The recent tragic loss of four NDSU students has conjured up fresh memories of a similar loss on that same campus—more than fifty years ago.
It was midafternoon on a shortened winter’s day, about the time of the Little International. Those of us that were involved in the leadership and management of this event were constantly reshuffling our schedules to accommodate the added workload. Classes were being rescheduled and sometimes even skipped, so it wasn’t unusual on this particular day to have to decline a ride out to the NDSU research livestock barns.
Bill Cook, Gene Wyman, and Ray Zimmerman had stopped by the meat lab to pick me up for an animal husbandry lab — teaching the techniques of animal castration. It didn’t sound like anything too exciting. I was pretty busy anyway, so I declined with a "thank you, but no thanks", a wave of best wishes, and a pleasant afternoon. It was perhaps the biggest decision of my life.
Only the good Lord knows if I would have been killed, had I accepted that ride. But two of the three were killed, just moments later.
The day started as a typical cloudy, overcast morning, but by mid-day the fog was beginning to set in. At about class time, the visibility was extremely limited. But this was a trip that we had all made so many times, that I’m sure they thought they could do it blindfolded.
But the one obstacle they never figured on was the railroad crossing that trains seldom ran. There were neither cross arms nor flashing lights, as it wasn’t a heavily traveled route. The tracks were so close to the Ag Research Center that it simply blended in as part of the landscape.
Without warning of any kind — not even the screeching sounds of iron scraping iron in an attempt to stop the train, or a train whistle was to be heard. The impact was so sudden and unexpected that two lives were snuffed out in a matter of seconds. Gene Wyman was able to jump free from the accident but Bill Cook and Ray Zimmerman were killed upon impact.
A good friend, Norm Bakkegaard, stopped by the meat lab to give me the tragic news. He was also a friend of theirs, and knew how difficult it was going to be. We embraced, cried, and shared an unbelievable moment of loss!
The flashback of it all still wells up tears and uncontrollable emotion. We were not only close, but it changed my whole perspective on the future, as I saw them as part of a vision of forging a profession together.
We had done everything together, on the judging teams, traveling the entire country together, and even domestic chores.
On the evening of their deaths, my wife was typing a term paper for Ray, and Bill was babysitting my daughter.
I was married and had one child at the time of the accident, so it wasn’t unusual for my wife to be typing, or Bill to be babysitting. We couldn’t afford a typewriter, so it was kind of a trade off. Bill had a better knack with my daughter than I did. Maybe it was just his way with women, as he was kind of a ladies’ man.
He was just a charismatic guy that got along with everyone. If all were having a good time, you could be assured that Bill was leading the way. Sometimes it was considered ‘mischievous mischief’, but it was a characteristic that would have opened insurmountable doors of opportunity.
Ray had been stricken with polio at a very young age. Though it was a lifetime crippling disease, it never slowed him down. He would walk across campus, from class to class, in the worst of weather conditions — never complain and was never late! He would always arrive in a cold sweat from working so hard, but never asked for help — he didn’t want to be treated any differently. What others took for granted in life, he made an effort to be as normal as possible. He was proud of who he was and what he was! He was a man’s kind of man and always wore a Stetson.
Ray and I used to talk a lot about the future, as well. His dream was to go back to the family ranch in western North Dakota to make it bigger and better than it already was — both dreamed big, and talked about the role we might share in helping to achieve that dream.
What could have been, or would have been got all wrapped up in the moment of time — only to be consumated as an honorary pallbearer.
Just as the recent tragic loss of these four NDSU students, is now just a fading memory. But like these girls that also died in a car accident, their memory will live on forever. Their relationships, like that of Bill and Ray, have touched the lives of all who knew them.
Though I never knew the girls, whose lives are still freshly impacting their families, friends, and loved ones, I did walk where they had walked. When the media captioned news footage of the crowds of people gathered at the Memorial Student Union on the North Dakota State University campus in Fargo, I was moved to tears thinking about Bill and Ray. Those beautiful, talented young ladies now reside along with the names of Bill Cook and Ray Zimmerman. They will be memorialized in honor of those who have walked the hallowed ground of NDSU.
NDSU was a special place for me, and will forever play an important role in my life. These lives that have been sacrificed will have not died in vain. Their lives have immortalized an institution of higher learning for which there will never be a higher calling, than that of the intrinsic values of humanity. Let not those values that can be clouded by grades and diplomas be validated by anything other than their legacy.
The legacy of Bill and Ray will live forever in my heart and will always play a role in my involvement in the future of the livestock industry.
(insightful stories written by Ken Knight)
Ken E. Knight is the author of the “Knightro Report”, a nationally syndicated livestock-marketing column, which is featured in this publication on a regular basis. Mr. Knight is a graduate of North Dakota State University, with a major BS Degree in Meat and Animal Science and a minor in Communications. In addition to being a professional auctioneer, public speaker and livestock judge, he brings many years of corporate level meat and livestock market management and expertise to the industry for which he now serves as an independent voice of shared knowledge and experience.
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For more in-depth information regarding the topics that have been touched upon in this report, Knightro conducts livestock marketing seminars on a regular basis. To schedule a seminar, auction, judging, or speaking engagement, please contact Ken Knight, Knightro, W11911 County Road FF, River Falls, WI 54022, phone toll free 1-877-KNIGTRO, phone 715-262-8480, fax 715-262-8480, e-mail [email protected]t; or contact the Midwest Farm & Livestock Directory at [email protected].