For almost two decades the Missaukee County Farm Bureau has been supported by three mighty pillars: Kari Hughston, Ellen Vanderwal and Brenda VanHouten are as savvy, strong and dedicated a trio of volunteer leaders as any across the state, and together comprised a deep roster of talent any county Farm Bureau would envy. On May 26, VanHouten lost a monthlong fight with COVID, leaving deep voids in the hearts of her longtime friends and the regional farm community still reeling.
Brenda’s always been quietly effective behind the scenes.
Ellen is the dynamo out front.
Kari is measured.
Twenty years ago a Farm Bureau conference in Gaylord helped Karilasso (her word) Brenda into the organization. Energized, the pair found a receptive audience back home, where their respective trucking and tire businesses had them already woven into Missaukee County’s farming community.
Formidable as the pair was, they also knew better than to carry all the water themselves.
“I needed help with something Farm Bureau — I think we needed a photographer,” Kari recalls with a new distance in her voice, sifting through two decades of memories for the trio’s origin story.
“Ellen was already in classrooms doing that sort of thing and I’d already talked to her. Then I told Brenda about her, she made contact too and between the two of us we hauled her in.”
One of the first challenges grieving puts to those left behind is that of switching to the past tense. It’s hard to accept ‘was’ where ‘is’ once fit so comfortably.
“I lost my best friend. She’s my quilting partner, my Farm Bureau partner…”
Ellen doesn’t normally have a low gear, but a week after her dear friend’s funeral there was a hollow distance in her voice as well, parked in the spot where we’re all accustomed to amped-up enthusiasm.
“People ask how we met, and the connection is Farm Bureau. Brenda lives way outside McBain; if we hadn’t both been Farm Bureau members I don’t know if we would’ve met. Brenda and Kari apparently knew about me but I didn’t know either one of them…”
“In the beginning there were others but the three of us were go-getters — ‘We’re gonna make this happen!’ — and we just clicked.
“Brenda and I just hit it off. We’re more like sisters, and one of us would always say we wouldn’t be here if not for Farm Bureau,” Vanderwal said.
“She was in the classroom all the time — took a day off work and worked in the FARM Science Lab. She was one of the reasons the Lab even came here. Her business sponsored the visit to McBain — she wrote the check.
“I don’t think people even realize how giving she was.”
Kari added: “Brenda loved Promotion & Education — Ag in the Classroom, the DNA testing kit, Project RED, poster contests — she carried them each all the way through.
“She was tireless and whenever she got involved in something, she always followed through to the finish,” said Hughston, who led the county Farm Bureau from 2004 to 2013. “I wouldn’t have been the president I was without Brenda.”
When Brenda termed off the state Promotion & Education Committee in 2011, she pushed Ellen to succeed her.
“She was teaching me the whole time. She went off the state committee and said, ‘I want you to take my place.’ And I stayed on it for six years.”
Outside her Farm Bureau and Missaukee circles there was sewing and quilting and rodeo.
“Our sons were involved in Michigan High School Rodeo and with that you have to travel,” Hughston said. “We both each took our campers and we’d travel together. Brenda is the best traveling partner. She and her husband Steve, they’ve got a tire service so she’s always smelling if the wheel bearings were hot!
“Then the boys graduated, and we were empty nesters together too.”
Brenda would go on to play a central role in incorporating SPURS — Special People Understanding Rodeo Skills — into Hughston’s Cow Camp Rodeo, informed by her own twin daughters.
Her capacity for caretaking knew few boundaries, like when Vanderwal was sidelined for a week with a bad leg clot.
“My husband was in Colorado hunting and Brenda called and I stayed at her house,” she remembers.
Brenda essentially nursed Ellen the whole week, including administering a round of vital shots necessary to alleviate the clot threat.
“She said to me, ‘I’ve given cattle shots so I can handle this,’” Ellen said. “It was Brenda who took care of me.”
Earlier this year as winter broke and light appeared at the end of the long pandemic tunnel, Brenda and Ellen were making plans to get back to doing what they’ve always done best: take the story of agriculture into local schools.
“We were talking about getting back into classrooms and ordering FARM Crates,” Vanderwal said. “Two weeks before she went into the hospital she called me and said ‘Let’s do dinner and go cruise the countryside.’
“We drove all over together — all around Marion and McBain and Falmouth — didn’t get home ‘til 10:30 and it was so much fun and she said to me, ‘We’re going to do this again someday.’
Brenda VanHouten spent the last month of her 60 years in Cadillac and Traverse City hospital beds, fighting the same virus her husband and daughters had also contracted, but conquered.
“Two weeks into her hospital stay I had to talk to her,” Kari said, hushed. “We were getting a nice, warm, soaking rain and I said, ‘Thank you for this nice rain...’ Brenda laughed and said, ‘This came from a lot higher up than me.’
“She was always laughing about something. That kinda sealed it for me.”
Two days before she was transferred to Traverse City, Vanderwal got a text: ‘Ellen I’m really tired.’
Twin sisters Samantha and Stephanie VanHouten have separated all the cards into two categories: The “good” ones include all the supportive, encouraging, get-well notes they received while their mother was in the hospital; the “bad” ones are the sympathy cards they’ve received since she passed away.
“Those girls were always there,” Kari said, recalling the somber bonfire Brenda’s closest circle convened in the days between her death and funeral. “Sam and Steph said, ‘We’re going to come to your campfire tonight.’
“Those girls taught us: They’ve got good cards and bad cards, and they choose not to read the bad cards. They choose to be happy.”
See Brenda VanHouten’s obituary here.