Walter Charles Conahan

April 20, 1927 – April 18, 2015

If Nick Perkowski shows up at my friend Walt Conahan’s funeral Saturday in Sioux Falls, no one will know him.


Walt Conahan celebrates the 100th Hobo Day after taking a ride in the Bummobile. Nick Perkowski, an imaginary friend from his days as a student at State, is in the background.

Despite Walt and Nick’s long association and the camaraderie they shared while at SDSU, few people have ever met Mr. Perkowski, but I’ll get to that later.

Walt Conahan came to Brookings in the late 1940s to attend South Dakota State. Even as an aspiring and extremely talented journalism student, you could tell he had a unique set of qualities few of us possess.

In your lifetime or mine we all will meet perhaps a handful of human beings like Walt. He was one of those unforgettably gregarious, fun-loving, cheerful, kind and gentle persons blessed with a personality that drew you in.

A magnetic aura surrounded Walt, and it reached out and touched everyone he met. He was the complete package, and probably known, admired and respected by more people in more walks of life than anyone you or I will ever know.

He died Saturday (April 18, 2015). He was 88.

Conahae had a remarkable career of public service.

After college, he was editor of the Clear Lake Courier just up the road, and then he was selected as S.D. Senator Karl Mundt’s press secretary.

After Sen. Mundt’s death in 1973, Walt became chief of staff to U.S. Rep. James Abdnor of Kennebec.

Then the late SDSU President Sherwood Berg convinced Walt and his wife, Marge, to leave Washington and come to Brookings as SDSU’s director of development. He was later named the first full-time executive director of the SDSU Foundation, and it grew and prospered under Walt’s leadership.

Walt also managed to find time while living in Brookings and Volga to serve three terms as a state senator in Pierre.

Now a little about Walt’s old pal Nick Perkowski.

The two got together when Walt was the SDSU Collegian’s sports editor in 1949.

In the photographs selected to run in the sports section of the student newspaper, many were football and basketball game action shots. Walt’s pictures often included athletes in the background who were either just beyond the reach of his camera’s flash so they were simply blurry, dark images, or were not completely in the picture.

Walt’s humor kicked in. Just for fun (I can hear him chortling about it now) he placed his tongue firmly in his cheek and credited those dim background figures or the arms or legs flailing nearly out of view as belonging to a make-believe person he called Nick Perkowski.

Walt’s Nick Perkowski appeared in more collegiate sports pictures in 1949 than any other athlete on the planet.

After the 1949 Augustana football game, Walt identified the players whose jersey numbers were readable, but added: “Nick Perkowski can be seen just to the right of Eldon Keller’s leg with his head out of the picture.”

Under a photo of the Jackrabbit-Coyote Hobo Day game, Perkowski again made the picture page: “Nick Perkowski’s leg and arm can be seen at the right in the picture.”

Every week, every sports picture included some part of Nick Perkowski.

Collegian readers followed Perkowski’s prowess through the seasons, although even Dave Doner, South Dakota State’s registrar at the time, had no idea who Nick Perkowski was.

That’s why Nick Perkowski probably won’t be at Walt’s funeral, or if he is, he won’t be recognizable.

And so you will know Walt better, here is a picture taken of him on the 100th anniversary of Hobo Day, Oct. 27, 2012. He’s waving from the same Hobo Day Bummobile he rode in 63 years earlier when he was picked as the very first homecoming mascot Weary Wil.

I’m not sure, but I think that guy in the hat at the left of the picture is Walt’s old imaginary friend Nick Perkowski.

And if you listen, maybe you can hear Walt chortle about that.

Chuck Cecil
Editor’s note: Author Chuck Cecil wrote this column shortly following Walt Conahan’s death April 18, 2015.

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