January 30, 1989 12:00 PM

You can take the boy out of South Dakota, but sometimes it’s hard to take South Dakota out of the boy. Growing up in small-town Eureka, Allen Neuharth always wanted a tree house. This winter, at the age of 64, he finally got one, built not on the frigid plains, but on the shore at his oceanfront estate in Cocoa Beach, Fla.

As chairman of the Gannett newspaper chain and founder of USA Today, the former newspaper reporter presides over 88 newspapers, 16 radio and 10 television stations. He also owns a private jet and five homes, including a horse farm in Virginia and a mountain retreat in Lake Ta-hoe, Nev. Still, Neuharth felt the lack of a little place he could call his own—a place to “work, take naps and occasionally play poker with my friends.” A few months ago, with the same determination that built a media empire, he set out to create the perfect hideaway.

First, he chose the site—an Australian pine tree, surfside on his front lawn. Then he drew up the simple plans—no architect needed. It took 2 1/3 weeks for a builder to put the 12-by-l8-foot house together and hoist it by crane into the tree. Neuharth did the landscaping: some rusty cannons and two signs that read NO GIRLS OR GROWNUPS ALLOWED and THE DAKO-TAH KIDS CLUB. He carved the signs him-self, putting in a misspelled word and a backwards letter to create the proper Our Gang effect.

Constructed of cedar poles with a roof woven from everglades fronds by Seminole Indians, the tree house-reached by a narrow, curving staircase—is solid wood on one side, open to the ocean on the other. The only furniture, save for a built-in desk, is a table and four chairs for poker nights. Beyond that, it’s just the bare necessities: a sink with hot and cold running water, a portable toilet, a liquor cabinet and a telephone on which Neuharth can call out but no one can call in. “Mainly I use it to phone the library,” says Neuharth, who is starting an autobiography and now writes his regular column for USA Today on an old Royal typewriter in the tree house.

Occasionally he takes a break to watch a pretty girl walk down the beach. At times like that, alone in a tree house with his binoculars, Al Neuharth, head of one of America’s biggest media conglomerates, is just another little rascal.

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