Nebraska Associate Athletic Director Chris Anderson presented Floyd Herman an honorary Husker letter at his home near Wilber, Neb.
Photo by Randy York

Huskers' Oldest Living Letterwinner Dies at 105

By Randy York

Once Floyd D. Herman reached his 105th birthday in 2017, friends and family could envision Nebraska's legendary gymnast and fabled farmer celebrating several more memorable birthdays, simply because of the way he avoids worry, stress and tension. 

His heredity and habits helped Herman live a long and productive life, which ended on Feb. 19, 2018. Born on July 4, 1912, Herman died at home on the family farm near Wilber, Neb. 

Kuncl Funeral Home in Wilber is in charge of arrangements for the son of the late Stephen and Olie Herman. Floyd expressed wishes to be cremated following private services that will be held this summer at the family farm during the July 4th holiday.  

Even though Floyd toiled in relative obscurity, his story was a small mystery in the midst of chronicled history.

When Chris Anderson and I went to Wilber 19 months ago, Floyd was sharp, smart, articulate and thrilled to see his proud and spirited family converge near Wilber to honor America’s Independence in general and their father/grandfather/great grandfather in particular.

Chris and I saw a proud but humble patriarch living a life that makes a remarkable story.

We also experienced an incredible humility that trumps every aspect of his lifetime achievements.

Floyd Herman's humility was clear and evident. Chris, Nebraska’s associate athletic director for community, government and charitable relations, presented Herman with an honorary letter to fill the gap of his original letter N.

Floyd still has the letter sweater that he earned as a Nebraska men’s gymnast, but when one of his sons needed a sweater, he took the letter off and gave him the sweater to wear. 

In the 1930s, there were no team uniforms, so an enterprising Floyd provided the gym pants and asked each team member to buy similar t-shirts and sew the letter N on their own shirts to represent Nebraska.

The late letterwinner's new plaque was placed on his living room wall behind his favorite chair. The enscription read:

Presented to Floyd Herman

On the Fourth of July, 2016

In Honor of his 104th birthday

and in recognition of his status as a University of Nebraska Men’s Gymnastics letterwinner in 1935

Floyd Relished the Way His Kids, Grandkids and Great Grandkids Visited Wilber

Yes, Floyd beamed with appreciation to receive such an honor. He also remained proud of his children and their families and relished how they continuously planned long vacations coming back to Nebraska. The world turned when they arrived to honor and show their love.

Five large bedrooms accommodated a joint campout of sorts for all. One room had three double beds. The family used extra air mattresses to enable 32 people to sleep in Floyd’s house. A tent and a motel room accommodated another six family members.

Floyd’s four living children and their spouses were there, including son Paul and Bernice Herman, daughter Peggy and Vic Salinas, daughter Sue and Rob Linehan and son Robert and wife Terry Herman.

Son Don Herman fell off a ladder and died nearly six years ago at age 75. He was a Navy pilot just like his surviving brothers Paul and Robert. All three sons earned Regents Scholarships and graduated from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. So did daughter Peggy, who also earned a Regents Scholarship. Daughter Sue graduated from the University of Nebraska-Omaha, giving five siblings a clean sweep while following in their dad’s footsteps.

Four of Floyd’s five children earned Master’s degrees. It was a tribute to their dad, who believed that education was never a misuse of effort. Floyd also felt strongly that a degree does not guarantee a person anything and does not qualify anyone as well educated.

The timeliness of their universal success deserves an influential footnote. Because of the Great Depression, once Floyd earned his bachelor’s degree in education, he and his late wife Evelyn moved to California, the home state of their first three children.

Those roots explain why Floyd’s two living sons and two living daughters kept making lengthy annual treks to Nebraska from their homes since they celebrated their parents’ 65th wedding anniversary more than 16 years ago.

From that day forward, everyone, including the grandkids, went to Wilber to celebrate away from their homes in California, Texas, Florida and Virginia.

Even at the Age of 105, the Late Floyd Herman Had a Photographic Memory 

Born in 1912, Floyd Herman developed a photographic memory at a tender young age and maintained it almost to the end. In high school at Wilber, he played basketball. He also high jumped and threw the javelin in track and field. In between his high school and collegiate athletic career, Floyd was among 3,000 participants – 1,500 men and 1,500 women – representing the USA in the Sokol competition in Prague, the Capital of the Czech Republic and a popular European city that sent thousands of Bohemians to places like Nebraska.

