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‘Some Heroes Wear Blue Jeans and Work Boots’ – Friends, Family Remember James Wilke

Columbus, Nebraska, farmer died March 14 helping others during the Nebraska flooding.

“​His master replied, ‘​Well done, good and faithful servant! You have been faithful with a few things; I will put you in charge of many things. Come and share your master’​s happiness!’​ Matthew Chapter 25, Verse 23

If you were one of the lucky ones who met James Wilke, chances are that within minutes of saying hello, you became a fast friend. He just had that way about him – an ability to talk to anyone, and to make anyone feel as if he or she were the most important person in the room. 

It is a gift that blessed the Columbus, Nebraska, community that Wilke called home. 

“A great guy,” says James’ cousin, Paul Wilke.

“If something needed done, James was here to help,” adds Aaron Witt, pastor at Christ Lutheran Church. 

“He always saw the positive in people,” says Catherine Chmelka, agriculture teacher and FFA advisor at Lakeview High School.

It surprised no one, then, when James was summoned to help rescue a motorist stranded in the floodwaters of Knox Creek in Platte County, Nebraska, on March 14. He didn’t hesitate. 

Wilke drove his John Deere 8100 tractor south on 145th Street, west on 280th Street, and north on Monastery Road, a route he had taken thousands of times before. This time, however, raging water gushed over an overflow bridge south of the creek, compromising the structure’s integrity. Emergency responders there helped guide James and the tractor through the rushing water. 

The bridge collapsed and the tractor, with James inside, plummeted into the fast-moving water. Wilke – a lifelong farmer, husband, father, grandfather, and community leader – perished in the accident. His body was recovered on a creek bed downstream.

James’ funeral was March 19.

His death is a blow to folks in this tight-knit community, where James (pictured above with daughter Addie and wife Rachel) was a shining example of a servant leader.  

“He was generous with his time and giving,” says Witt of Wilke, who was “…the kind of person that people don’t think exist anymore. He would help anybody.” 

Stories of James Wilke’s generosity abound, from past teachers, old acquaintances, and current friends. 

An elementary teacher from four decades ago wrote of how he helped her when he was a student. A former babysitter recalled the sweet, red-haired boy she used to watch. Friends from his youth recalled great times playing at school and outdoors. A friend posted this tribute on Facebook: “James was not only a great all-around guy, he was a great family man and he was amazingly strong in his faith and God…. a true hero who wore a T-shirt, blue jeans, work boots, and drove a John Deere tractor.”

“One of his favorite things to do for our FFA was to teach the kids about farming, and take them hunting and fishing,” Chmelka says. 

“James Wilke was about what National FFA stands for. Be a good leader, be there for others, and do what’s right, even when it is hard,” she adds. “I think that’s why James believed in FFA so much.” 

He Led By Example

James led by taking action, a trait the 50-year-old farmer was born with, Paul Wilke explains. “His dad, my father, our grandfather – when the people in the community needed something, they helped. That’s how we grew up. James was the epitome of that.”

James Wilke, second from right, pictured with his family at the Platte County (Nebraska) Fair.
Courtesy Lakeview FFA
He was quick to smile and laughed easily, Witt says. He deployed a keen sense of humor to diffuse difficult situations and pull people together to accomplish goals for the greater good. His faith sustained him, and he was a leader at Christ Lutheran Church, where he had recently become an elder. 

He radiated positivity, Chmelka says. “He’d always say, ‘the sun will come up tomorrow.’ That was his perspective.” 

James and his wife, Rachel, were married for 37 years. They had three children together; daughters Julianne and Addie, and son Colton (the family is pictured at right). He aimed to never miss one of his children’s activities, and supported them in all of their pursuits. 

He was delighted to share combine and tractor rides with his grandson, Breckin, who turned 4 just days after James’ tragic death. 

“Breckin,” Paul says, “was his pride and joy.” 

Outstanding Farmer

James was an excellent farmer, growing corn, soybeans, and hay. Active in the Nebraska Cattlemen, the Platte County Cattlemen and – when he raised hogs – the Pla-Co Pork Producers, he was named the Outstanding Area Farmer in 2001. 

“He was a very good cattle feeder. He knew how to get the most out of cattle,” Paul says. 

Although he and James were cousins, “he was my best friend,” Paul Wilke says. They owned their own farm operations but shared some farm equipment and helped each other out often. “We talked almost every day. We grew up more as brothers than cousins,” Paul adds. 

Testament to James’ standing in the community is the outpouring of love shown for his family. Paul and his brother have taken over chore duty for James’ farm, but countless neighbors and friends have offered to help. All of the support means so much to the family, Paul says.  

It would be easy to resent the tragic accident that took a beloved husband, father, friend, and neighbor much too early. 

His cousin Paul, however, believes the accident was a final act of James’ selflessness. 

“The next vehicle could have been a carload of kids,” Paul says. “It was God’s calling.” 

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