KEARNEY — Hailstorms. Ice storms. Earthquakes. Riots. Floods.
As an insurance adjuster for the General Adjustment Bureau for 50 years, Bob Baltzell saw the country as he traveled to the scenes of disasters to settle claims.
He went to Los Alamos National Laboratories in New Mexico after a wildfire. He went to East St. Louis, Ill., after a railroad car blew up, and to Edison, N.J., after a natural gas pipeline exploded.
He traveled to Los Angeles, San Francisco, Morgan City, La., and Mankato, Minn. He spent 23 weeks in Tallahassee, seven weeks in Pascagoula, Miss.
Sometimes the work kept him close to home, like the week he spent in Grand Island after the 1980 tornado. “The manager there lost his house, everything above the first floor,” he said.
In his 50-year career, the Paxton native left home 35 times for a total of 185 weeks, or three and a half years.
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Baltzell never considered becoming an insurance adjuster. Raised on a farm near Paxton, he graduated from North Platte High School and got a job in a grocery store in McCook for $60 a week and planned to become a farmer.
He shared an upstairs apartment with an insurance adjuster, and when the GAB needed more adjusters, the roommate recommended Baltzell to his manager. When the manager called, Baltzell accepted the adjuster position. He even grew a mustache during his training in Dodge City, Kan., because he was told it would make him “look older.”
He worked for the GAB for the next 40 years and missed just half a day of work. “I had a bad reaction to penicillin pills,” he said. After that, Baltzell spent 10 years traveling all over the country to settle claims.
Insurance adjusters investigate insurance claims before the insurance company pays clients. Insurance companies that have no adjusters of their own depend on the GAB to clear their claims.
Baltzell spent six weeks in Detroit after the race riots in 1967. “There were lots of claims because stores were destroyed,” he said.
Accompanied by a bodyguard and his accountant, he met with property owners. He and the accountant would calculate the financial loss. “I dealt with some crooked people. They’d tell me what they lost, but then I made them show me the books. Some of them hadn’t lost anything according to the books.”
Most “harrowing” were his eight weeks in East St. Louis, Ill., a decaying city across the Mississippi River from St. Louis, where he was sent after a chemical-filled railroad boxcar exploded. The blast cracked plaster in homes, broke windows and knocked TV sets off shelves.
By then, he was a manager in the Kearney office. Another manager had just come from the company’s recently closed Valentine office. “They asked him to go, but he said he’d rather quit, so I volunteered to go,” he said.
In East St. Louis, “They had two bodyguards at the office door, and the mayor sent 15 bodyguards to our office. The railroad told me to make an honest estimate, offer it, and we’d pay it. Otherwise, they’d send a railroad person out in a month or two.”
One business owner told him, “You pay me or you’re dead.” Four or five adjusters quit after such threats, but Baltzell got a bodyguard and kept working.
A few days later, he saw that man’s picture in the newspaper. He’d been shot in an argument.
He said clusters of curious children would follow him and ask what it was like in the world outside their neighborhood. They’d never seen a white person.
A woman named Callie didn’t think his estimate adequately covered the damage she’d suffered. “I told her that another man would be out in a few months, but she said, ‘Callie’s gonna put a hex on you! I know voodoo,’” he said.
“I went back to the motel and got up the next morning and my ankle was sprained. I don’t know how that happened. I went around like that the whole day, but I got up the next day, and it was healed,” he said.
He met good people in East St. Louis, too. “I realized the good people had nice homes on the inside, but not on the outside. If the home looked too nice, they’d be burglarized,” he said.
“We couldn’t go into an area until 10 a.m. because everyone was still drunk. At 4 p.m., they all started drinking again,” Baltzell said. “I was glad when the eight weeks were up.”
In 2001, he spent 11 weeks after wildfires in Los Alamos, N.M., overseeing the files of 40 adjusters and 20 FEMA employees. “FEMA people had bodyguards in case someone was unhappy. Nothing ever happened, but the government just wanted to be sure about it,” he said.
Every Friday, one of those in the office was in charge of making lunch for 60 people. His turn came up twice.
In 2004, he did adjusting after the earthquake in Los Angeles, “and I hated every minute of it,” he said. His insurance company had “loaned” him to another company, and “their guidelines drove me nuts.”
In one house, the only damage was a fallen section of concrete block fence. The insurance company required him to take a picture of every wall in every room to prove there was no other damage. “I took pictures of every room, all for a piece of concrete block. Back then, we had no cellphones. I had a camera, and each claim required from 30 to 60 pictures,” he said.
In 2007, he covered a hurricane in Tallahassee, Fla. Citizens Insurance Co. was owned by the state of Florida. Anyone who owned property within four or five miles of the coast had to buy insurance from the state. “I’d sit in front of my computer, and 500 adjusters in the field sent me photographs of damage. I’d base my judgments on what I saw,” he said.
He also went to Edison, N.J. after a natural gas pipeline explosion threatened an apartment complex and forced 1,500 people to evacuate. “Attorneys out there claimed we caused 1,400 injuries,” he said. That turned out to be false. In his six weeks there, he couldn’t settle a single claim. He came home for a month or two, then went back and settled.
The explosion was caused by someone using a bulldozer to dig holes to dump parts of stolen cars, but that wasn’t discovered until after the fire was put out.
Sent to San Francisco for six weeks to settle routine auto dealership claims, he couldn’t live on the per diem rate. “I had to go 30 miles out of town to get a motel I could afford,” he said. He rode BART to and from the office.
Judy’s parents met Baltzell when he was just a few days old. They were witnesses to the wedding of his aunt and uncle in the church parsonage in 1936. After the ceremony, they all went to the hospital to see Baltzell, their newborn nephew.
“My mother always said if she’d known that baby was going to become her son-in-law, she’d have smothered the little guy,” Judy said with a laugh. “I suppose we played together as kids, but I don’t remember much,” Baltzell said.
Baltzell played the drums in the North Platte High School band. Judy, now living in McCook, played the flute and was a majorette for the McCook High School band. Bob introduced himself after a band concert.
After he moved to McCook and began working in the grocery store, Baltzell got a new car. His aunt casually told him she’d seen Judy in the band, adding, “She’d like a ride in that new car.”
When Baltzell knocked on Judy’s door, she was surprised to see him, but she agreed to go for a ride. She still remembers that green and yellow ’54 Chevy. “I think we got along fine,” she said.
Judy, still in high school, eventually wore his class ring around her neck. When she graduated, he gave her a “little bitty diamond engagement ring. I can’t remember his proposal, but I knew we were heading toward that,” she said.
They were married in 1956 and lived in town because Judy refused to live on a farm. “I would not be a good farmer’s wife,” she told him. In those early years, Judy made $50 a week. Baltzell made $60. When he was offered a salary of $325 a month, plus a car, as an insurance adjuster, “That was a big salary.”
Kearney residents since 1966, the couple has four grown children, four grandchildren and three great-grandchildren. They’ve traveled all over the world. Bob has played golf at St. Andrew’s in Scotland. On April 29, they celebrated their 65th wedding anniversary.