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Tuesday, April 13, 2021

Hearts of the Stock Show: At Stock Show & Rodeo, retired Air Force officer improves safety, has fun; then romance flowers again

Hearts of the Stock Show

If you go to the Fort Worth Stock Show & Rodeo, you’re going to meet people with interesting stories, maybe tall tales, some with unusual comments or experiences; there are story twists and surprises, and certainly the variety seems to never end.

Here in an ongoing series are some of those stories of people encountered this year at Will Rogers Memorial Center:

Formerly a pilot of jet fighter-bombers and commercial aircraft, an aircraft mechanic, a UTA safety engineer and now a young 86, Russell “Russ” Grunewald is one of the classic Fort Worth Stock Show & Rodeo gentlemen as well as chief safety officer for the iconic 120-year-old Cowtown institution in Will Rogers Memorial Center.

“Russ is our Stock Show ambassador,” says a nurse working for the Stock Show & Rodeo, adding that every Stock Show & Rodeo vendor and other regulars seem to know Grunewald, a routinely genial and quiet-spoken, retired U.S. Air Force lieutenant colonel. “He treats everyone with equal respect.”

Still, 22-year Stock Show & Rodeo veteran Grunewald – as a volunteer here for 10 years and a paid seasonal worker for 12 years and counting – also reflects an occasional bit of impish good humor while performing his Stock Show & Rodeo grounds and operations safety monitoring, reviewing and advisory duties.

Just one example:

Just ahead of the start of every one of the 36 Stock Show Rodeo performances, Grunewald exits the Will Rogers Coliseum first-aid station/safety office (just outside the overflowing arena entrance) and quickly halts on the east concourse. He removes his western hat, holds it respectfully to his chest and stands quietly at attention for the rodeo performance’s “Pledge of Allegiance,” singing of the “Star Spangled Banner” and prayer over the loud audio system. He gives a crisp military salute at the pertinent moment.

Just ahead of the patriotic and prayerful moments, Grunewald will often wave his felt hat politely at rushing, sometimes beer-sipping rodeo goers – his way of suggesting they also show some courtesy, respect.

“I just like to do it,” a sly-smiling Grunewald told his reporter/interviewer, indicating he enjoys the red face-twinge he might spur in would-be or real cowboys or cowgirls passing by.

“He’s just swab and debonair,” says a grinning Dr. Chris Ewin, M.D., a friend and one of the Stock Show & Rodeo 10 physicians working with several registered nurses and Grunewald in three-person shifts out of the first-aid and safety combo clinic/office.

The “swab” reference here in Stock Show Rodeo lore is a large cotton swab soaked in an antiseptic medicine custom-formulated 30-40 years ago by an area pharmacist for the late and legendary Dr. Charles A. Rush Jr., who was chief Stock Show & Rodeo doctor for 50 years.

“We offer it when a worker or guest comes in complaining of a sore throat,” said Liz Scott, R.N., one of the Stock Show & Rodeo nurses.

It’s a tradition, the sore throats along with headaches, upset stomachs, muscle aches, sore feet, sinus congestion, runny noses, coughs and allergies – this year two young women with allergy to horses – cited often by aid-seeking workers and visitors during the Stock Show & Rodeo. With chili, jalapeno peppers, nachos, hotdogs, hamburgers and cotton candy consumed in volumes here, even a few inflamed gallbladders come in.

“We’re open (daily) from 9 (a.m.) to show (and rodeo) closing,” Grunewald said of the staffed first-aid/safety office.

“If they walk in our door, we try to take care of them,” he said, then outlining duties among two Stock Show & Rodeo sister operations: Fort Worth Fire Department emergency techs handle the medical/accident emergencies, such as heart attacks, strokes and bone-breaking fall victims. Justin Sportsmedicine Team doctors and therapists handle nearly all rodeo performers’ injuries/illnesses. All three services cooperate/coordinate as needed for any patient, he said, including the rare human baby birth starting on the grounds.

Grunewald is good at calming the walk-ins, two nurses said.

