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Tribute to Baxter Black

In May 1989, the Oelrichs (S.D.) High School held a graduation for its nine seniors, including Sloan Fanning. Prior to this, his mom, Iris, had developed cancer and after a period of time, died. Dick Fanning was Sloan’s dad and he wanted to do something special to thank the community for all the support over those many months. Dick pulled out all of the stops and invited Baxter Black to attend a community barbeque that would culminate in Baxter speaking at the graduation. Baxter wrote of the event, but didn’t use the town or family name. I am filling in the blanks with excerpts from his writing, published in the book Cactus Tracks and Cowboy Philosophy. All words in italics are by Baxter Black.

A Love Story

This is a love story. In a small ranching community in the West there lived a man, his wife, and their four children. They were no different from their neighbors. They ran cows, built fence, and did their part to keep their little town alive.



The children attended the local school. Students numbered less than a hundred. But the remoteness of the area instilled a strong interdependence among the ranchers, families, and townies.

When the youngest son began high school, the man dared to dream of the future. One where his wife could quit her town job and he could spend more time with her. For even after twenty years, he never tired of her company.



Cancer, the assassin, drew down and shot out the light of his life.

His grief was deep. The community put their arms around this proud man and his family. They did what neighbors do. As the months passed, they were always there. Watching his children while loneliness ground away at his broken heart. They watched over him as well.

The fall that his youngest began his senior year the man sold his cow herd. The market was good and his interest in the ranch had waned.

He sponsored a big barbeque that afternoon. Four hundred attended. He took a few moments to address the crowd. I was unaware of his tragedy. He spoke simply but expressed his appreciation to his friends and neighbors. He never mentioned his loss. It was unnecessary. In a community like this, everyone knew.

Afterward some of us gathered in his living room for a nightcap. A few friends, his four kids, and I. It was comfortable. The new graduate opened his gifts and spoke of his plans with the conviction and anxiety of youth. Nobody asked the man about his plans, but you could hear the page turning in his life.

I guess the hand-lettered sign hangin’ on his gatepost out by the road said it all. Yahoo! The last one finally graduated! Thanks, friends. Ranch for sale.

I know about this as I was there at the barbeque and graduation. I am betting it’s one of the few times graduates remember who spoke at their graduation. This column is a tribute to Baxter Black and the many lives he has touched with his words, wit, and wisdom. It’s also in recognition of the many communities in rural areas that care for their own and support them in times of trial, as best they can.

Sanders is a farm wife in southwestern South Dakota. An author and a national award winning columnist, she can be reached through her website, peggysanders.com.

Peggy Sanders




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