Danbury’s Cow Whisperer

Danbury’s Cow Whisperer

Leon Venteicher of rural Danbury has spent all but two and a half years of his life on the same farm in Ida County. Venteicher, who turned 56 in March, was raised on Alpine Avenue with four brothers and five sisters. In 1980, Venteicher married his better half Sandy,  a ‘Correctionville town girl,’ and have raised four children on this same 240 acre farm, two boys – Terry, 33, and Trevor, 27 – and two girls – Trudy, 35, and Tami, 32.

In addition to 240 acres of corn, beans, hay, and pasture, the couple also has 45 stock cows, Black Baldies. Since the 1980s, a farm this size has needed an additional full-time job to support it; both Venteichers have been employed at Midwest Industries, Inc. in Ida Grove. Leon began working for the marine equipment manufacturer in September of 1983 in the fabrication department.

“I haven’t ever been afraid of hard work,” stated Venteicher who currently operates a 230 ton brake press. “We worked hard on the farm. It’s one of the reasons I was hired; I worked with Byron Godbersen (Founder & CEO) to make parts for a floating lift when I first started. After all this time, I know how to set up and operate most of the machines in our department. I always enjoyed making parts rather than putting things together.” Venteicher estimates that he’s fabricated 450 parts a day on average resulting in over 3.6 million parts over his career.

Sandy works in Midwest’s quality department.

To say Leon is a metal fabricator alone in vocation is provincial at best. Among certain livestock circles, he’s known as ‘the cow-whisperer’.  I was so intrigued by the title, that I dropped by the Venteicher farm to see him work his magic. Leon started an ATV and told me to sit on the fender; Leon’s a pretty sizable fella and I did exactly as he asked. Camera in-hand, I headed to the pasture with the cow-whisperer and a large bottle of milk that he placed in the ATV’s basket.

On the way out to the pasture, I thought about the posters hanging up on Midwest bulletin boards announcing a Benefit Luncheon for Leon and Sandy. Those that know Leon know of his life-long struggles with cancer. Born in 1960, Leon was diagnosed Retinal Blastoma, which are malignant tumors on the retina of both eyes. Surgeons removed his right eye, the one with the worst tumor, to enable treatment of the left eye. After radiation and numerous trips to Iowa City Hospitals, Leon was declared cancer-free at the age of five.

“We were told that our children had a 50/50 chance of having the same cancer,” stated Venteicher. “Each one had to be tested every three months through two years of age and then every six months until they were five. We’re blessed that none of our kids have it.”

Even after being declared cancer-free at five years old, Leon’s family was not immune to further adversity. Their biological father died in a farm accident when Leon was 13. When Leon turned 20, his stepfather suffered the same fate. “I was raised Catholic, and we raised our children Catholic,” said Leon. “Our beliefs helped us to realize early on that someone else is in charge. That is everything during tough times.”

The Black Baldies dot the hillside, the cows black and white heads a contrast to the dark brown calves that stay close to their mamas’ legs. Leon calls out to the herd and they come running. “Here 818. Here 818,” calls Venteicher with bottle in hand by his hip. While Leon looks for the calf, 818 – the tag number on the calf’s ear – sneaks up behind him and begins suckling on the bottle. It’s only minutes before the contents are gone, and it’s enough time for me to snap a few pictures of the cow-whisperer before heading back to his farmstead’s seven outbuildings.

Venteicher admits that he prefers the livestock portion of his operation; however, he also confides that he has a weakness for John Deere tractors. “I collect the toy tractors as a hobby, because I can’t afford the real thing,” laughs Venteicher as he rides the trail to his home. “I did get a good deal on a 4020 on Craig’s List though; it was sold from 1963 to 1972 and over 180,000 were sold! It’s getting to be a collector’s item.”

With Leon’s attention on farming, it’s difficult to remember that he’s back in the battle with the big-C. At the house, I ask him about his last round of chemotherapy. “I didn’t get a sick stomach this time,” said Venteicher. “I got really tired, though. I slept through a day and the same night.

“I couldn’t do this without Sandy. I’ve been through three different surgeries, and she’s always been there working while I’m on my butt.”

In 2006, Venteicher was diagnosed with malignant melanoma; after three cancerous moles were removed, the couple breathed a sigh of relief to find out the cancer hadn’t gone to his lymph nodes – only periodic dermatology exams were required. In 2014, Leon was found to have bladder cancer, and a tumor was removed; flood treatments followed to kill any remaining cancer. With the cancer still present afterward, Leon’s bladder was removed in August of 2015. After Leon healed from the surgery, he underwent twelve chemotherapy treatments.  As of this past March, CT scan results showed that Leon has cancer in his lymph nodes.

“We’re taking one day at a time,” stated Venteicher. “These things limit how far you want to think out in the future. I want to have all my bases covered.”

On Thursday, May 26th, Midwest Industries employees will take part in a free will offering luncheon with all proceeds going to Leon and Sandy to help offset costs associated with medical treatment. On Sunday, June 5th, the entire area is invited to a benefit for Leon at the Danbury Catholic School with a lunch from 11AM to 1PM; an auction will start at 1PM. All proceeds will go to medical treatment and travel bills. You can see more information, including how to donate items for the auction, at www.LeonVenteicherBenefit.com.

“The grill outs… both the Midwest and Danbury Catholic fundraisers are incredible. The organizers have gone all out,” said Venteicher. “The moral support is priceless.”

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