By Bob Huber: Freedom Newspapers Columnist
Those of us who worked the news side of the Denver Post became concerned when Downhill Updyke stopped inventing elaborate practical jokes. When we asked him about it, he said he was just getting too old to play games.
Pranks in those days were common in the city room, and in his heyday Downhill had been the master. His jokes were legend, and he reveled in the limelight whenever stories were told after work at the Denver Press Club. Some of us were concerned that he might get the D-Ts if he tried to quit cold turkey.
One of his infamous stunts was the time he fabricated a hometown celebration in a town that didn’t exist on the plains of eastern Colorado. The city desk sent a reporter and a photographer to cover the festivities, and when they called in saying they couldn’t even find the town, let alone a celebration, the city editor sent two more staffers with instructions to find it or keep going. They kept going.
Another time he concocted a flash flood in the mountains west of Denver, and when a half dozen reporters and photographers went looking for death and destruction, they panicked the town of Idaho Springs, and everyone ran for high ground.
But by the time most of us knew Downhill, cigars and Old Granddad had taken their toll, and his practical jokes were on the wane. Oh sure, he still switched signs on restroom doors, and one time he sneaked a phony story by the copy desk about a sow crowned homecoming queen at the state’s farm college. But his glory days were over.
About that time it was announced that old Downhill had pulled his last joke and had died the night before. His cronies visited the widow and offered a gala wake in a sleazy bar which they knew old Downhill would favor, but she turned them down. His wife, Blanche, was a hard woman who had never appreciated his awesome reputation.
So Downhill was honored in a tidy closed-casket service at the cemetery, and a couple editors spoke of his journalistic prowess. Any mention of his crude sense of humor was squelched, and the widow was content. It was a shabby post mortem for the king of pranksters.
It took a couple days before anyone got riled up enough to do something about Downhill’s dark departure. A few old timers spread word that in spite of the widow’s wishes they were holding a bona fide wake that night at a substandard watering hole.
The city room staff and even some editors jammed into the little bar that evening after work and were astonished to find Downhill’s casket leaning against a wall, propped open. “By God, they dug him up!” someone cried, and everyone settled in for an eventful evening saluting Downhill and muttering, “Looks natural, don’t he?”
A little later some photographers were performing loud and hilarious imitations of local politicians on top of the bar, when Blanche, still dressed in black, come through the door and stood scowling. A deep silence oozed through the room.
Blanche then walked stiffly through the throng until she reached her dearly departed. She scooped a beer from a nearby reporter and held out the glass. “Here’s to Bernard’s final joke,” she said. “At least that’s what he promised me this morning.”
That’s when Downhill opened his eyes and grinned, cracking makeup off his cheeks. “That was sweet, Honey,” he said, “but really, I’d prefer something stronger.”
Reporters fainted, women gnashed their teeth and swore vengeance, and everyone realized they’d just seen the créme de la créme of practical jokes, forever remembered as Downhill Updyke’s Swan Song, performed to perfection.
Bob Huber is a retired journalist living in Portales.