TWIN VALLEY, Minn. - Sid Riepe handed his wife, Val, the letter without fanfare, while she milked cows on their farm here.

It was Valentine's Day, and in his trademark unassuming way, he had handwritten the note on the back of daughter Melissa's homework. He thanked Val for putting up with his passion for old cars and being a steadfast partner.

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A relative's terminal illness had reminded him of his mortality and, he wrote, he didn't want to delay telling Val he loved her.

Three days later, a skid loader Sid was repairing pinned and killed him.

For Val and her three daughters, giving in to grief has been an elusive luxury. Hours after Sid's death, they had to show neighbors who rushed to help how to feed calves. And in the following days, the family's 120 cows still needed milking morning and night.

The ladies have kept the farm humming along with some help from family members and friends. Now that the family has found its stride again, the community is throwing a pork chop dinner and auction for them Saturday.

Sid, who died at 49, wasn't one to dwell on his feelings - the rare flashes of anger that barely ruffled his calm exterior or his steady love for his family.

As his oldest daughter, Jessica, 21, a Minnesota State University Moorhead senior, puts it, "You knew he loved you even if he didn't say it or show it all that often."

He and Val were an unstoppable team. "I love the fact that we can work all day together and still be friends at the end of the day," he wrote in his letter.

Sid had a legendary work ethic. Among his few diversions were a weekly bowling date with Val and old cars, which he fixed and raced on frozen lakes or in demolition derbies.

When in 1997 floodwater washed over David Roesch's farm and crept toward his hog barns, Sid showed up unbidden in his skid loader and helped build a ring dike.

Last year, neighbor Bob Brown was running low on hay and couldn't find more. Sid showed up unbidden in a pickup truck pulling a load of hay.

"Sid was everything a friend and neighbor should be," Brown said.

That's why the way the community rallied around the Riepes after Sid's death hardly came as a surprise. Some 20 neighbors and relatives descended on the farm about a week after the accident to help with sorting, fixing and inoculating cattle - another dairy farm ritual that couldn't wait. Some were city folk who couldn't quite fathom why you'd castrate a bull but were eager to help anyway.

Sid's brother Tom took a six-month leave from a Fargo welding company to work alongside several part-time hired helpers. Area businesses and individuals have donated more than 250 items for the auction next weekend, including $10,000 worth of seed, Roesch said: "Everybody who knew the Riepes said, 'Of course we want to help out.' "

Sid's death was the third fatal farming accident in eastern Norman County since last fall.

Val hasn't slowed down. She milks cows from 6 to 11 each morning, soothed by the familiarity of the barn and the swishing of the milking machines. Then in the evening she does it over again.

"I feel better when I get up and go out and do my chores," Val said.

She summons her easy smile tinged with sadness. She goes to basketball games and 4-H meetings with her daughters Melissa, 11, and Dana, 14.

"The strength of this woman in the wake of everything has been incredible - truly inspiring," said Brown, the neighbor.

Only at night, when Sid and Val used to talk about their day to the murmur of local news on television, sorrow barges in. Said Val's sister Kathy Skaurud, "It's when she gets in bed at night, all alone, that she does her grieving."

Val plans to sell the cows this summer. She doesn't think she can carry on without half of the farm's core team. She's not sure what she'll do next. But she's grateful for the 30 years she got to spend with Sid - and the love letter, a cherished gift.


If you go

What: Sid Riepe Benefit

When: Pork chop dinner from 4 to 6:30 p.m. Saturday, with a silent and live auction at 7

Where: Ada VFW

Info: To get more information or to donate auction items, call David Roesch at (218) 784-8018.


How to help: Sid Riepe Family Trust Fund, Community Bank of the Red River Valley, PO Box 187, Ada, MN 56510