By Gary Graupner
Above, Gary Graupner standing with Evel Knievel in front of his limousine. Photo courtesy of the Graupner Family Archives.
In the early 1970s, Evel Knievel was probably one of the most famous people in the world, as he was the foremost daredevil motorcycle jumper. He had gained fame for his successes and failures in his long jumps of cars, busses, and he would eventually, in 1974, attempt a jump of the Snake River Canyon in southern Idaho.
We had heard of him and seen him on TV but this was the age where there were no YouTube videos or internet to look things up on, so seeing him was a real thrill even on our televisions. You can imagine my shock when one day in about 1971, my dad called us at home and asked us if we would like to come down to his office and meet Evel in person!
Evel was from Butte, Montana. He came to Spokane to golf and see friends and take care of business deals, too, and it was during this time that he was promoting his Snake River Canyon Jump, some two or more years early, that he was in Spokane for some meetings.
My father, Roy Graupner, was the part owner and manager of Mountain Distributors, Inc. which was the local beer distributor and wholesaler for Olympia Beer and Schlitz at the time. The warehouse and office were on Trent, down just west of the curve by the old Schade Brewery, which was Inland Metals at the time. In fact, the warehouse land is now right where the new Martin Luther King, Jr. Blvd joins Trent at the stop light.
I was going out with my future wife, Nanette Phillips, and she was a student at Kinman Business University taking banking courses, and I was at Spokane Falls Community College and working part time at Northland Peterbilt Trucks. When Dad called us, we were home late in that afternoon, so I quickly gathered her, and my brother Steve and sister Linda, and we went down to the office. Olympia Brewing Company corporate offices were sponsoring his upcoming jump and so he met with my dad and the folks down there as part of some PR work.
When we got there, we saw his big black Cadillac limousine at the front door, and went on in. We went through the office and into the back room of the warehouse among the stacks of beer, and were introduced to him by Dad. The man’s mystique was nothing like the real person as he was a very nice, friendly guy just having a beer and yakking with the people there. Of course, we brought our camera and took these pictures. We all stood by him as he had a beer and joked and since Steve and I were into dirt bikes then, we were able to converse with him about cycles for a while.
When talking to him, Nanette asked him if it was true that he had broken every bone in his body, he winked at her, and said, “All but one!”
She and my sister were the only two ladies there, and so when all us guys laughed loudly, she turned bright red! We probably spent an hour or so just yakking and joking around and then he had to leave. When we walked out the front door with him, I put my arm on the Limousine like it was mine, and asked him if I might borrow it to take her to dinner and a movie that night and he laughed, and said, “No, but you stay here and I will take her out in it!”
We had some good times with him, and it was one of those once in a lifetime things you never forget.
While he was in town that weekend, on Saturday he was out at Argonne Village and did some wheelies in the parking lot and signed autographs. He had his big red Semi with cycle shop and living quarters in it there, too.
That Sunday, he jumped 14 cars out at the Deer Park Dragstrip… successfully. We were there to see that, too, along with a very large and happy crowd. We always tried to keep track of the things he was doing a little more after meeting him in person, and were sad to hear of his death a few years ago. I guess he spent quite a bit of time here in Spokane after his retirement from jumping, and was always in the news one way or another. He sure made it a special time for a bunch of young folks so long ago.