Citizen of the Year

Ron Burtz

For over a decade now on the first Wednesday of the new year, the Custer County Chronicle has been naming an individual or couple as Custer County’s Citizen of the Year. The very first to receive that honor was Ruth Ziolkowski, wife of Crazy Horse Memorial sculptor Korczak, when she was named Citizen of the Year for 2010.
In the years since, the Chronicle has honored the movers and shakers of our community, highlighting their many contributions to the quality of life of this area. The process of deciding who should receive the honor has been solely in the hands of the Chronicle staff and integral to the decision were two people who had their fingers on the pulse of the Custer community—former Chronicle owners Charley and Norma Najacht. As the ones bestowing the honor, they were, of course, ineligible to receive it, no matter how deserving they may have been.
However, since their retirement that is no longer the case, so the staff and management of the Custer County Chronicle is proud to announce that the Citizens of the Year for 2021 are Charley and Norma Najacht.
The Najachts’ main contribution to the health and vitality of Custer County for more than 20 years has been through their leadership at the newspaper. In a day when many are saying “print is dead” and hundreds of small towns have lost their weekly newspapers, the Najachts have worked tirelessly to keep local journalism alive and provide a forum for news, views and community affairs.
In doing so they have been honored time and again by their peers, most notably the South Dakota Newspaper Association (SDNA), which has showered them with numerous awards over the years for their journalistic excellence. The dozens of Dakota-shaped SDNA first place plaques which cover the walls of the Chronicle offices are a visual testimony to that fact.
Since they bought the newspaper in 1999, it has received many awards in SDNA’s annual contests.
Under their leadership the Chronicle has received the organization’s highest annual honor for newspapers its size—the “Sweepstakes Award”—nine times and the second highest award, for “General Excellence,” twice.
At the same time, the Najachts themselves have each won over 100 awards for writing, commentary, photography and advertising.
In addition to all these honors, in 2021 the Najachts were inducted into the SDNA’s South Dakota Newspaper Hall of Fame, as only the second husband and wife team in history to receive that honor.
When the selection was announced in early 2020, then SDNA president, Debbie Hemmer, co-publisher of the Grant County Review at Milbank, said, “Charley and Norma Najacht have set a high standard for their commitment to community journalism. Their work and their newspapers exemplify what community newspapering is all about. Their induction into the South Dakota Newspaper Hall of Fame is well deserved.”
Originally slated for April of 2020 but delayed by COVID-19, the induction ceremony was finally held Oct. 15, 2021, during the SDNA’s annual convention at the Lodge at Deadwood. At that time they were applauded by their colleagues statewide for their many years of service to the communities they have served as well as the institution of journalism in the state. Part of Charley’s contribution, it was noted, was serving as SDNA president in 2012-13.
Charley started his home town newspaper career in 1972 as a self-described “jack-of-all trades” at the Hot Springs Star. In early 1977 he was named publisher after the paper was purchased by Smith Newspapers of Ft. Payne, Ala. Norma started working at the Star in 1975.
Leaving South Dakota for several years, the couple worked at newspapers in Broken Bow, Neb. and Cameron, Mo. before returning to South Dakota in 1999 to buy the Custer County Chronicle and the Hill City Prevailer, doing business as Southern Hills Publishing. Several years later they purchased the Winner Advocate, which they still own.
During those years of service to their communities though operating weekly newspapers, Charley was also serving his country through the National Guard.
According to friend and fellow veteran, Rep. Tim Goodman of Hill City, Charley participated in ROTC while studying journalism at South Dakota State University and got his commission as an officer with the U.S. Army. He later went to the Infantry Officer Basic Course and also went to jump school to be a paratrooper. He also became an Airborne Army Ranger and later served a year in Vietnam as an infantry rifle platoon leader.
Goodwin said, while he was not there to see it, he imagines Charley was the kind of officer who wouldn’t fall apart under fire.
“He’d be cool and calm,” said Goodwin. “He’s one of those guys the higher the pressure the calmer he is.”
Goodwin, who himself served as a paratrooper in the Army’s 82nd Airborne Division, says he had known of Charley for some time, but got to know him best while running with the South Dakota National Guard Marathon team in annual races in Lincoln, Neb. in the early 1980s.
