by Amanda Fanger, Reporter and Farmer
Following high school, Neil Haase grew wings and flew away from his Webster hometown. But the longer he was away, the more he discovered South Dakota was pulling him back.
Born in 1937 to Fred and Hazel Haase at the Peabody Hospital in Webster, Haase joked, “Every famous person was born in the Peabody Hospital.”
After high school graduation in 1955, Haase joined the air force in 1956, going to military pilot training from 1957-58. He flew all over the world with the air force for 10 years, but he first learned to pilot an aircraft back in Webster while still in high school.
“Being a pilot, it’s hours and hours of getting to look out the window,” he said. “A joke I like about being a pilot goes: in the third grade, a teacher told her student, ‘quit staring out the window. When you grow up, no one will pay you to sit there and just look out the window,’” he laughed as he told the punch line. “Guess I showed her.”
In 1967, Haase got a job with American Airlines flying commercial jets. He flew with them until his retirement, and since he remained in the service, he is also retired from the military.
During his time with the air force, he had been stationed in Texas, Kansas and California. When he went to work for American Airlines, he was based in New York.
“I had always planned to retire in Webster,” he said. “It’s the people and the comfortable pace. People here are not like in the big cities, always rushing around. Here, there’s a reasonable pace.”
In 1990, he was home when his father passed away and knew he was only a few years away from being forced to retire. It was then he decided to start looking for a place around the area to live. In 1992, he found and bought a house in the country and moved back, commuting to work in New York, “if you can imagine that,” he said with a laugh.
He would fly to work on another plane, typically out of Watertown, but sometimes Bismarck, ND or further, depending on wherever the nearest airport was that he could catch a ride.
“I’ve always said, ‘when you’re born in South Dakota, they tie an elastic strap around your heart and drive a stake into the ground here,’” he commented. “The further away you get, the further it drags you back.”
It was through his job at American Airlines that Haase met Susan, who is now his wife. She was a flight attendant based in Boston.
In 1993, she was part of a crew that was working the Thanksgiving Day holiday on a flight for which Haase was the pilot. On Thanksgiving Day, during a layover in Las Vegas, Haase took the entire crew out for supper.
“We just had a great time talking and getting to know each other more,” Haase said. “The next morning I asked for her number… and we’ve been together since the day we met. We found each other and just clicked.”
They were married in Webster, and for Susan, it was quite a culture shock. Having been born and raised in Boston, Susan said, “There’s no traffic here, and everybody waves whether they know you or not – which, usually you do.”
Haase’s son from his previous marriage, who was born and raised in New York, recently moved to South Dakota. Haase said his son liked the idea of raising his family in the relaxed lifestyle offered here which is in such contrast to that of the cities.
Haase retired in 1997 and while the hunting and fishing opportunities were a drawback to the area for the sportsman, he said, “It’s the rush of the cities I don’t like. Everybody’s in a hurry and they don’t know why.”
When the world stopped turning on Sept. 11, 2001, the Haases’ own world was rocked when terrorists hijacked four American Airline planes. They were particularly distressed over the Flight 11 that crashed into the north tower of the World Trade Center because, not only had they both worked that Boston-based flight before, they both also personally knew the 11 crew members who perished that day.
Through his career with the military, Haase has seen much of the world, including the southern Pacific and Europe, and with American Airlines, he’s traveled all over the U.S.
If he could change one thing about the Webster/Day county area, Haase says it would be San Diego weather, “but not San Diego. Of course, if we had weather like that, everyone would be here.”
He said he also sometimes misses some of the restaurants from different places around the country and the variety of food.
Haase’s retirement home in rural Day County is a working farm, just a few miles away from the farm his parents lived on when he was born, he said. He rents the farm ground and a neighbor keeps cattle on the small pasture. Since retiring there, Haase and his wife have added onto, rebuilt and remodeled their house, to make it their own. Now they enjoy entertaining people at their home, and have even hosted fundraisers there.
Although health conditions keep him from doing more, Haase says he tries to be as active as he can in volunteering with the Webster museum and with the VFW. He had always intended to be more involved with helping build up the local airport, but heart problems permanently grounded him about 10 years ago.
Still, “Life is good,” he said.
He says he feels good to be so close to his roots.
“It’s home,” he said. “That elastic strap isn’t stretched too far.”