Cunningham family says goodbye to team roper who died of carbon monoxide poisoning
The Cunninghams laid to rest their son and brother Justin Cunningham in their hometown of Bloomfield, Neb., on Feb. 19. The 27-year-old was a victim of carbon monoxide poisoning Feb. 11. The toxic gas leaked from the generator in the stock portion of his trailer into the living quarters. He had just won the #11 World Series of Team Roping Qualifier in Loveland, Colo., the day before.
Justin was an avid team roper, having qualified twice for the World Series Team Roping Finals in Las Vegas, and worked as a pharmacist at Safeway-Albertson’s in Alliance, Neb., while living in Gering, Neb., with his long-time girlfriend Abby Kijowski.
“He was a dedicated family man, incredibly talented pharmacist, and a very loving and devoted partner,” Kijowski said. “He would give the shirt off of his back for a complete stranger. He had a passion for roping, riding and the western way of life. If he had it his way, he would’ve roped every second of every day.”
He is survived by his parents Gail and Suzanne and his brother Dalton.
“Justin was always looking out for his family, offering suggestions on whatever we were doing. He was always willing to research a problem for anyone or share his knowledge, especially about health,” his mother Suzanne said. “He loved to eat my fried chicken and requested it each and every time he came home. He even hid the leftovers in the refrigerator so he would be sure to be the only one to enjoy them.”
He had a great smile, his mom said, and he wore it well. He left behind a trail of happiness and love wherever he went.
“He gave the best hugs and loved to lick my face when acting like he wanted to give me a kiss goodbye, much to my dismay, but deep down it made me feel awfully special,” Suzanne said.
“He was my whole world — he made it his duty to make sure I knew I was loved every single day and for that, I am an incredibly blessed woman,” Kijowski said. “The void he left is indescribable, but if one person can be saved due to this unforeseen tragedy, then his short time here on earth would be worth it. His infectious smile, his unwavering love for the things he cared about and his beautiful heart will be forever missed. He truly was my soulmate and best friend. Life will never be the same without him.”
Justin’s instance of carbon monoxide poisoning isn’t the first, and certainly not within the rodeo world. The colorless, odorless gas often escapes the generator unbeknownst to those near. The Center for Disease Control urges those using portable generators to keep them outside only, more than 20 feet from the home, doors and windows. CO detectors are necessary and can be installed in the living quarters of trailers and campers as well. Check the detectors regularly to ensure they are functioning properly.
Marc and Kathy Andrus lost their son, Jesse, and his best friend, Mike Hilman, eight years ago in the same manner as Justin. The two 18-year-olds had just competed in their first and second Pro Rodeos, respectively, and on the way home, pulled over in a Safeway parking lot to sleep, only to succumb to CO poisoning.
“We heard from Jesse Friday night when they got there and again after they competed Saturday. Mike was winning the bronc riding and Jesse pulled his first check,” Marc said. “Then Sunday during the day we didn’t hear from him, and the Hilmans didn’t hear from Mike. We didn’t know what was up.”
The Roswell Police Department was notified of the missing seniors, and Marc and Mike’s dad, Ron, set off toward Cave Creek, Arizona, where the two had competed.
“We were thinking maybe they had run off the road, and we could find them and bring them home,” Marc said. The Scottsdale Police Department reached Mike and Jesse first, finding the two locked in the camper and the generator running.
“It’s a deadly, deadly thing. It’s mind-boggling how many people die from that every year, especially in the rodeo world,” Marc said. “We just cringe every time it happens. It shouldn’t be that way.”
Marc and Kathy passed Jesse’s rodeo rig along to friends after his passing, but not without first going to the hardware store and purchasing two CO detectors to install in the camper.
Marc and his crew annually produce a memorial rodeo for his son and his best friend. This year’s event will benefit the Assurance Home, “a place for kids that are not in a foster home and have no family can go and stay,” Marc said. “They take care of these kids that go to high school, and even middle school, and they have a horse program, so kids can learn to care for horses and learn responsibility.”
The Andruses still miss their son and think of him many times throughout the day. It’s something they say you don’t get over, but rather learn to cope with.
“If you don’t have faith, you get faith. We’re not a church-going family — we believe in God and pray on our own terms — but we surely have relied on our faith to get us through, and our family,” Marc said. “The statistics show that parents of children who die have a 65 percent chance of divorce. We read that and thought, ‘My gosh, that’s when you need each other the most.’ If I was having a bad day, Kathy was maybe having an okay day, and I could lean on her, or if she had a bad day, I might have had an okay one. It’s something you don’t get over; it’s something you cope with and go on. You have to at some point move on and try and make sense of it. It’s there for us every day.” ❖