I’m a big fan of old Christmas movies. How many ways can we share the story of the miracle of Christmas through movies? There is a list of the 100 Best Christmas Movies, so there must be at least 100. For me there is just something about black and white films, the writing, the characters, and of course the actors. “It’s a Wonderful Life”, released in 1946, starring Jimmy Stewart and Donna Reed is very popular. My all-time favorite is “Miracle on 34th Street” from 1947. The story begins with a good deed, a gentleman filling in for a store Santa who is “under the weather,” and ultimately it ends in a court room where we learn or re-learn the magic of Christmas.
I discovered that magic while doing research on a north-central Wisconsin aviator. This Christmas story will span more than a decade and provide joy throughout the area. It was 1966 and a retired mason from Merrill, Wisconsin, Herman G. Utecht, had an idea. Some might have described his idea preposterous! But John Hatz, manager of the Merrill Municipal Airport and owner of Merrill Airways, warmed up to it after some time. The idea was to fly over downtown Merrill while Herman would sing Christmas carols to the shoppers below. Hatz suggested they would need a battery-powered loudspeaker that could be attached to the outside of the airplane if Herman’s idea was to work.
The discussion waned until John jumped up and claimed he knew where they could find such a speaker. The two men climbed into a vehicle and headed into Merrill. A few minutes later they were at the Merrill Police Department. Yes, law enforcement had a speaker system and yes, the two could use it.
A short time after returning to the airport, the Hatz and Utecht duo took off from the airport’s northwest runway, climbing and turning left into the dark sky. Another left turn, a few more feet of altitude, and Hatz threw the switch powering the PA system. Christmas shoppers throughout Merrill’s downtown area were treated, and probably a little surprised, to hear Utecht singing Christmas carols from his lofty perch. A Christmas miracle of a high order.
This wasn’t going to be a gift for a single Christmas. Oh no! Herman was on a mission, a mission of sharing music for all. It began with the death of his wife in 1963. Herman was looking for something to do, a way to give back, and he found it with music. Herman said, “I’ve never had voice lessons, but my wife always encouraged me to sing.” He continued, “I’m stubborn and it wasn’t until she died, and I was alone that I considered singing to make other people happy.” He toured the area visiting hospitals and retirement homes singing and playing the harmonica. First, his travels were within 100 miles of home. Eventually he would travel as far east as Green Bay and west to Chippewa Falls, stopping at numerous locations in between.
In 1967 Herman and Hatz flew their musical mission again, this time, flying over downtown Merrill wasn’t enough. After entertaining the Merrill shoppers, Hatz swung the airplane south and flew over downtown Wausau as well. The Wausau stop was not a surprise as Herman had performed on Wausau’s WAOW-TV channel 9 several weeks before. The 1968 flight was the same as the 1967 mission.
Things changed a little in 1969. The Merrill Police Department needed their speaker back. William “Rusty” Sukow, another Merrill resident, had a PA system and readily shared it with Herman. Singing carols from an airplane was catching on and Antigo was added to the flight plan. Weather alternatives were considered, and a backup date scheduled. The flight plan called for a Christmas Eve departure from Merrill just before 1830 to overfly the city. They would then turn south to arrive at Wausau at 1900 and then fly east to Antigo, arriving at 2000.
In 1970 Antigo was dropped from the flight plan. We don’t have details about the 1971 or 1972 flights. Maybe they had a weather cancellation. But in 1973 the crew was back – John Hatz flying and Herman singing through Rusty’s PA system. All three locations were back on that year’s flight plan. The flight was repeated in 1974 with a slight modification. The arrival over Wausau was changed to 1915. Park City Aero of Merrill provided the airplane for the 1975 flight and instead of Antigo, Herman sang carols over the Lincoln Boys School.
The flight had to cancel its 1976 show. It seems Rusty’s PA system was no longer available. And then it came—1977—Herman made his last airborne caroling flight. He flew in an airplane provided by Central Wisconsin Aviation Corporation from Mosinee, visiting the same three locations.
Herman died on May 5, 1982, at a local senior center. He had made thousands of people happy through his music visiting hospitals, libraries, senior homes, the Grand Army Home in King, among other venues. As many as 10 flights spanning eleven years over three communities in north-central Wisconsin—it may have been cold on those winter night flights, but Herman was able to warm many hearts. Thank you, Herman, for listening to your wife and sharing your gift of music. Herman’s story is truly one of Christmas magic.