Baldwin retires from Search and Rescue

Ron Burtz
No one is quite sure just how long Steve Baldwin has been involved with Custer County Search and Rescue (SAR)—not even Baldwin himself—but one thing is agreed upon by those who have served with him over the years: The retiring member and former director of SAR has made a monumental contribution to the organization’s growth and success.  
Longtime Custer Ambulance crew member and former Custer High School classmate John Culberson credits Baldwin with forging a working relationship between SAR and the ambulance service. With the ambulance being called out to help injured people in remote areas like Black Elk Peak, Culberson said having SAR members paged to help transport ambulance crew members and life-saving equipment can make a big difference. 
Noting that a carry of even 100 yards would tax the energies of ambulance crews, Culberson said having SAR members with UTVs available is often vital to successful rescues. 
Another major contribution to making SAR what it is today, according to Culberson, is Baldwin’s founding of the non-profit fundraising organization Friends of Custer County Search and Rescue in 2013. 
“If it were not for him,” said Culberson, “search and rescue wouldn’t look the way it does today. Over the years he was search and rescue in Custer County, in my opinion.”
Current SAR director Rick March agrees with that assessment, saying Baldwin was the public face of the squad for a couple of decades.
March also expressed his thanks for the support of Baldwin’s wife, Judy, saying, “Our squad isn’t supported with just our volunteers, but our families also support that contribution of time, or it doesn’t happen.” 
Indeed, Baldwin served as SAR director for 20 years and was responsible for adding much of the training and equipment the organization has today. 
“Steve is a classic example of someone giving back to their community,” said county emergency management director Mike Carter who has also worked alongside Baldwin for many years. 
The person with perhaps the longest perspective on Baldwin’s service is former SAR member Ralph Kelley who was involved in the organization’s founding in the early ’70s. Kelley says SAR grew out of a sheriff’s reserve officer program formed after the American Indian Movement riots at the courthouse in 1973. At that time, says Kelley, a person had to be a member of the reserves in order to be on search and rescue. Kelley says he and former SAR director Paul Muehl recognized a need for people to be trained in rock rescue because of increased climbing in the Black Hills. 
Eventually the reserve unit was dissolved, but SAR grew in its mission, skills and membership.  
“He put in a lot of time,” said Kelley of Baldwin and says he was the person who recommended Baldwin to replace Muehl as the organization’s director. 
As mentioned earlier, not even Baldwin recalls exactly when he first got involved with SAR, but he remembers being called out on incidents beginning sometime around 1980. 
Part of the reason for the haziness of details is the fact that no records exist from those days because SAR was at that time a loosely-organized group of volunteers.
“He [Muehl] would call on people who were willing and able to go help,” said Baldwin. 
Born and raised in the Custer area, Baldwin returned from service in the U.S. Navy and was teaching school in 1973. In the fall of that year his father convinced him to go to work at the family’s Standard Oil station located where Family Dollar now is. 
He says at some point after he took over the gas station, Muehl, who headed up the team of mountain carvers at Crazy Horse Memorial, began calling him to help with search and rescue operations. 
In 1991 Baldwin decided to close the filling station and one day had a visit from Muehl.
“When are you comin’ to work?” inquired Muehl. When asked what he meant, Muehl replied, “You’re comin’ to work up on the mountain.”
So, on Sept. 30, 1991, Baldwin went to work as a mountain carver at Crazy Horse. 
“Best job I ever had,” says Baldwin of his days hanging from a rope on the side of the mountain operating a hydraulic drill. “I got to go climbing every day and played with explosives and got paid for it. There were times I’d have my toes on a ledge and be drilling in between my feet ... and I could see down between my heels.” 
During his time at the memorial, Baldwin continued his active involvement with SAR and then one day in 1995 when he was hanging on the mountainside he had another surprise visit from Muehl. 
Noticing a motion out of the corner of his eye, Baldwin looked over to see Muehl, who had been having some recent health problems, hanging beside him. 
“Just wanted to let you know you’re taking over as director of SAR,” stated Muehl. 
“And he got back on his rope and away he went,” recalls Baldwin. “That’s the kind of guy he was. I thought, ‘That couldn’t have waited ‘til lunch?’”
The decision to appoint Baldwin as Muehl’s successor had been made by Muehl, Kelley and Carter with the approval of the county commission. 
The next year Baldwin took over as director of Black Hills Parks and Forests Association. Retiring from that position in 2013, he began to prepare for his exit as SAR director as well.
By that time he had been director for nearly 20 years and believed it was time to turn over the reins to someone else. 
“I had decided that’s really too long for one person to be in charge as director,” said Baldwin, so he made arrangements with the county commission for SAR leadership roles to be decided by the organization’s members much as is done with the fire department and ambulance crew. 
Having noted over the years the need for a nonprofit sister organization to raise money for SAR and accept tax-deductible donations, Baldwin began working on building the Friends group. The organization received its nonprofit status from the IRS in 2013 and Baldwin became its first president. 
Over the last seven years the organization raised over $50,000 to help purchase new equipment for SAR mostly through its annual Rocky Mountain Oyster Feed held in the spring. 
Fellow SAR member Paul Horsted notes that recently Baldwin has been a driver and tour guide for Dave Ressler’s Dave’s World Tours and has lived an extremely active life. 
“What always impressed me about Steve,” writes Horsted, “is that he would always show up to help anytime night or day. If he was in town, he was there. Climbers or cavers in trouble, lost kids, somebody hurt up on Black Elk Peak, wildfire evacuations, Steve was there. I don't know anyone who has been of more service to our community, especially on an all-volunteer basis. I bet we still see him out on a call from time to time even though he says he's ‘retired!’”
Since turning over the director’s keys to March in 2015, Baldwin remained active with SAR, but decided to retire now because of his age. 
“By the time next season rolls around I’ll be pushing 74 years old and that’s getting to be kind of pushing the envelope,” said Baldwin. “I question if I should be out there hiking around the woods, climbing around on the rocks and trying to rescue people when we have other people who can do it? They don’t need to be rescuing me, too.”
Nevertheless, Baldwin says every time he gets a message on his phone that SAR is being paged out he feels the pull to answer it and says he would love to still be doing it. 
“And it’s been a lot of fun,” he said. “I’ve really enjoyed it over the years.”
When asked what he is most proud of from his years with SAR, Baldwin said, “I take a lot of pride in bringing new people into the organization and getting them trained and able to go out and safely do rescues. We’ve saved a lot of lives.”
An open house in Baldwin’s honor planned for the end of August was postponed because of the recent uptick in coronavirus cases in the county. Organizers are hoping to reschedule it for a later date.

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