John Pagel, Kewaunee County’s most prominent agricultural businessman and an elected education and government leader, was killed in the crash of a private plane northwest of Indianapolis on Thursday night.
The crash of the Cessna 441 in a field in Carroll County, Indiana, claimed the lives of Pagel, his son-in-law and dairy maintenance manager Steve Witcpalek, and pilot Nathan Saari.
The National Transportation Safety Board was sending investigators to the scene.
Active in community
Pagel was the CEO of Pagel’s Ponderosa Dairy, the Cannery Public Market restaurant in Green Bay, and Ron’s Cheese of Luxemburg. He also was a partner with Don Niles in the Dairy Dreams farm north of Casco.
He served several terms on the Kewaunee School Board as well as representing parts of the towns of West Kewaunee, Casco and Luxemburg on the Kewaunee County Board.
A year ago Pagel was one of three finalists for the 2017 Top Producer of the Year Award presented by Top Producer magazine. He was re-elected president of the Edge Dairy Farmer Cooperative board last month. Pagel’s Ponderosa hosted the 2016 Kewaunee County Breakfast on the Farm event.
In 2009 he was named to the Kewaunee School District’s Wall of Fame honoring the district’s most distinguished alumni.
Pagel took over his father’s farm in 1980 and led the farm’s expansion into the largest concentrated animal feeding operation in the county. He often drew criticism from people concerned with groundwater contamination.
But he voted in favor of every groundwater protection measure the County Board has approved over the past four years and was a proponent of the idea that agricultural interests should be a leader in environmental protection.
In 2008, Pagel designed and built a new 3,000-cow dairy facility with a methane digester that is making enough electricity for 700 homes.
Pagel conceived of the Cannery as “a place where people would gather, socialize, and rediscover their connection to wholesome, local foods,” according to the restaurant’s website. The restaurant, located in the repurposed former Larsen Canning Co. factory in Green Bay, promotes and uses locally sourced food in its offerings.
The families of John Pagel and Steve Witcpalek released this statement late Friday afternoon:
“The Pagel and Witcpalek families are heartbroken over this tragic loss. John and Steve were wonderful family men and dedicated dairymen who brought joy to the lives of so many people. They valued their community, loved their neighbors and lived life to the fullest.
“Although it’s unimaginable to think of a future without them, we know that their loving spirit will guide us. We sincerely thank the countless people who have showered us with love and support.
“We also grieve for the loved ones of the pilot who was lost, Nathan Saari, as they try to bear the terrible pain of this tragedy. We appreciate your respect for our privacy as we wait for additional information.”
As word of the crash spread, friends and colleagues began to express their condolences on Facebook and other social media.
“Northeast Wisconsin is at a huge loss with the passing of John Pagel and his son-in-law Steve Witcpalek,” U.S. Rep. Mike Gallagher posted. “I was lucky enough to get to know John over the last couple years—he was a good and honest man who worked hard, and loved both his family and community deeply. Please keep their friends and family in your prayers.”
“John was a pillar of our community and a stalwart of the dairy industry in Wisconsin,” state Rep. Joel Kitchens said. “His contribution to Northeast Wisconsin through his numerous businesses, endeavors and public service is immeasurable. He will be greatly missed. My thoughts and prayers are with his family and all those affected by this heartbreaking tragedy.”
“Words cannot express the sadness we are feeling today for all of the Pagel family and Pagel’s Ponderosa Dairy LLC,” read a post from Bayland Buildings LLC. “John was an amazing man that had a deep passion for the agriculture community and made such an impact around the world. May God bless you in heaven John.”
Kewaunee County Board Chairman Robert Weidner and County Administrator Scott Feldt issued a joint statement expressing “our personal heartfelt sympathies to the Pagel and Witcpalek families, while the Kewaunee County Board and the Kewaunee County government join us in expressing our sincere condolences at this tragic moment. Our thoughts and prayers are with those family members and friends.
“Few men can claim to have had a greater impact on the county, the region and indeed the nation than John Pagel, who was an unparalleled leader in his industry. John’s legacy will be evident in what he has done for Kewaunee County and all of the people he has touched. We have much to learn from John’s achievements and will no doubt look to his legacy for inspiration for years to come.
“Kewaunee has lost a leader; the dairy industry has lost a strong advocate; and most importantly we have lost a father and a friend. There is simply no replacement for what Mr. Pagel represented and what he contributed to our county and to the dairy industry. We have a lot to be thankful for because of John. He is a loved and respected man, and he will be missed by many.
“We ask that the media please respect the family’s privacy during this time of mourning.”