LAKEFIELD, Minn. – To a farmer there is no love, like the love for his land. True for Curt Chergosky, until love landed him.
"We were surprised," says Jim Nesseth, a longtime friend of the third generation farmer. "You know, Curt had never really dated anyone."
It was the talk of Lakefield, when pushing 50, one of Jackson County's most entrenched bachelor farmers fell for the newly-hired county 4-H coordinator.
Andrea Ruesch was a bubbly bundle of energy, still in her mid-30's, when she started her job in Jackson County.
As a member of the county fair board, Chergosky had plenty of opportunities to cross paths with Ruesch. As the months went on a spark was lit.
"Curt started coming into this office all the time - and we made fun of her so bad, but she didn't really get what was going on," laughs Brittany Koch, a former coworker at the Jackson County extension office.
Or maybe Ruesch just wasn't letting on. It soon became clear to everyone who knew her, Ruesch's heart was aflutter too.
"Very googly-eyeded," laughs Koch.
The secret was out. The bachelor farmer and the 4-H lady were an item.
"The whole community was so happy," says Nesseth, and not just for Chergosky.
"Andrea was finally going to maybe slow down a little bit and give some time for herself and raise a family."
Ruesch was a tireless advocate for her 4-H kids. Chergosky loved that about her.
"I mean she thought the world of those kids," he says. "She'd do anything for them."
When he popped the question after seven months, the venue was no surprise. "I asked her in the parking lot of the extension office," he laughs. "And she said 'yes.'
Chergosky, by then, had awakened to the notion a life he'd long ago written off, was unfolding before him.
The chores on his crop and beef farm went by in half the time, with his fiancé working beside him.
Chergosky would drive his chore tractor around the yard, with Ruesch standing behind him, talking. "Hitch sermons," he called them.
The pair talked about their future together and the names they would choose for the children they would raise.
When Christmas came, Chergosky gave Ruesch two cows and three calves, presenting her with the bill of sale.
"'Really, you gave me cattle?" Chergosky remembers Ruesch excitedly asking. "Then she started crying."
That sealed it. Nearly 50 years he had waited, only to find the perfect girl.
"Andrea was just the door that opened him up to a whole different life," says Nesseth.
Koch, took it a step further."She was his whole life."
And then life took the cruelest of turns.
Three months before their wedding, Chergosky and Ruesch were together weaning calves.
Not feeling well, Ruesch went into the house. When Chergosky joined her a short time later, she told him to call for an ambulance.
By the time Chergosky made it the hospital, the doctor was standing by the door. Ruesch had died.
The autopsy showed a pulmonary embolism, a blot clot in Ruesch's lungs.
The flowers she'd chosen for the wedding graced her casket. Her wedding ring graced her finger.
Jackson County was in disbelief.
Ruesch was buried in Lakefield on Christmas Eve day. "I'd never seen so many grown men cry in my life," said Chergosky, wiping away his own tears.
Chergosky had the couple's engagement picture fixed permanently to Ruesch's headstone. A 4-H emblem is engraved above her name and Chergosky's name is engraved next to hers.
Chergosky slipped on his wedding ring the day of the funeral, and four years later has not removed it.
"They were both at the peak of their mountain at the time this happened and it took the sails right out of Curt," said Sheldon Johnson, another of Chergosky's friends.
Raised as a man of faith, for a long time, Chergosky couldn't bear to go to church.
"I'd see ourselves up there, getting married, and I just couldn't," he said, tears welling in his eyes.
The prior spring they had tilled his fields together, he on one John Deere, she on another.
Now Chergosky was back to sowing his seeds alone. No soul mate, no promise of children, no 4th generation to whom he could pass on his farm.
"I was lost," Chergosky confides. "I had no idea what I was supposed to do."
When he finally figured it out, Chergosky moved forward in a very big way.
Greeted by a standing ovation, this spring Chergosky announced at a gathering in St. Paul, the donation of his entire farm to 4-H.
Addressing the crowd, he quoted one of Ruesch's favorite sayings: "If it's not illegal or immoral, we'll do it for the kids."
Four hundred acres of prime Jackson County farm land is no small gift. At current prices, it could easily fetch $4 million.
The money will be split three ways, between 4-H programs at the state and Jackson County levels - and a scholarship in Ruesch's name that's already issued $1000 checks to 35 4-H members, finishing high school and starting college.
Chergosky and Ruesch are the talk of the county again.
"Isn't that incredible," said Nesseth. "Curt's gone 110 percent at this thing and never backed down."
Under the agreement with 4-H, Chergosky will continue to farm until he retires, when he'll complete his donation and fulfill his promise to Ruesch.
"I spoiled her, that's what she always told me," says Chergosky
His love for the land is no match, for the love of his life.
"This is all for her," he says.
Note: click here for more information on donating to the Andrea Ruesch 4-H funds.