Many years ago, in the early 1900s, a young man named Asa and a young woman named Reva married and started a family in Plattsmouth, Neb. “Ace” — as Asa came to be called — and Reva had three boys: Amos “Elmer,” H. H. “Butch,” and the youngest, Asa “Dave” Van Fleet.
Dave passed away on July 29, at the age of 86 at his home in Omaha, surrounded by his wife and three daughters. But Dave’s life is too important to his family and friends, and indeed, to the history of Ralston, to be summarized in a short obituary. So, with much love, let me tell you about my Dad.
Dave was born in 1926 in Nevada, Mo. His family moved several times before finally settling in Ralston. Dave would make his home in or near Ralston for the rest of his life. Growing up in Ralston as a kid during the Great Depression wasn’t easy. His father worked in a grocery store owned by R.T. Propst. Dave and his brothers looked for odd jobs to earn money. Dave cut and sold ice from Seymour Lake. He sold walnuts off the trees in Ralston. He was a caddy, he had a paper route and he sold popcorn at the outdoor movies shown behind Rush’s Drug Store.
Dave attended Maywood Elementary School and he was the first Boy Scout in Ralston, in a troop started by leader Andy Clark. Dave would ultimately become an Eagle Scout.
He attended South High School in Omaha, and worked for S.S. Kresge and Crown Rubber Products during the summers. Although Kresge wanted Dave to stay on as a manager after graduation, World War II was at its peak and Dave was planning to join the Navy.
When Dave graduated in 1944, he was assigned to the U.S. Naval Station in San Diego for training. Gene Kelly was in his training unit and would entertain the guys by dancing on the tables. After training, Dave was assigned to the SS South Dakota. Dave paid a guy $20 so he could have the bunk closest to the bulkhead and listen to the ocean at night. The war ended before Dave saw any combat, and all three Van Fleet boys came safely home.
When Dave and his brothers returned home, the sons and their father bought the Propst grocery store Ace worked in, and renamed it A.E. Van Fleet and Sons. They later stopped selling groceries and exclusively sold and processed meat and operated a locker plant.
When his two brothers left the store to pursue other careers, Dave and Ace ran the store together. When Ace retired, Dave continued running the store, serving Ralston for nearly 40 years. Dave continued to use the name A.E. Van Fleet and Sons in honor of his father and brothers.
Dave met his wife, Jean, on a blind date set up by his friend Harry McIntyre, and they were married for almost 58 years, making their home first in Ralston and then in Omaha, just outside of Ralston. They raised three daughters there, one who stills lives in Omaha, the other two now living in Michigan and Texas. Dave and Jean were a rarity in this day and age – not just because they were married for so long, but because they truly enjoyed being with each other.
They were soulmates and best friends and all who knew them saw the devotion they had to each other.
During his time in Ralston, Dave sought to give back to the community. Besides providing the community a needed service through A.E. Van Fleet and Sons, Dave was a founding member of the Ralston Merchants Association and a member of American Legion Post 373.
But what he will be remembered for most is his involvement with the Ralston Girls Softball Association. When Dave discovered that Bill Ruf, then a counselor at Ralston High School, was trying to run a girls softball program alone, he jumped in. He was instrumental in raising money for RGSA, organizing teams, and establishing three local leagues — the Petites League, the Peanuts League and the Teen League.
When the leagues really took off, Dave then organized and trained older players as umpires to work the local league games. Dave was also a coach in the local leagues, as well as the coach of a fifth- and sixth-grade traveling team. In fact, Dave was the coach of the 1970 fifth- and sixth-grade team that dominated both the Omaha and Tri-County Leagues.
Even after his daughters were out of the RGSA, Dave continued to coach for years with his youngest daughter, Pam. He was beloved by the girls he coached, the adult volunteers he worked with and I think it is safe to say the RGSA lives on today due in large part to Dave’s untiring work on behalf of the girls of Ralston. As a tribute to his work with the RGSA, then-Gov. J. J. Exon made Dave an Admiral in the Nebraska Navy.
When Dave sold A.E. Van Fleet and Sons in 1984, he was too restless to say retired.
For the next seven years he worked at Sears, first in the bankruptcy department and then in the parts department, and at Oriental Trading Company. Even when Dave retired for good, he continued to stay busy volunteering for the Diabetes Center on 84th Street. He was a charter member of Prairie Life Gym, becoming interested in fitness after his heart surgery. Dave and Jean could often be seen biking on the Keystone Trail. Dave also was often with his daughter Pam, helping her care for her horse Annie, and becoming a familiar face at the stable.
Dave and Jean found time in later years to visit their daughters in Michigan and Texas, traveling to Tampa, Fla., to watch spring training baseball games and even traveling to Atlanta to watch Dave’s beloved Atlanta Braves play. Dave and Jean were also able to attend their grandchildren’s high school graduations and celebrate their granddaughter’s wedding. A few months before his passing, Dave became a great-grandfather.
Dave was a lifelong Ralston businessman, community volunteer and one of the key players in the RGSA, but most of all, he was a devoted son and brother, loving husband, and wonderful father, grandfather and great-grandfather. Ralston has indeed lost one of its community icons, but those of us who love him dearly will miss him greatly.
Dave was preceded in death by his parents, Ace and Reva Van Fleet, one brother, H.H. “Butch” Van Fleet, and one sister-in-law, Francis Van Fleet. He is survived by his wife Jean, daughters Deb Van Fleet (Scott Blair), Terry (Mark) Watmore and Pam Van Fleet; grandchildren Jessica (Matt) Comben, Steven Watmore and Sean Watmore; great-grandson Benjamin Comben; brother A. Elmer Van Fleet and sister-in-law Winnie Van Fleet.
Terry Van Fleet Watmore is Dave Van Fleet’s daughter.