Editor's note: The Columbus Telegram first reported about this on Thursday on its website. This is a new, up-to-date story. Visit columbustelegram.com for updates regarding the flooding in the area as it is available.
A Platte County farmer is being heralded as a hero and remembered as a loving family member and friend by many in the community.
Columbus area native and resident James Wilke, 50, was the person who died Thursday in the floodwaters of rural Columbus, his cousin, Paul Wilke, confirmed Friday with The Columbus Telegram.
“He was very generous, giving, very involved with everything,” Paul Wilke said of his cousin. “He has always been one who gets involved and gets things done.”
Wilke said his late cousin was a lifelong farmer and a talented one at that. He said James was a great cattle feeder and always got “very good yields” when it came to his crops.
James was an active family and community member, too. Wilke said James was serving as an elder at their parish, Christ Lutheran Church, in north Columbus, noting how proud he was of his cousin for being one of the youngest people in the church to serve in that distinguished position.
The local farmer was also highly supportive of Lakeview Community Schools. Its school board president, Keith Runge, grew up just down the road from James and praised his longtime friend.
“Words can’t describe what he means to his family and the community – he was an outstanding member of the community, that’s for sure,” Runge said, noting their sons are the best of friends today. “He was a great family person, very religious and someone who supported the community any time he could. He was always willing to help anybody in the community. He supported a lot of the things related to our schools.”
Lakeview Community Schools Superintendent Aaron Plas said James was a great man who meant a lot to the area.
“James was a huge part of the Lakeview community and school district. He has always been very active in Lakeview Community Schools, especially in the FFA (Future Farmers of America) area,” he said on Friday evening. “He was an all-around great guy. Our hearts pour out to his family. Our thoughts and prayers are with his family, friends and the entire community.”
A man who loved to help others, James died attempting to rescue others in need. With the guidance of emergency responders, Wilke noted, James drove his tractor over the Shell Creek bridge on Monastery Road, but the bridge gave out, and James and his tractor fell down into the floodwaters. His body was recovered later by a nearby creek bed.
“That was the kind of person James was – if he got the call from someone needing help, he was going to help somebody,” Paul Wilke said.
Wilke said the unexpected loss of his cousin, who he said he considered a brother, has been hard on the entire family, including James’ wife and children. But, he said, they are appreciative of the community’s support and kind words shared online about James.
The statewide flooding has continued to cause havoc for residents and employers alike, but many in the area have been stepping up to help their fellow neighbors. In the case of Todd Tuls (Butler County Dairy in Rising City and Double Dutch Dairy in Shelby owner), he has had company pilot Todd Tobiason flying employees back and forth between Columbus and York the last couple of days - as many as five trips per day.
Tobiason on Friday said he made the 10-minute flight between the two communities several times Thursday and Friday, adding he expected to get up in the air a few more times before the day ended. The King Air 200 he flies seats himself and nine passengers at a time. Once the plane lands in York, passengers are shuttled approximately 35 minutes over to the dairy in Rising City or Shelby. At the end of their shift, they're taken back to the airport to York and flown back to Columbus.
“It’s certainly unusual,” he said, noting it had been the first time he had to fly employees to and from work in the six years he has worked for Tuls.
The pilot managed to take some aerial photos while flying, noting even he was taken aback by the abundance of water present along U.S. Highway 81, south of Columbus.
“’That’s a lot of water,’” he said, recalling of when he initially saw the water on his first flight commuting employees. “Once we were in the air and I saw it, I understood why the road is closed. It’s impassable.”
Tobiason said the flights for employees would continue as long as it was necessary. He added that he hopes the roads will clear up soon.
Meanwhile, Columbus resident and Pop-Up Blind owner Jeff Mullinix was offering and giving those in need of help rides with his boat. Mullinix spread the word through his Facebook page, with many people praising his efforts online. When contacted later Friday, Mullinix said he was talking with and helping local law enforcement. The Telegram was unable to reach him again before its print deadline.
As for James Wilke, it's clear he had quite the impact on his hometown and county. Throughout the day Friday, many residents shared their condolences and memories of the late farmer on social media. Columbus' Jodi L. Hefti was one of them, calling him a true example of what it means to be a hero.
"The Columbus area lost one of the BEST men I have ever known. James Wilke was not only a GREAT all around guy, he was a GREAT family man and he was AMAZINGLY strong in his faith and God ...," she wrote. "Not all HEROES wear capes or uniforms. I know a TRUE HERO who wore a T-shirt, blue jeans, work boots and drove a John Deere Tractor."
Matt Lindberg is the managing editor of The Columbus Telegram. Reach him via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.