Green River man reflects on a lifetime of connections
February 1, 2024
Via Wyoming News Exchange
GREEN RIVER - Sitting by a window at the Villa Assisted Living Facility at Castle Rock, slits of sunlight illuminating his face, Bob Renick held a shiny quarter in his wrinkled hands.
"I'll be darned," he said. "Oh, there she is, dancing."
Renick's face twisted with emotion as he looked at the image of Maria Tallchief on the back of the American Women Quarter released in October.
Renick may not have had a close relationship with Maria since she was three years ahead of him, but he remembers being in school together.
"Oh yes, everybody goes to the same school," Renick said. "They only had one."
The connection with Maria Tallchief, the first Native American ballet dancer, is just one of Renick's connections to history through his nearly 96 years of life.
Schoolmates with Maria Tallchief
Renick was born in Osage County, Oklahoma on February 26, 1928.
"It was the Osage Indian Reservation," Renick explained. "Well, they struck oil."
The Osage Nation drilled 8,500 oil wells, and the members of the tribe were given an oil royalty, according to Renick.
"The Osage Indian then was the richest Indian in the world," he said. "Each one of them was a millionaire. And one of those millionaires had a little girl named Maria. Maria Tallchief. And she wanted to become a dancer."
Born three years after Maria, Renick remembers being in school with her and knowing of her growing up. He also remembers her leaving with her family to move to California. Eventually, Maria moved to New York City where she met and eventually later married Choreographer George Balanchine, whom she co-founded the New York City Ballet with.
Later in life, Maria moved to Chicago and started the Chicago City Ballet. In addition to being honored on the new American Women Quarter, she was awarded the American National Medal of the Arts, named Woman of the Year by the National Women's Press Club and inducted into the National Women's Hall of Fame.
Renick got choked up when he recalled his last visit to Ponca City, Oklahoma, where he saw a sign for the "Maria Tallchief Memorial Highway."
"They wanted her to change her name, to not have an Indian name," Renick explained of Maria. "She said 'No way. My name is Tallchief, that's what it's going to be forever.'"
"Killers of the Flower Moon"
While the Osage Nation's prosperity contributed to success stories like Maria Tallchief's, it also became a target, bringing tragedy to the tribe that left an impact felt through Renick's lifetime.
When Renick was born, the trial of W.K. Hale was going on.
William King Hale lived outside of Fairfax, Oklahoma in Osage County, close to where Renick grew up.
"He figured out a scheme," Renick explained. "He could kill those Indians and reap the money. Lots of money."
Renick explained that the members of the Osage Nation had a "headright" from the oil that was discovered, and that the headrights could grow in value when they were passed on to someone else. During the 1920s, W.K. Hale found a way to find out who had the most headrights and kill them to get the money. The establishment of the new Federal Bureau of Investigation was instrumental in the Osage murders being stopped.
These events from Renick's home and childhood were recently portrayed in the film "Killers of the Flower Moon," which was released in October. The film, directed by Martin Scorsese and starring Robert De Niro and Leonardo DiCaprio, has received numerous awards and just earned 10 Oscar nominations this week, including actress Lily Gladstone making history as the first Native actress of American descent to be Oscar nominated. She was also the first indigenous woman to win the Golden Globe for Best Actress for her role in the film.
Renick's son took him to see the film when it came out, and Renick describes it as a "very good movie."
"That all happened in that little town," Renick said of the events portrayed in the film. "Isn't that strange? A little town. It's not as big as Green River, Wyoming."
Wyoming, Alaska, and atomic bombs
Renick grew up in that little town and, like his father, worked in the oil field that had made the Osage Indians rich. But when he was 20, it was time for a change.
"They told me you make more money in Wyoming," Renick explained. "So I filled my little Ford car up with gasoline and headed north."
Renick ended up in Bairoil for a while, then in Casper, where he raised his family. But he also spent much of his time away from home. For 19 years, Renick flew back and forth between Wyoming and Alaska for work. Usually they flew on Alaska Airline jets, but Renick remembered one eventful trip on a mail plane where oil was streaming down the wing of the old prop plane. Renick and his coworkers were told not to worry unless the oil stopped.
In 1958, Renick helped move an oil rig from Utah to Alaska. Eventually, he found himself working 3,000 miles out in the Pacific Ocean on the island of Amchitka, Alaska.
The job at Amchitka came because the United States government needed someone to move and operate a drilling rig.
"They'd drill a hole 6,000 foot deep and then they would fill that hole with concrete and gravel, and then they would ignite that bomb," Renick said.
After World War II ended with the dropping of the atomic bomb on Japan, the government wanted to continue testing nuclear weapons, Renick explained. Testing in the ocean didn't work, and their test site north of Las Vegas in Mercury, Nevada, came with its own complications. So the government went to Amchitka. Three tests for underground detonation of nuclear weapons were carried out at Amchitka from 1965 to 1971.
"It was a very good job," Renick said.
Renick would often work for six weeks and come home to Casper for two weeks. He credits his wife for not only working herself but making decisions for the family and being in charge of purchasing cars and homes.
Renick lived in Casper until his wife died, at which point his daughters helped move him into the Villa at Castle Rock in Green River.
When Renick tells his stories, Gail Robinson pays attention. Another Castle Rock resident, Gail has enjoyed listening to Renick recall his history and his connections. She has often shared the stories with her daughter, Judi Laughter. Intrigued and inspired, Judi took it upon herself to do even more research into topics like Maria Tallchief and the Osage Nation. She recently shared her research on Maria Tallchief with the Daughters of the American Revolution in a special presentation hosted at Castle Rock.
She also presented a printed out copy of her research and several quarters with Maria Tallchief on them to Renick to keep.
"You've led an interesting life," Gail told Renick.
"Thank you," Renick replied. "It's been a lot of fun."
This story was published on January 25, 2024.