Floyd’s sense of humor matched his humility. When his daughters forced him to admit that he was the man carrying the USA flag in a Prague photo representing 3,000 USA representatives, he had an answer. “The only reason I carried that flag was because I was the youngest one there," Floyd insisted.

The late Floyd Herman was never much of a football fan and stayed humble about his honorary letter. “Football has always driven the athletic department, and it still does,” he pointed out, acknowledging that he had a grandson who lived in Houston and “breathed” Nebraska football on a daily basis. No wonder Floyd enjoyed talking about Nebraska football games with grandson Steven whenever he called. 

The birth of Nebraska men’s gymnastics was mostly uneventful. “Five of us (fellow UNL students) were interested in gymnastics, so we kept working out,” Floyd said. “An academic instructor we had became interested as well, so he ended up taking us to Colorado to compete in four meets in three days. We did well in all four, so after we came back, the university decided to recognize us as a part of Nebraska Athletics.” 

The decision was that simple, and the impetus was Sokol, a Slavic word for falcon that became a movement in an all-age gymnastics organization founded in the Czech region of Prague. “Sokol’s principle was having a strong mind and a strong body, but it wasn’t just for gymnastics,” Floyd said. “They organized a gymnastics situation so they could rise up in a civil war to stop what the dictatorship was doing. The idea was that gymnasts became a way of training militia without anyone really knowing about it.

“I’ve lived a wonderful life and enjoyed all my experiences," he told me. "I was fortunate enough to be on a Sokol team from Nebraska that went to Prague. We took a boat to get there and trained for two months. Sokol isn’t just gymnastics. It’s all athletics, including pole vaulting and sprints. We ended up with a gold medal.”

Beginning gymnastics training at age seven, Floyd learned how to develop both his mind and body. "Gymnastics depends on two scientific ideas – centrifugal force and leverage," he said. "I was well trained in every exercise and applied what I learned. I could transform what I knew from a scientific script and leverage what I needed.”

Health was a factor in Floyd’s athletic accomplishments. “My mother was 102 when she passed away,” he said. “She was sharp and a great homemaker. When I was 104, I was only two years older than what my mother once was.”

Maybe it was a steady diet of still rings, flying rings, flying cross, parallel bars, horizontal bars, side-horse or floor exercise that increased Floyd’s stamina. “Doctors say I have the heart of a 20-year-old,” he said. “My daughter thinks I can be put on a donor list. I don’t know how to explain it. I was never as strong as some of the other guys, but I had and still have great lung capacity. When doctors listen to my lungs, they tell me they have 20-percent more capacity than most young people. I don’t know why they told me that, but it was three years ago.”

As a Professional Singer, Floyd Sparkled with Oklahoma and Old Man River

The late Floyd D. Herman (above working in the entertainment industry) got into vaudeville and became both a singer and an emcee to earn money to help his family during the depression. “I spent 2½ years in my 30s trying to make money to feed and care for my family,” he said. “Those were the days when movies were in, and we used vaudeville to draw people into buying popcorn and candy.”

Floyd was masterful whenever he opened his big lungs and sang Oklahoma or Old Man River. “I auditioned in Hollywood for road shows that went all the way from California to Florida,” he said. “When we lived on the West Coast, I was really interested. I sang a song, and the lady who was auditioning me had tears in her eyes. She sent me to New York City to make my mark and apply for the lead in Oklahoma on Broadway." 

Unfortunately, Floyd caught a major cold on the train. The heat quit while crossing the great plains in his home state of Nebraska, causing Floyd to lose his voice. Because of that, he didn’t get the part, so his agent found work in Florida, giving Floyd the opportunity to convalesce in warm weather. Because of a hurricane, as luck would have it, the place he was scheduled to perform lost its lights and electricity for five straight days. Undaunted, because he had a deep voice that reminded people of Nelson Eddy or Lawrence Tibbett, Floyd used his extraordinary lung capacity to sing his favorite songs without a microphone, both inside and outside the entertainment venue.

When that’s the only thing you can do during a nation's deep depression, you do it. Vaudeville paid the bills and time marched on. A brainy student who liked physics ended up graduating from Nebraska’s Teachers’ College. Eventually, despite an arsenal of skill sets, Floyd decided to return home and farm in the same area that he grew up.

He was in his late 30’s and a tried-and-true renaissance man. He had a clear head and a happy family.

The late Floyd Herman also had a big, healthy heart and fond memories that felt like he was in the movies.

Equally important, the late Floyd Herman basically had no regrets in his 105 precious years of life.

We all should be so lucky.

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