One of my biggest joys of the winter season is receiving holiday cards from my friends and family. On the other hand, I am terrible about sending cards myself. Imagine being Dick Konter, who had promised over 800 people that he would write to them while on a polar expedition to Antarctica! Richard Konter served 30 years in the U.S. Navy, including during the Spanish-American War. After retirement, he became known as “Ukulele Dick,” teaching students to play the instrument and publishing the 1923 instructional guide, Dick's Ukulele Method. Konter then joined U.S. Navy Lieutenant Commander Richard Byrd’s 1926 Arctic expedition to fly over the North Pole. He had brought his ukulele with him with the intention of teaching the native people of the North. Little did he know, there weren't any natives for him to teach in Spitsbergen, the crew's base, though he did arrange lessons for the crew and some local Norwegians. Not to be thwarted in his quest for polar ukulele fame, Konter hid his instrument in the back of the Josephine Ford, the Fokker Trimotor flown by Byrd, so that he could claim to own the first ukulele flown over the North Pole—other crew members did the same, hiding tokens throughout the airplane. The Byrd Expedition returned to great acclaim and fanfare. Byrd and expedition pilot Floyd Bennett were awarded the Medal of Honor. Konter was greeted by his adoring students and fans, and his music and instruction manuals experienced a surge of interest. Through this fame, Konter was able to meet many celebrities and asked many to sign his ukulele. The over 100 signatures on his guitar include Byrd, fellow polar explorer Roald Amundsen, former president Calvin Coolidge, Charles Lindbergh, and Thomas Edison. In fact, in 2014, the Smithsonian Museum Conservation Institute assisted the C.F. Martin & Co. Museum & Archives in carrying out digital imaging on the ukulele to identify the signatures. In 1928, Byrd began an expedition to the South Pole. Konter was again a member of the crew, officially listed as chief radioman. He was also the recreation officer, having brought with him 150 records, 150 pianola rolls, and, of course, a ukulele. Konter also promised over 800 people that he would write to them from Antarctica. So while Byrd was flying the Ford Trimotor Floyd Bennett (named after the pilot of Byrd’s North Pole expedition, who died earlier that year), the Fairchild FC-2W2 Stars and Stripes, and the Fokker Universal Virginia over Antarctica, Konter was busy on the ship City of New York, which was anchored outside the base dubbed “Little America,” on the Ross Ice Shelf approximately 1,287 kilometers (800 miles) from the South Pole.
One of Konter’s frequent correspondents was his landlady in Brooklyn, Mrs. Adalaide Gray, whom he affectionately called “Ma.” One of his many Christmas cards can be found in the "Little America" Antarctica (Konter) Collection, 1928-1930, in the National Air and Space Museum Archives. Featuring a drawing of the City of New York with the stereotypical Antarctic penguins, the front of the preprinted card wishes the recipient a Merry Christmas 1929 and Happy New Year 1930. The reverse is stamped with the note: “No matter when these Greetings reach you, Time and Distance will have in no manner diminished their Heartiness and Sincerity.” Other pieces of correspondence bore on the letterhead the note, “Warm Greetings from a Cold Country.”
Indeed, these greetings may have only arrived to Mrs. Gray just before Konter himself returned to America with Byrd in June 1930. His Christmas greeting to New York politician Lambert Fairchild arrived in New York on April 25, 1930, and Mrs. Walter H. Raunick did not receive hers until June. The New York Times actually published several stories about the arrival of Konter’s Christmas cards, finding his correspondence particularly newsworthy. Richard “Ukulele Dick” Konter passed away in 1979 at the age of 97. After his participation in the first two of Byrd’s many polar expeditions, he led a band and group of entertainers that performed for New York’s children’s shelters, hospitals, and nursing homes. He reflected on the many cards and letters he sent during the Antarctic expedition in a May 1930 letter to Ed Iovanni: “While I had a very big mailing list, I tried to keep in touch with everyone and it was ‘some job,’ which no one will ever know, for I had to go over each sheet of paper five different times and each envelope each times [sic] and as I sent about 1500 out, you can see what I was up against but it was worth it for the happiness or thrill it seemed to give all the receivers.” Happy Holidays to all! Elizabeth C. Borja wrote about an 1898 polar expedition’s Christmas in the Arctic in the AirSpace blog post, “A Very Wellman Christmas.”