife of sixty-eight years.
Neil Hanks was born in Willow Springs, May 29, 1933. He attended rural schools in Howell County until entering Willow Springs High School in 1951. In football his freshman year, he lettered when the Bears won every game, including the Ozark Bowl title at Southwest Missouri State College in Springfield. The town chartered a special train, and a generous portion of the community took the afternoon off to see the game. The Bears continued the victories for another year, being undefeated in 1952, completing a thirty-six-game winning record. Following graduation, Neal served in the United States Army from 1953 to 1955. He joined the Patrol in 1956. His training in a technical institute in Kansas City and his military experience qualified him for the job.
Troop G Headquarters at Willow Springs was relatively new when Neil started. The headquarters building was completed in 1951 and contained the dispatching console and radio equipment. It was all vacuum tube-driven, and the radios were connected to a doghouse building full of transmitting and receiving equipment. Radiotelegraph was used to connect the nine troops. Radio shortwave telegraphy also communicated with police agencies around the nation. Neil spoke to the cars via a high-powered VHF radio transmitter connected to a three hundred-fifty-foot tower, a landmark at the north end of Willow Springs.
The radio room was a noisy environment with many receivers operating at once. Neighboring troop patrol cars were also part of the listening responsibility, so the din was loud and constant. The radio operator's job was to filter out the calls coming from your car, answer, and record what they said on a typewritten paper log.
When Neil started in the Patrol, and, during the early period I worked, it was also the operator's responsibility to take radio traffic from General Headquarters in Jefferson City and other troops reporting crimes and vehicles and wanted persons. We typed the information on a paper log and retyped it on an oversized piece of paper perforated with carbon paper between the two parts. One part went to the Captain, and one was held in the radio room. These were called "items." Those cards were then read together over the air periodically in a troop "summary." The cars on the road were to stop when a tone was broadcast and copy down the summary details. It was a laborious process, but it worked and kept everyone informed.
In years before police car radios, the officers were required to monitor an AM radio station called "WOS" and copy broadcasts. There was no two-way communication then. The radio station alerted a trooper by his badge number to contact their local headquarters by telephone.
So the system Neil used was a significant improvement. A teletype machine also interconnected the troops adding to the noise in the radio room and the operators' responsibilities on duty. This typed traffic was also saved and filed daily.
Add to this, answering the telephone and making calls for the officers on the road, and an operator found himself on occasions with both hands full with a telephone in his ear listening to a trooper on the radio tell him what he needed to do.
The operator's real job was to listen closely to hear and interpret what the officer was saying. Then it is was just as important to convey the information to the right recipient accurately. It was vitally important to know where the cars were and dispatch the closest officer to the correct location. Neil excelled at this. He had an intimate knowledge of the nine-county troop area. He knew all the county and gravel roads and local name places that were decades old and perhaps named for something that had long ago disappeared. I think he had the telephone book memorized, or he knew all the numbers he might need to dial. That ability saved a lot of time in an emergency, and Neal maintained a cool, calm, and collected attitude at all times. I watched him direct car chases alone with confidence unparalleled.
The officers he worked with knew this and had a close relationship with Neil. They knew he cared about them. They spent a lot of time in the radio room visiting with Neil or hanging out and watching the operations. Neil was a jokester and kept the room lively. He slipped in private jokes between himself and the officers. A supervisor with a generally sour attitude once told him he was a "budding Bob Hope." Indeed he was, and we loved it.
Kids loved him because he loved them. My daughters have fond memories of laughing it up with Neil, and I saw this same thing with a hundred different kids that came in over the years.
That said, the business was often deadly. I've worked hundreds of those car chases with him, along with fatal wrecks, shootings, assaults, and robberies, and Neil instantly snapped to and handled the situation.
