When Columbus farmer James Wilke learned that rising floodwaters had stranded a motorist along a nearby country road early Thursday, he fired up his tractor and went to help in spite of the wind and rain.
Guided by volunteer first responders, Wilke set off down Monastery Road and across the bridge over Shell Creek.
But the bridge collapsed under the tractor’s weight, throwing the 50-year-old into the flood-swollen creek. After a frantic search by neighbors, his body was found downstream about nine hours later, near his own farm.
“He was always the first to go help somebody,” said his cousin, Paul Wilke, who grew up with James just north of Columbus. “He was a person who wouldn’t just talk about making things better. He would do it.”
Paul Wilke said he was able to rescue the stranded motorist after his cousin was swept away.
At least two other people were missing as of Friday evening.
A 30-year-old Norfolk man, Scott E. Goodman, was seen at 4 a.m. Thursday on top of his car in a field near a street that was close to the levee. He was later observed being carried away by a surge of water, according to the Norfolk Daily News. Madison County Sheriff Todd Volk said rising waters prevented the possibility of a rescue at the time.
A second man, who had not been publicly identified as of Friday, may have been swept away when the Spencer Dam collapsed on the Niobrara River.
James Wilke’s life and sacrifice won’t be forgotten, neighbors say.
He farmed his entire life on soil homesteaded by his great-grandfather, and later tilled by his father and grandfather.
Paul Wilke said his cousin was active in Christ Lutheran Church since boyhood, attending grade school there, and graduating from Lakeview High School in the 1980s.
He and his wife, Rachel, raised three children, Julianne, Colton and Addie, and they live nearby. He was a church elder and served on the township board.
Mostly, people remember him pitching in to help others. Like the time, about 10 years ago, when a neighbor’s house was robbed. The neighbors came home and surprised the burglars, who escaped out the back door.
Wilke heard about the attempted theft and, soon after, spotted the suspects walking along a road near his house.
He took action.
“He confronted them with a gun and held them until police arrived,” Paul Wilke recalled. “He was always looking out for everybody.”
That was James Wilke’s impulse when he got the call for help early Thursday. When neighbors heard he was missing, dozens turned out to look for him.
He would have done the same for them.
“Not all HEROES wear capes or uniforms,” Jodi Hefti, a friend and relative, wrote in a Facebook tribute. “I know a TRUE HERO who wore a T-shirt, blue jeans, work boots and drove a John Deere tractor.”