“I guarantee you he’s the glue that holds the (first-aid) clinic together,” Kathy Dierker, R.N., said. “He welcomes every soul into this clinic.”

Early in the day, typically before rodeos, his duties carry Grunewald on routine walking rounds of the 50-plus facilities, including arenas, barns, parking areas, exhibits and related sites, across the 85-acre, city-owned Will Rogers Center.

Grunewald’s safety and first-aid expertise began accumulating in his junior high school days back in San Antonio, when he joined the Air Force auxiliary Civil Air Patrol during World War II. In those pre-flying days, he got some airplane, search and rescue training basics.

“I was a teenager having some fun, too,” he said. At age 17 he earned his private pilot’s license, still in high school. He had first flown at age 4 or 5, in a Tri-Motor Ford propeller plane.

Grunewald graduated from high school in 1947, soon going the Air Force path, training in aircraft mechanics, getting his commercial pilot’s license, flying commercial aircraft, and then being called to active Air Force duty in 1950. He first served as a weather observer. There in the same unit he met Anita Hvozda, the New Jersey native who would become his wife.

Grunewald put in for fighter pilot training in 1951, first flew in a jet in September 1952 and got his wings in December that year, with the Korean War drawing him to his first combat pilot training in F-84 jets fitted with machine guns and bombs.

Before leaving for Korea, while in the friendship phase with his future wife, Grunewald corresponded with Anita. He asked for and received a photo of her to carry. Air Force survival school trainers had advised carrying spouse/family photos in case of capture; North Korean captors were believed to go easier when beating or torturing prisoners with families, Grunewald said. He was deployed to Korea in 1953, and got his in-country combat flying training. Then the war ended.

“I never got to fire guns or drop any bombs in combat,” Grunewald said.

He and Anita were married in 1955, after courting fewer than 60 days. They were married for 49 years, having three children, then grandchildren and now great-grandchildren. Anita died in 2004, from heart surgery complications.

Grunewald had been transferred to Fort Worth’s Carswell Air Force Base, there serving as Chief of Safety for the 7th Bomber Wing of the Strategic Air Command, going into the 1970s.

After 28 years of military service, including major roles in safety and pilot training, Grunewald retired from the Air Force in 1975. For a couple of years he worked in safety, security and corporate pilot roles in the wholesale/retail grocery trades.

In 1977, Grunewald joined the University of Texas at Arlington, working first as assistant director of Environmental Health and Safety and then 16.5 years as director. Building and fire safety codes and science lab safety procedures were among his major concerns there. He retired from the job in 1994.

His first Stock Show visit was in the mid-1980s. His Stock Show predecessor in the safety job was a friend, leading Grunewald to becoming a safety officer volunteer.

His friend leaving the Stock Show job, Grunewald moved into the paying job – his roles including checking for safety hazards, code compliance and needs on stairway, walkway and other surfaces; in lighting and unlit areas; fire prevention and fire sprinklers; maintenance, repairs and construction; and other related areas. He also coordinates with inspectors on food safety matters.

The job evolved with more buildings and other new facilities, along with adding 10 volunteer assistants (firemen) to help Grunewald keep abreast of facility changes, needs, hazards or updates.

“No babies being born out here this year, so far,” Grunewald said last Saturday.

All that walking and checking facilities – “I stay active” – he credits for being healthy and ready to go forward through the 2020 Stock Show & Rodeo, the one expected to debut the forthcoming $450 million Will Rogers Multipurpose Arena and related facilities.

Then comes another retirement, he said, this time after 26 Stock Show & Rodeo editions.

And Grunewald will be 90 years old.

“I’ve been very lucky,” he said, noting that he has met and fallen in love with another lovely, loving woman – “a Nebraska farm girl” and widow of another Air Force retiree. He met her, yes, at the Stock Show in 2002, after she started working here for the funnel cake concessionaire.

“We just really clicked,” Grunewald said, adding that both dreamed of being ranchers but never got around to it. “I don’t think I missed my calling.”

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