Whitewater Gardens Farm (copy)

A talk with Lonny and Sandy Dietz, owners and operators of Whitewater Gardens Farm near Elba, reminded me of my own time of need and how my community rallied to help me.

I'm going to tell you a story so I can tell you another story. 

Many years ago, I was between jobs (I'd been fired!) and money was a little tight. We were getting by OK, but Christmas was coming and the job search had been hard. 

Finally, about a week before Christmas, I got two job offers and I picked the one I thought would work best. However, my wife and I — with our then-lone daughter — wondered how we'd pay for the move to a new city for this new job. There was a moving allowance, but it didn't cover much, and it wouldn't be paid until after the move. 

That's when two things happened. First, my neighbor, Mike Grossman, stopped me in my driveway and asked why we hadn't put up our Christmas tree yet. Normally at that time of year, a decorated tree was clearly visible in our living room window. 

I told Mike we weren't putting one up. We didn't want to spend money on a tree and, besides, we'd probably have to hold off on Christmas until February. Our daughter was young. She'd probably not really even notice. 

Mike nodded his head. "Makes sense," he said, or something thereabouts. 

About an hour later, he showed up at my front door with about the mangiest Christmas tree you could buy: 7 feet of extra-bushy green pipe cleaner. "You should at least have a tree," he said, and when I took the box containing the plastic tree inside, I cried.

More Love, More Tears 

A couple of days later, still fretting over the moving expenses, another friend stopped by the house. Finis was (still is) an older gentleman who went to our church. He and his wife, Julie, had been my wife's sponsors during her confirmation process when she converted. 

As good friends, they knew we'd had some trouble financially and knew things for the move would be tight. Not once had we asked for a thing from Finis or Julie other than some prayers. 

Yet, there stood Finis in my driveway, a place he'd never before been. He told me he understood we were concerned about moving costs. 

"Yes," I said, suspiciously. I knew he was aware, but why had that brought him to my humble house?

Well, Finis proceeded to produce a check for, well, a good chunk of money. This, he explained, would cover our moving costs and, maybe, allow us to get something for our daughter for Christmas before February. 

I remember saying, "Finis, I don't know when I can pay this back."

Finis smiled at me.

"I don't expect you to ever pay me back," he said. "Just, someday, when you see someone who needs help. Do what you can for them. That's all I ask."

The Other Story

I thought about Finis and the check, that Christmas tree from Mike, and the tears in my eyes the other day. 

I'd gone out to Whitewater Gardens Farm to interview Sandy and Lonny Dietz. The Dietzes, as you may have read, have a GoFundMe website where they are trying to raise $20,000 in an effort to save their organic vegetable farm. 

After the interview, I was talking with Lonny and Sandy in their driveway when Lonny mentioned the problem he and Sandy faced was something many farmers found themselves dealing with at some point.

Sandy said they were lucky that, among their friends, was a former ag-banker, an expert in organic vegetable farming, and a few others who brought unique skills to their problem. Furthermore, when the Dietzes went to the bank to see what could be done, these friends went with them. 

They were lucky, Lonny said. Their friends and the bank all worked together to find an out-of-the-box solution. Not everyone had that group at their disposal. Lonny said that once their farm was back on its feet, he wanted to start some sort of group to bring together the types of skills that were at his and Sandy's disposal. 

Don't Say 'Pay It Forward'

And that is what reminded me of Mike and Finis and that tough Christmas. Even in his time of trouble, Lonny was looking for a way to help others. 

Look, I'm not here to tell you to donate to the Dietzes' GoFundMe page. 

What I am saying is this: I am sure, somewhere in the past, someone gave Finis and Mike a helping hand with the added caveat to just help the next person along the line. Today, we call that "paying it forward." But the reality is, we're paying it back. 

When Mike and Finis helped me, while the gifts were very different, to me they had the same value. Someone cared, someone was there for me. And, someday in the future, I'd be there for someone else.

Have I paid off this debt? Who cares. The moment I started paying it back, I knew I could give for the rest of my life and still be in Mike and Finis' debt. And that's OK.

That's what Lonny was saying in his driveway. And that's why I hope their farm is saved.

One final note. A few years later, a little more coin in my pocket, I took out that old Christmas tree and asked my wife, "Should I go buy a new one?"

With a stern look, she replied, "We're using that one until it falls apart." And for several more years, we did. 

That's why I call her The Wise Woman.

Regional Reporter Brian Todd covers Goodhue, Wabasha, Winona and Houston counties along with some cities in Olmsted County. In the After Deadline column every Friday, he shares behind-the-scenes tales from the newsroom.

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