I wrote an account for a statewide Patrol anniversary booklet telling of the role played while he was on duty during a critical incident. When one of our older operators received the initial radio call from Trooper Zorsch and didn't understand he had received a call for help, Neil took control of the console and began calling what was needed. He called for ambulances and started calling other officers at home to the scene, pulling their numbers from memory. I wrote:
"On September 12, 1970, while on patrol south of Willow Springs, Troopers George 'Mike' Zorsch and Robert L. Ross noticed a vehicle driving erratically and followed it onto the parking lot of a local nightclub/restaurant; known as 'The Aztec Club.' When the vehicle's driver produced a food commissary card instead of his operator's license, Trooper Ross requested he exit the car and place his hands on the vehicle.
"At that time, the suspect went for a gun in his jacket pocket, and Trooper Ross threw him to the ground. The suspect hit the ground, drew a pistol, and began firing at both Troopers, who drew their weapons and returned fire. Unknown to Trooper Ross at the time, he had been struck by the suspect and received a flesh wound in the leg. The suspect had also been struck by the officer's bullets but ran into the darkness toward the nightclub."
"Trooper Zorsch called Troop G Headquarters by radio and drew his shotgun from the patrol car. At that time, the suspect fired at the troopers again and entered the nightclub from the building's rear. Upon entering the kitchen area, the suspect fired at three persons attempting to flee the room. Two young boys working in the kitchen area were struck, one seriously injured, and one, age thirteen, was killed. The suspect continued into the nightclub where he encountered the club bartender and shot him in the shoulder, taking him hostage as he continued for the front door."
"Trooper Zorsch, in the meantime, ran to the front of the building. There he encountered the suspect and his hostage exiting the front door. Trooper Zorsch hid behind a vehicle parked nearby, and when the suspect and his hostage were directly across from him, he yelled to the hostage by name. The hostage interpreting this as a signal from the officer, ducked down, and at that point, Trooper Zorsch fired a single shot from his shotgun into the head of the suspect, killing him instantly. The hostage suffered no further injury. As a result of what started as a routine traffic check, two persons were killed and three injured in a night of terror still remembered by many in Willow Springs."
I'm told by responding officers that Neil's quick reaction to this situation was remembered and admired.
I had met Neil before I worked with him. He was a brother of my aunt on my mother's side. When I was twenty, I went out to the station and watched him work for a while. I wasn't sure I wanted to do that but eventually applied. When I applied, and during Neil's career, radio applicants went through the same hiring process as troopers, including a written test, rigorous background investigation, and interview process. The pay during the years Neil and I worked was the same as the troopers. We wore a uniform and followed the same rules but were not issued guns. I was hired in 1974 was assigned for about a year and a half to Troop E, Poplar Bluff. I was allowed to transfer to Troop G in late 1975. A new Troop G Headquarters had been built in 1974. Neil was eventually promoted to Troop G Telecommunications Engineer, the title he held until he retired in 1991.
Neil worked in the era of cars with tube radios that didn't last long bouncing over these bumpy Ozark hills. Most of these radios were repaired at the troop level. He saw the first law enforcement radio networks give way to teletype nets and computer online dedicated law enforcement networks. About the time I started, the first Missouri Uniform Law Enforcement Network was built. MULES allowed quick computer checks of vehicle ownership and stolen information via a national network - National Crime Information Center. Before the computer network, we had to send a teletype message to the Missouri Department of Revenue to obtain vehicle ownership or driver's information.
Today much of the work previously completed in the radio room is done by the officers themselves in the car via a computer-controlled radio network connected to all these other networks. They run computer checks themselves. The patrol vehicles are now tracked and shown on a map in real-time.
For years after his retirement, Neil regularly visited the radio room and often remarked to me how he missed the camaraderie with the radio personnel and troopers. I looked forward to seeing him, though there wasn't a lot he could tell me about the past I hadn't already heard. I'm going to miss him. A few weeks before he died, Neil called me from his hospital bed. He said the sound was out on all the room TVs in his end of the hospital. He said, bet you know how to fix it. I told him I was sure the hospital wouldn't let me in, but what I would probably do is go to the distribution room and turn the equipment off and back on. He called me back and said it worked.
I considered it an honor to get that call and all the others over so much of my life. Thanks for the memories and all your kindness, Operator 56. "K double-A five-twenty-two."