The world lost a good man on June 5. William “Bill” Kuxhaus was kind, decent and calm.
In the midst of arguments, his voice never raised, but generally, he would ask a question or raise a point and it defused the tension.
Bill, 69, was diagnosed with stage 4 pancreatic cancer in December. Chemotherapy wasn’t working and he and his wife made the decision for hospice care at home in Martin, South Dakota.
Although he was given a death sentence, the way he lived his life for the next five months was a testament to courage.
Just as he had spent his life never making excuses, never asking for handouts or sympathy, he faced this final challenge with dignity and an evenness.
In April, he was still walking, playing cards and conversing. When this editor said goodbye to him after visiting in Martin, I tried not to cry.
It was Bill that said, “Don’t worry, it will be okay.”
But it wasn’t okay.
It wasn’t okay, knowing someone who was so kind was leaving.
It wasn’t okay knowing the pain he was suffering – even with medication. He said it hurt when someone touched him. Over the next month, he had fewer and fewer “good” days.
Finally, he was unable to get out of bed, his wife of 44 years, my sister Barb, stayed with him night and day. At one point he told her, “You don’t know how hard it is not to be able to get up.”
I thought back to all the times I had visited Martin. He often would be the one to drive me the three hours to the Rapid City airport. There were miles and miles of nothingness as we cut through reservation country and the badlands.
No radio or cell phone reception. We had nice conversations, or we just shared the silence, and it was comfortable. He insisted it was no problem to drive me to the airport, because he had to pick up construction supplies in Rapid.
Even as I desperately sought meaning and felt unsettled in my life, I was struck by how content he seemed with his.
Living in an area, like Southern California, where everyone seems caught up in marital belongings and having “name” brand clothes and “name” brand jewelry/cars. Bill’s lack of materialism and the ease that he had with who he was, was striking.
He was born in Nebraska on December 29, 1953, to Willard and Dorothy Kuxhaus. He grew up on a farm near Sweat, South Dakota, with five siblings.
Bill attended Bolzer Grade School, a one-room schoolhouse, until it closed and then attended Central Grade School, which had several classrooms and a lunchroom, near Sweat.
In the 1940s, the town had 40 residents, but by the time the Kuxhaus lived there, about the only building left was the Swett Tavern bar, which was described by one journalist as the “beating heart of the community and a gathering place for local cowboys and wheat growers.”
He graduated in 1972 from Bennett County High School in Martin. He attended the University of South Dakota for a semester, until his dad needed help on the farm, and Bill returned to Bennett County.
He married Barbara Sazama in 1978. She was a teacher at the high school and the couple bought a house in Martin. He was self-employed, selling Stihl products (outdoor power tools), Dixon lawn mowers, and other engines for 27 years.
Then, he worked with Lou’s Auto for a couple of years, before working as logistics coordinator for nine years for Doug O’Bryan Contracting.
He was a councilmember for the town and then became the mayor of Martin, population 941.
He was Bennett County’s coordinator for Spruce Up South Dakota. That meant that shacks and deserted houses around town were either torn down or fixed up, to keep the community looking good.
South African Bishop, Desmond Tutu said, “Do your little bit of good where you are; it’s those little bits of good put together that overwhelm the world.” That was Bill.
He was a member of Black Hills Council of Local Governments, President and Executive Board member of District 8 Municipal League, and co-founder of the Economic Development Corporation in Bennett County.
Bill seemed to get along with everyone. In some ways, he lived Will Roger’s motto, “I never met a man I didn’t like.” Even if Bill didn’t like someone, that person would never know it, because Bill went out of his way to get along and work with everyone.
Over the last decade, he and his wife would purchase a property/house and then spend time fixing it up, remodeling, repainting and rewiring. That action produced much needed homes in the small town.
He also took up gardening, and his tomatoes, cucumber and other vegetables were so numerous that he was able to share with neighbors and members of his church congregation, Our Redeemer’s Lutheran Church, where he served on the church council.
His mother-in-law, Noma Sazama, 93, lived next door, and whenever she needed anything, she called Bill.
Whether it was a ride someplace, plumbing that didn’t work, or just gentle chiding about who was the better gardener, he was there for her.
He was that way with many of the elderly in town—if they needed to have their driveways scooped in the winter, or if they needed a tree trimmed, they called Bill.
There’s no way to replace someone who was always ready to help. The world has too few people like that. Those kinds of men are rare. Those are the ones who don’t feel the need to brag, to look for their next conquest. They just do the work, where it’s needed and get the job done.
They are content with who they are, because they know who they are, and they accept others in the same spirit.
I did hear him raise his voice once—it was frightening. My mom had decided to make manual adjustments to a new heating/cooling system he had installed in her house. She broke it. When he came over to make repairs, she tried to justify what she had done and wasn’t backing down.
In no uncertain terms, he told her she was never to touch the system again, she was to call him first.
Then he turned and went out the front door, in what appeared to be a rare burst of anger. But on the way out, he winked at me, and I realized I had just seen a superb job of acting.
I asked his daughter Melissa why she thought her dad stayed in Martin, he was smart, industrious and an apt politician and could have lived or worked anywhere. Simply, “I truly think he liked it here,” she said.
He was preceded in death by his parents Willard and Dorothy Kuxhaus; and sisters Lorri Phillips and Sherri Livermont. He is survived by his wife, Barbara; daughters Melissa (Erik) Hovde, Rapid City, SD, and Molly Kuxhaus, Martin; grandchildren Henry, Oliver, and Reuben Hovde, Rapid City; mother-in-law Noma Sazama, Martin; sister Konnie (Kenny) Boomer, Martin; brothers Monty (Cathy) Kuxhaus, Pendleton, IN, and David (Roxanna) Kuxhaus, Rapid City; sisters-in-law Sue (John) Pascoe, Pacific Palisades, CA, Nancy (Ted) Brown, Thermopolis, WY, Mary (Jack) Davis, Spearfish, SD, and Beth (Jeff) Lyons, Los Alamitos, CA; brothers-in-law George (Kathy) Sazama, Rapid City, SD, and Larry Livermont, Vetal, SD; and numerous friends and family.
Bill was an extraordinarily, ordinary man. I was blessed to know him.
Memorial services will be held at 10:30 a.m. on June 9 at Our Redeemer’s Lutheran Church in Martin. Cards and memorials may be sent to P.O. Box 1000 Martin, SD 57551.