July 19, 2023 at 6:00 a.m.
Updated July 19, 2023 at 6:00 a.m.
Red ribbons with the words “Big Dan. Dearly Missed. Never Forgotten” were displayed on tractors and T-shirts during the July 9 Dan Wielenberg Memorial Tractor Drive at the Stearns County Pioneer Club grounds in rural Albany.
Dan loved driving tractors, especially with daughter Allison sitting in the buddy seat, his wife, Sandy, said July 13.
“When the Albany FFA Alumni first started the tractor drive, Dan and Allison would go together,” she said. “After he passed, they changed it in honor of him.”
Dan passed away Dec. 4, 2019, from injuries received in a farm accident. Sandy figures if he were still alive he would just shake his head about the recognition.
“It was a huge honor because he was such a humble man and hated any attention on himself,” Sandy said.
It is support like this that continues to help Sandy and Allison live life without Dan.
“We are so very blessed to live in the rural farming community we do,” she said.
Sandy reminisced about their 18 years of married life. They both graduated from Albany High School in 1985, and knew each other most of their lives, living north of St. Anthony on different sides of County Highway 238.
Dan, a brother to Rich, Dave, Cheri, Don and Duane, purchased a farm across from his parents, Herman and Irene Wielenberg. Sandy’s parents are Raymond and Irene VanHeel, and her siblings include Gary, Wayne, Linda, Randy, Carol, Mary, Charlene and Patsy.
Sandy moved to Georgia, eventually returning to Minnesota. In a meant-to-be-moment, heifers wandered through at least three gates over to the VanHeel farm.
“Dan’s dad’s heifers got out and crossed 238 onto my home farm, run by my brother, and Dan and his dad came over to help bring them home. I went around the corner of a shed to help load the heifers and saw one of the Wielenberg boys, ‘Oh, that’s Dan. He turned out pretty cute,’ I thought,” Sandy said.
Both in their mid-30s, Sandy said his mother had discarded the addresses from their other children’s weddings, thinking Dan was going to live the bachelor life.
“He was so shy it took him several months before he asked me out, and then we were inseparable,” Sandy said.
They married June 9, 2001.
Allison was born Oct. 4, 2006.
“She was our miracle girl,” Sandy said.
Before Allison’s birth, they found out she had Down syndrome.
“I was devastated, but, in typical Dan fashion, he said, ‘It’s OK. We don’t know anything about raising a baby. It’s just our baby. It will be fine,’” Sandy said.
Allison was born six weeks early, weighing 5 pounds, and with a hole in her heart, which required surgery.
“She had bright orange pumpkin hair,” Sandy said. “Dan was so proud.”
Allison is the bright light in her parents’ lives.
“She is a social butterfly,” Sandy said.
In her younger years Allison participated in sports at Albany Area Schools and last year was the girls’ basketball team student manager and has been asked to be the soccer student manager this year. Allison is an Albany Special Olympics athlete in swimming, basketball, bowling and bocce ball.
But her favorite place to be was sitting next to her dad on the tractor or ranger rides.
There wasn’t a lot of free time on the farm. Dan worked full-time as maintenance manager at Avon Plastics in Paynesville. The Wielenbergs also ran A & D Pallet. Sandy worked for Stearns Bank, first in the equipment finance division and then as a loan assistant.
Dan raised beef cattle and hogs and crop farmed 200 acres.
“He loved anything to do with tractors and joked he was working at Avon Plastics so he could afford his hobby, which was farming,” Sandy said.
Before they married, Dan’s mom warned her he liked to purchase tractors.
“After we got married, I jokingly told him he had more tractors than tillable acres. We only had 11 acres. So, he went out and bought more acres,” Sandy said.
Dan grew up with Minneapolis Moline tractors and before he married he had Farmall and International tractors.
“I grew up with Ford and New Holland, and he realized his wife would drive them so he bought those so I could help with fieldwork,” Sandy said. “Then he insisted he wanted a John Deere, and I insisted no John Deere on this farm. That was the one tractor he bought without my permission.”
His dad drove that John Deere tractor when raking hay for Dan.
“The first time he did that Dan came into the house and told Allison to get a paper bag and bring it out to grandpa so the neighbors didn’t see grandpa was raking with a JD. So, we got a paper bag and took it out there and Dan’s dad was a good sport and put it on his head for pictures,” Sandy said.
That was Dan, the jokester.