At the time, Goodwin was at the end of his career as an officer with the South Dakota Guard and Charley was a full colonel in charge of public affairs for the Nebraska National Guard.
Having their paratrooper experience in common, the two officers would occasionally go out to dinner together and over the years became friends.
After Charley’s retirement from 31 years of military service in 1999 and the couple’s move to Custer, the two men continued their friendship and Goodwin said when he began to consider running for the house in 2016 it was Charley he turned to for advice.
“When I decided to run for office he was the first guy I talked to,” said Goodwin. “I think I surprised him,” noted Goodwin saying at first his friend seemed “kind of against it.”
However, bumping into him again a few weeks later at the Rapid City Stock Show, Charley told Goodwin he would support him.
Later Goodwin approached the newspaperman with the idea of writing an occasional column for the Chronicle and it was Charley who suggested he write a weekly article. For the past five years Goodwin has been doing just that and his “Notes from Pierre” columns are also published by papers in Hot Springs, Hill City, Wall and Rapid City.
Goodwin also applauded the Najachts for their early and consistent coverage of the former FLDS compound near Pringle. He said by the time he came on the scene several years ago the Najachts had already been covering the situation for a number of years and had written dozens of articles about it.
Noting that no birth or death certificates had been issued for people living at the compound since it opened in 2005, Goodwin drafted legislation requiring that birth and death certificates be issued and imposing penalties for noncompliance.
“They did everything on it,” said Goodwin. “They tried so hard to get that thing stopped and we finally got it done.”
The compound was closed in 2021 when, as a result of a court ordered settlement, the property was sold at a sheriff’s auction.
Goodwin says the Najachts’ biggest contribution to their community has been through their work at the Chronicle, noting that weekly newspapers are important to the life of a small town.
“Time stops,” he said. “When it comes out, everybody stops and reads it. In a small town the weeklies are vital to hold the community together.”
However, Goodwin said the Najachts’ contributions to their area go beyond their work at the newspaper as well.
Goodwin said Charley’s biggest influence is simply through the way he lives his life.
“He’s one of these people who’s an anonymous citizen,” said Goodwin. “He doesn’t want to get credit for it. He’d just as soon everyone else get credit. He isn’t arrogant or cocky. He’s a humble servant.”
Echoing those sentiments was the man who has been the Najachts’ pastor for the past several years.
Clark Struebing is pastor of Abundant Life Fellowship which meets at the Custer Senior Center and where the Najachs have attended since its founding a little over four years ago.  
“They really love Custer and have a great heart for the people of Custer and the community,” said Struebing.
He said they are always diligent in sharing their faith and are very supportive of the church
“They are always there to help,” said Struebing. “Whenever I’d ask him (Charley) to do something he was always willing, even though there were times when he didn’t feel so good.”
Struebing said the Najachts are “very family oriented” and called them “prime candidates for this honor of being citizens of the year.”
One new community program impacting school children has the Najachts’ fingerprints all over it. Through their personal relationship with former University of Nebraska football coach Tom Osborne (forged during their years in Nebraska), they were instrumental in bringing his Teammates youth mentoring program to the Custer School District several years ago.
“They were active in the initial planning of the program,” said Custer School District superintendent Mark Naugle, “and Charley has served on the board of directors since. Charley and Norma used the Custer County Chronicle to provide a great deal of positive information on and promotion of the TeamMates program. Their help was invaluable in getting the program off to a great start.”
An ongoing contribution to the cultural climate of Custer has been made by Norma through her love of art. Following in the footsteps of her artist mother, Mary Doescher, Norma has painted dozens of realistic landscapes, still lifes and portraits, some of which can be seen on the walls of the Chronicle office. She was juried into the International Guild of Realism at its first-ever Winter Salon Online Exhibition in Scottsdale, Ariz., in 2020 for her “The Vigil” portrait of her grandson, Isaiah. Winning artists came from 16 countries.

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