A steady stream of people filed into Kewaunee High School on Friday to honor, remember and celebrate the impact John Pagel and Steve Witcpalek had on the dairy industry and their community.
As many as 5,000 people were expected between Friday’s visitation and prayer service and Saturday’s funeral for the two men is almost twice the 2,900 residents of the city of Kewaunee.
Don Niles, a partner of Pagel’s for 32 years, when Niles was “a baby dairy vet” and Pagel was a “baby dairy farmer,” said the turnout shows the impact two farm boys from Kewaunee County can have on the world.
“The world’s certainly turned upside down for a lot of people,” Niles, who cofounded Dairy Dreams with Pagel 17 years ago, said. “John and I grew our worlds together. We grew to be very close friends, also.”
The “baby dairy farmer” grew a small farm into Pagel’s Ponderosa Dairy, a dairy farm that today has more than 5,300 cows, 100 employees and 8,500 acres He also developed the Cannery Public Market, a farm-to-table restaurant in downtown Green Bay.
Pagel, 58, Witcpalek, 39, and their pilot, Nathan Saari, were killed Feb. 22 when their Cessna 441 Conquest II crashed in an Indiana farm field on a return trip to Green Bay.
Deacon Chuck Agnew of Holy Rosary Catholic Church in Kewaunee was to lead a prayer service at 8 p.m. Friday at the high school. Visitation will continue Saturday prior to a 1 p.m. funeral Mass at Holy Rosary.
As they made their way to the school’s gymnasium, mourners on Friday walked the halls where Witcpalek as a high school student first met Pagel’s daughter, Jamie Pagel, who became his wife and mother of three children.
They looked across Third Street at the school’s agricultural sciences building that Pagel and the family’s farm, Pagel’s Ponderosa Dairy, were instrumental in helping to design and build.
Kewaunee School Board President Brian Vogeltanz said Pagel had architects out to his farm many times to get the equipment, animal lab, student lab, aquaponics setup, greenhouse and other details just right before the agriculture labs opened in January 2017.
Vogeltanz said the agriculture labs were only a fraction of the Pagel family’s involvement in the community.
“John was instrumental in building the ag center,” Vogeltanz said. “He also opened his farm up for different activities students could take part in. He hosted an ag boot camp for the last two years so students could work on a dairy farm and see the positions available. He sponsored a career day for sixth- and seventh-graders in Kewaunee and Door counties.”
Family members, friends, co-workers and community residents who entered the high school from the west passed a new inclusive playground that Witcpalek had been instrumental in planning and building with the help of the Pagel’s Ponderosa crew. The purple and gold playground is almost ready to welcome its first special needs children this spring.
“He worked hard on the farm and on community projects around Kewaunee,” said Al Paul, Witcpalek’s uncle. “Him and his sister, Jill, started the playground project for special needs children. He also helped with soccer fields in the community. … His mother and father taught him good ethics and giving to other people, just caring about other people. That’s what he was: A very generous and caring person.”
Al Paul talks about his nephew Steve Witcpalek who died in a February plane crash that also killed John Pagel, Witcpaleks father-in-law Jeff Bollier/USA TODAY NETWORK-Wisconsin
Shirley and Sheldon Prodell have been neighbors to the Pagel family for 51 years and still remember an energetic, 7-year-old John’s arrival at their house.
“John liked our cookie jar,” Shirley Prodell said.
Sheldon Prodell said the couple welcomed the Witcpaleks to the neighborhood when they built a house nearby as well. The cookie jar Pagel loved so much as a boy might be gone, but Sheldon said the Pagel and Witcpalek kids still like coming over for treats.
Sheldon said it’s still impressive how John Pagel helped expand the family farm from its humble roots with 56 cows to its current count of more than 5,000.
“His parents would be very proud of what John has accomplished,” Sheldon Prodell said.
Niles said Pagel treated the farm, bought by John’s father in 1945 after he returned home from World War II, like a laboratory. He’d travel the world to find new methods of caring for cows wherever they were and implement them on the Ponderosa.
But what made Pagel truly unique, Niles said, was that Pagel would share what he learned with other dairy farmers.
“He was an innovator, always looking to improve life for his family, employees, his cows and the community around him,” Niles said. “He enjoyed nothing more than seeing other people have success with ideas he encouraged.”
Niles said he will remember Pagel’s smile and the joy he took in dairy farming.
“We’re all here, thousands of us, filled with grief, but John would want us to get past the grief, carry on and make the world a better place,” Niles said. “John always had fun doing that. It will just be a little less fun now without him and Steve.”