On Dec. 4, 2019, Sandy was home from work, after not feeling well, and she passed going with family to see a play at the Paramount Theatre, but Allison went. In between sleeping, she heard equipment moving and tractors going. Until she didn’t.
“I went out to look for Dan and found a gravity box overturned, and he was under the box,” she said. “It was a used box he had just gotten, and they assume a corn bridge formed because the corn was wet, and he crawled in to break up the corn bridge and somehow it tipped over on top of him.”
Sandy added, “He wouldn’t have wanted anyone else to find him. That was my duty as his wife.”
After word got out, the Wielenberg and VanHeel families, friends, farm neighbors and their four-wheeling group converged on the farm. Allison arrived home and was so excited to see everyone. Sandy took Allison, who was 13, into another room and told her there was an accident while her dad was moving corn and he passed away.
“She looked at me and said, ‘No,’ and ‘My daddy, big daddy?’ I said, ‘Yes,’” Sandy said. “We just held each other and cried, and then she went out and greeted people.”
Dan’s big daddy nickname came from Allison who saw him as her protector.
“Dan was a mountain of a man on the outside and a big teddy bear on the inside,” Sandy said.
Allison accepted what had happened to her dad.
“She never once asked when he was coming home,” Sandy said.
The day after the accident Sandy was sitting at the kitchen table with her sisters and Allison came into the kitchen and said, “Mom, I talked to daddy,” Sandy said. “What did daddy say?” and Allison said, “Daddy said, ‘I love you.’” Sandy said, “Baby girl, daddy loved you more than anything else in this world.”
The next day Sandy was at the funeral home making arrangements, and Allison stayed home with two of Dan’s sisters-in-law.
“When we came back, my sister-in-law said, ‘While you were gone Allison came to me and said, ‘I see my daddy,’ and I asked, ‘Where,’ and she said, ‘I see my daddy everywhere.’ Good job, Dan,” Sandy said crediting her husband with helping their daughter deal with his death.
Sandy had to face hard truths.
“I didn’t realize how much of a team we were until Dan was gone,” she said. “We talked about everything. We made decisions together.”
She never knew how strong she was until being strong was the only option.
“Countless times I’ve said, ‘What would Dan do and what would Dan want me to do?’” Sandy said. “He’s my barometer in life because he was such a good man. I try to honor him and keep his memory alive for Allison and me.”
They met amazing people as they prepared to say goodbye to Dan and even more as they learned to live life without him.
“The funeral director, Cole Skadsem, was absolutely phenomenal. When I ordered the headstone from Willy Willenbring of Murphy Granite and shared our story, he cried with me. He said, ‘I’ve never done this before,’” Sandy said.
Christmas 2019, Chad Meemken, of the Fraternal Order of Police, came to their home with Santa and gave presents to Allison.
“They do this for families going through something tragic,” Sandy said.
Thanks to Meemken and this organization, Allison will ride in a law enforcement vehicle through the Aug. 5 Albany Heritage Day Parade.
Sandy was at one of Allison’s basketball games at Cathedral that next spring and a man tapped her on her shoulder and asked if she was the woman who lost her husband in the farm accident.
“He said, ‘I’m Santa,” and we both started crying. He said, ‘You don’t know how many prayers I’ve said for your family,’” Sandy said.
For Dan’s funeral, Sandy’s sisters came up with the idea of everyone wearing red ribbons. That evening, at the Cathedral game, one of her sisters was wearing a red ribbon, and she took it off and pinned it on that man’s shirt, and he said “I will wear it always,” Sandy said.
Special things will remind her of Dan, like when she hears the 4-wheeling group’s favorite song “Fishin’ in the Dark.” On their annual trip, a photo of Dan goes with, and “we all take turns riding with him,” Sandy said.
A music lover, Sandy found a song that expresses how she feels: “Who’s Gonna Be There,” by Lucas Hoge.
“It hit my heart hard,” she said. “The song was so Dan, and it was on Dan’s birthday that my sister heard it and shared it with me.”
The chorus is etched on their farm scene headstone, a testament to the humble, hardworking man Dan was.
Dan’s favorite color was red, and every vehicle he owned was red.
“We called him ‘Big Red,’ and Allison was ‘Little Red,’” Sandy said.
A recent Tuesday night Sandy and Allison were out and about, and a young man rolled his car window down and pointed to the back window, and there was a red ribbon.
A red ribbon for a farmer and family man.