When actor John Wayne stepped off a Union Pacific train onto a platform in Laramie 50 years ago, longtime Laramie resident Dan Nelson said the energy in the air was contagious.
“It was amazing to think, ‘Yeah, this is actually John Wayne,’” Nelson told the Laramie Boomerang. “I was kind of awestruck at his size; I’m not that tall myself, but he just was larger than life.”
Wayne, born Marion Morrison, came to town via train May 9, 1969, on his way to Utah to be the celebrity guest for the Centennial celebration of the completion of the Transcontinental Railroad the following day. He was also promoting his upcoming film, “True Grit,” for which he’d receive an Academy Award for best actor the following year.
A University of Wyoming student on the cusp of graduating, “Danny” Nelson was waiting for Wayne downtown with his Sigma Chi fraternity brothers to present the actor — who was one of their most famous fraternity brothers — a special derby hat. The derby was a nationwide symbol for Sigma Chi’s annual Derby Days philanthropic event, and the members decided who was going to give the derby to Wayne based on who had the highest number on their fraternity pin.
“I didn’t know when I got there that I was going to be the one to give him the hat,” Nelson said. “I didn’t have any time, really, to prepare for it or anything.”
The felt derby was specially made for Wayne, with “Derby Days” painted in white across the front. Nelson said he hadn’t even seen the hat before giving it to him that day. A fraternity brother took a photo of Nelson and Wayne — wearing the derby — singing a popular Sigma Chi song, “My Name is Sigma Chi, Sir.” At the end of the song, the fraternity brothers raise their fists to cheer, which is when the photo was taken.
“So, that’s what he was doing there, rather than looking like he was getting ready to hit me,” Nelson said, chuckling.
The photo was particularly special, Nelson said, because it’s one of the few where Wayne is in a suit, tie and derby rather than his typical Western uniform of cowboy hat, chaps and boots. Additionally, he said, it’s one of the few with Wayne next to the Sigma Chi letters. Wayne was initiated into Sigma Chi while he attended the University of Southern California in 1929.
While Wayne was in Laramie, the city presented him with a pair of green and orange boots and a commemorative edition Remington rifle on a platform at the Railroad Depot, built especially for the occasion. The gifts, Nelson said, Wayne “graciously accepted with a look of incredulity.”
Nelson went on to become an educator with Albany County School District No. 1 and the executive director of the Laramie Plains Museum for 17 years. Even as time passes, he said he remembers that Friday afternoon “almost as clear as crystal,” although small details — like whether he skipped class to be there — aren’t quite as clear, he admitted.
“Dampened, I’m sure, by 50 years,” Nelson said.
Wayne was only in the city about an hour, but the energy and excitement in the air, Nelson said, was unforgettable. He likened it to when the steam engine trains Big Boy and Living Legend came to town Saturday, with excited crowds craning to get a good look.
“I was looking at some of the stuff from the trains coming in last weekend … and that’s the same kind of enthusiasm, except this was a real person, you know?” Nelson said. “And it never happened in Laramie before, and it never happened since.”