ASHLAND – A lifelong passion for agriculture, coupled with a commitment to education and a sense of responsibility to serve the public highlight the career of Ashland native Ron Raikes.
Raikes died Saturday in an accident at the family farm. His funeral is scheduled for today in Lincoln.
Raikes grew up on the family farm north of Ashland, the second oldest child born to Ralph and Helen Raikes.
As a young boy, Raikes knew he wanted to work on the farm like his father, said his brother, Jeff Raikes.
However, he took the academic path first, receiving an undergraduate degree in agricultural economics at Iowa State University after graduating from high school in Ashland in 1961. He went on to earn a Ph.D. in the field from the University of California, Davis.
Raikes was on the faculty in agricultural economics at Iowa State from 1970 to 1979, and was a rising star there, said Jeff Raikes. But when their father retired from farming, Ron Raikes left the academic world to return to the family farm.
“It was his opportunity to pursue his passion,” said Jeff Raikes.
The 2,500 acre farm rests north of Ashland on land the family has farmed for more than 100 years. In addition to raising corn, soybeans and wheat, the Raikes Foundation Farms also raises 3,000 head of cattle, according to Lonnie Buller, who heads up the seven full-time and two part-time and numerous seasonal employees who work at the farm.
Raikes made the 40-minute commute from his home in Lincoln to the farm on a daily basis, said Buller, maintaining an office in the house where he grew up.
As Buller worked side-by-side with Raikes on the farm for the past 15 years, he watched him treat customers and vendors fairly and with respect.
“He always tried to do the right thing, even if it was out of his way,” Buller said.
Raikes also had a way of coaching his employees that brought out the best in them, Buller said.
“He always pushed you to do something you probably wouldn’t do, or thought you weren’t capable,” he said.
Buller said Raikes was on the forefront of conservation farming, adopting practices such as terracing and no-till to work the land.
“He was what you would call an early adapter of those practices,” said Buller.
They were among the first in the area to work with drain tiles in terraces, Buller said. As a businessman, Raikes seized the opportunity and started a tiling operation with another local farmer, Jim Regner.
Raikes was very hands-on when it came to the farming and livestock operation, Buller said.
“He did a lot of his own maintenance and things that would normally be hired out to do,” he said.
Raikes was working alone when the accident that claimed his life took place. Having let the rest of the employees go for the day, Raikes was working with a hay grinder when the machine crushed him.
Authorities said Raikes was reported missing late on Saturday evening. He was last seen in the late afternoon. Buller found him after Raikes’ wife had come to the farm to look for her husband.
Jeff Raikes said his brother often took over the chores to let his employees have time off.
“It was typical for Ron to take responsibility for the farm activities, in particular the cattle feeding, on a Sunday and other holidays so the hired men could be with their families,” he said.
Jeff Raikes said his brother was at the farm nearly seven days a week, the only exception being when he was a state senator.
Raikes’ stint as a legislator began in 1997, when then-Gov. Ben Nelson appointed him to fill the District 25 seat vacated by the death of Jerome Warner.
Raikes had worked with Nelson while serving on the Nebraska Economic Forecasting Board, a task force the governor used to forecast state revenue and expenditures.
Jeff Raikes said his brother’s political leanings could have been seen by Nelson as a detriment.
“Nelson made a bold move to appoint Ron,” said Jeff Raikes. “Bold in the fact that he was neither a declared Democrat or Republican. He was an Independent.”
In an interview with The News in Waverly in 2008, Raikes also gave credit to his wife for encouraging him to become a state senator.
Raikes remained an Independent throughout his 11-year legislative career, which ended in 2008 when term limits prevented him from running for re-election.
While Raikes never sought political office, he hit the ground running after accepting the challenge. For example, he was made chair of the powerful Education Committee within three years of becoming a senator.
“Because he learned very quickly,” said Jeff Raikes.
Sen. Kathy Campbell, who now represents District 25, described Raikes as a visionary leader who could think in the long term.
“He just had a knack of looking at issues through different prisms,” Campbell said. “He was very respectful of other people’s opinions, but persevered when he thought he had the right position on an issue.”
Former Sen. Ernie Chambers, the controversial Omaha legislator who was also forced out of office by term limits, had respect for Raikes.
“He was only in the Legislature for 10 years, but he really had a profound influence on a large amount of legislation,” he said.
Raikes’ influence was most directly felt in the area of education, another passion he learned from his parents, including his mother, who was a long-time teacher in Ashland.
“It was both of our parents who really emphasized the importance of education and the opportunities that creates for people, so I think Ron always deeply cared about education,” said Jeff Raikes.
Raikes’ priority was to ensure every student in the state has an equal opportunity for a good education, his brother said.
“That became the driving force for him and what he was doing in our legislature,” said Jeff Raikes.
Raikes’ legacy includes the reorganization of Class I school districts, rewriting the state aid formula and the development of the Douglas-Sarpy County Learning Community.
Former State Sen. Carol Hudkins, who represented Ashland in District 21 until term limits forced her out last year, said she and Raikes did not always see eye to eye, especially on the issue of Class I schools.
“But he was always very knowledgeable and always a great deal of fun,” she said.
Hudkins said she met Raikes many years before they worked together in the Legislature. She grew up on a farm by Ashland that was just a few miles from the Raikes’ place. She even detassled corn on the Raikes’ farm when she was young.
Hudkins got reacquainted with Raikes when he became a state senator.
“He was a good senator. We will miss him,” she said.
Campbell said Raikes was a leader in every sense of the word, but also a down-to-earth gentleman.
“I just loved talking with him one on one,” she said. “I will always remember his great sense of humor. I can’t remember a conversation with him that I didn’t walk away chuckling.”
Raikes often sought the input of others while working in the Legislature, including his wife, who helped him with legislation that incorporates at-risk 4-year-olds into the Nebraska school finance formula. Helen Raikes is a national expert on early childhood development, said Jeff Raikes.
The couple met at Iowa State. Both passed their passion for academics on to their three children, who have either earned or are working toward their Ph.D., according to Jeff Raikes. Son Justin also stepped into the family business, so to speak, working in the agriculture field in Seattle overseeing agriculture properties for an investment firm. Daughter Abbie works at the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation with uncle Jeff, who is in charge. Daughter Heather is working towards her Ph.D.
Many have expressed their respect and condolences after Raikes’ death, including Sen. Mike Johanns, who worked with Raikes while he was governor.
“Ron Raikes was an outstanding public servant and a tireless advocate for policies he believed in, especially in the area of education,” Johanns said.
Gov. Dave Heineman called Raikes a friend and outstanding senator.
“He cared deeply about the education of our children, and he will be missed,” said Heineman.
Heineman directed that flags will be lowered at the State Capitol and the governor’s residence and fly at half-staff across the state on Thursday in honor of Raikes.
Staff Reporter Joe Evans and the World-Herald News Service contributed to this report.