Back at Ray Defenbaugh’s farm, we sat in his truck. That was 10 years ago, and we’d driven the greater Biggsville, Ill., area and talked about farm, family, ethanol plants. Finally, I had to ask him. “Ray, what’s the deal with the Amish clothes and beard?”
He said he wore a beard because he’d rather be known as the guy with the beard than the guy with one arm — partially amputated due to an electrical accident when he was a teenager. He dressed simply because he admired his Amish friends, and it distracted children and averted fear of his arm.
But his punchline was signature Ray: “I always say, I can’t figure out why the Amish decided to copy me!”
Ray Defenbaugh died last month, leaving behind a family that adored him, a community he made better, and a million good stories.
Sure, Ray was a farmer, but he was an overcomer, too. During that accident when he was electrocuted operating a mounted corn picker, he spent more than a half-hour on a 2,400-volt power line and lost part of his arm and parts of both feet. Doctors said to forget about swimming, football and walking without a cane. But a year later, he jumped in the old swimming hole and swam to the middle and back.
“I knew then that if the doctors had been wrong about my not being able to swim again, they were wrong about other things they said I couldn’t do — like farm,” he said.
So he farmed. And he married Alice and raised a beautiful family. He helped organize and lead a phenomenally successful farmer-owned ethanol venture, Big River Resources, to create jobs and return profit to farms. He taught co-op development and farm management in Moldova and Russia. He was named a Master Farmer in 2010.
And, he was famous for his story about monkeys and gorillas. As the story went, the best fruit was in the top of the tree, and the gorillas, being bigger and stronger, went for that fruit and told the monkeys they could have the low-hanging fruit. One day, the monkeys found the good fruit and had a feast — until they woke the gorillas. The gorillas started shaking the tree, and there were monkeys flying everywhere, except for one monkey. The gorillas decided if they couldn’t get rid of him, they’d have to share with him.
Moral of the story? There are monkeys and gorillas in this world, and there’s nothing wrong with either one. But if you’re going to be a monkey, you better be the best darn monkey you can be.
That was Ray. The best darn monkey he could be. A good friend, a faithful servant and always, a good conversation.
And in what remains my favorite farmer story of all time, he once laughed and signed off a phone call with this: “Well, I’m a one-armed man talking on a cellphone and driving a semi — I’d better go!”
And so he went. But his legacy remains.
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