From the moment Kristy Pagel began to describe the recipient of the annual Kewaunee County Dairy Promotion Recognition & Appreciation Award, it was clear it could be only one man.

“While we are very fortunate to have many passionate people that are committed to the dairy industry here in our county, this person rises above,” Pagel said during the June Dairy Month Kickoff Breakfast at The Rendezvous south of Luxemburg.

The award was presented posthumously to her uncle, John Pagel, who built his family’s Ponderosa Dairy into the largest family-owned farm in the state and expanded the business in other directions as well.

John Pagel

“John holds a very special place in the hearts of many,” she said. “He has taught countless lessons to many and inspired more people than I know he ever, ever realized.”

Pagel was killed Feb. 22 along with his son-in-law, Steve Witcpalek, and pilot Nathan Saari in the crash of their small plane in Indiana.

The bustling room grew still as Kristy Pagel shared two pieces of advice her uncle gave her over the years. The first was when he was preparing a speech to share with the media about why he wanted the Ponderosa to become a University of Wisconsin Discovery Farm, a farmer-led research program focused on the relationship between agriculture and water quality.

“His message and words can be summed up like this: ‘There is more risk in doing nothing than doing something. Remember that, Kris,” she said.

The other advice was “to promise to live a life where it would be his goal – my goal – to create opportunity and open doors for others. This is, has been, and will always be how I remember my uncle John.”

She recalled John Pagel as a leader and innovator. It was under his watch that the farm installed a digester that converts manure into enough energy to power the farm as well as the municipalities of Kewaunee and Casco. Pagel’s Ponderosa hosted the annual Breakfast on the Farm in 1995, 2000 and 2016.

In recent years the family acquired Ron’s Cheese and opened the Cannery, a locally sourced farm to table restaurant in Green Bay.

“He was willing to step up, willing to step out on a limb, often on his own, for what he believed in and for the betterment of the dairy industry to learn so that we all could gain from a project that he chose to begin and to be a part of,” Kristy Pagel said. “He always led with the biggest of smiles on his face and with all his heart.”

She presented the award to John’s four children (pictured with her from left), Bryan, Dustin, J.J., and Jamie Witcpalek, as the audience of about 200 gave a standing ovation.