The mourners numbered in the thousands Friday afternoon and many more were expected Saturday as visitation continued for John Pagel and his son-in-law, Steve Witcpalek, at Kewaunee High School.

Pagel, head of Pagel’s Ponderosa Dairy and other businesses, and Witcpalek, the farm’s operations manager, will be laid to rest after a Mass of Christian Burial at 1 p.m. Saturday at Holy Rosary Catholic Church in Kewaunee.

The two men died along with their pilot, Nathan Saari, when their plane crashed in Indiana on Feb. 22. Saari’s funeral was Friday in Marquette, Michigan.

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Don Niles, Pagel’s business partner with Dairy Dreams and president of the Peninsula Pride Farms coalition, said he “lost the best friend I’ve ever had” when the Ponderosa’s Cessna 441 went down in a field in Indiana on Feb. 22.

“John and I shaped our careers together and formed an early long-lasting bond because we were both committed to finding better and more innovative and more effective ways of caring for cows, John caring for employees, caring for our families while we’re on the farm,” Niles said. “He was not only a great friend but a great mentor. He cut such a wide swath through the world. Many people are feeling that way.”

Niles, who is also a veterinarian, said Pagel talked about making sure each of the cows in his care had a life worth living.

“John felt, and so many of us feel, we have a bond with the cows,” he said. “They came in from the wild a thousand years ago, and we keep them from being eaten by coyotes and they would give us their milk. We still have to uphold our end of the bargain, which is giving them a better life than they would have had. That comes down to cow comfort, and soft free stalls to lay in, excellent ventilation systems for climate control, appropriate feed rations, just everything we can do to make every aspect of our operations and our cows’ lives a little better.”

Many of the changes and innovations Pagel implemented were made with that in mind, Niles said.

Pagel was a member of the Kewaunee School Board for 10 years and was also on the Kewaunee County Board.

Bryan Vogeltanz, the School Board president, said Pagel was instrumental in creating the agriculture center on the high school campus, where students get hands-on education in farming including working with animals.

“Without his knowledge and guidance, that facility would probably not look like it does,” Vogeltanz said.

The architects spent time at Pagel’s farm learning about safe animal handling and techniques,” he said.

“John helped with the design, because these were architects that build schools, not agricultural facilities,” Vogeltanz said.

Pagel’s Ponderosa Dairy has been the site of two key agricultural programs for students – Ag Career Day and the Ag Boot Camp.

Door and Kewaunee students are invited to Ag Career Days to learn about all aspects of agriculture, not just farming but related trades and veterinarians, Vogeltanz said.

In the Ag Boot Camp students come to the farm and are put through the actual experience – “feeding the calves, milking the cows, and actually doing what a farmer does,” Vogeltanz said.

Pagel gave his heart and soul to the community, the school board president said. “If you needed something, you would just ask him and he’d somehow find a way to make it happen.”

Niles said Pagel is irreplaceable but he inspired many to follow in his footsteps.

“There’s no other John T. Pagel standing in the woodwork, but there’s lots and lots of people willing to take a piece of that, and I think together we can keep John’s dream going and that keeps John with us,” Niles said.

(Photo: A line of tractors is assembled across from Pagel’s Ponderosa Dairy in honor of John T. Pagel, whose funeral is Saturday. “John loved his iron,” a family friend said.)