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Bob Michael's independent streak included working into his 80s, without slowing down. This photo was taken about a month before he died in 2014. (Jenny Schlecht/Agweek)

The world needs more independent voices

I grew up on the east side of Billings, Mont., on the farm and ranch run by my dad and my grandpa. Most of us preferred (and continue to prefer) the ranch side to the farm side. Riding, roping, branding, working cows and bottle feeding calves all held far more intrigue, as did poring over the numbers in bull sale catalogs for some of the nerdier among us (cough, me).

That's not to say we didn't pitch in on the farm side. We drove tractors, hoed fields and did what needed to be done. And we irrigated.

Irrigation in those parts is different than out here on the plains of North Dakota where I now live. They don't use pivots. It's accomplished with gated pipe. Each little gate must be opened just far enough to let water into each row of the field, and an irrigation sock must be placed over the gate to keep the rush of water from eroding the soil. It's monotonous, back-breaking work that must be accomplished multiple times a day in the heat of summer. It has to be done to compensate for the dry eastern Montana climate, but no one likes to do it.

No one, that is, except my grandpa.

Grandpa Bob knew everything about how the water moved through the fields and how to fix any problems that would come up. Hospital staff once had to convince him he couldn't leave the intensive care unit to set water after quadruple-bypass surgery.

Grandpa Bob's contrary streak did not show itself only in his choice of chores. If everyone was cheering for the red team, he'd cheer for the blue. If everyone wanted to go grab pizza after a long day's work, he'd lobby for tacos — and vice versa.

If you were to question his stubborn streak, he'd just give a sideways grin and tell the truth:

"I'm independent."

Grandpa Bob died three years ago on April 18, but he continues to be a big influence in my life, from how I look at the world to how I approach my work. I wonder often what he would think of the state of the U.S. today — the gridlock, the line-in-the-sand disagreements, the lack of compassion for the viewpoints of others. And I think he'd be disappointed.

Grandpa didn't like to be put in a box, and he didn't want someone else trying to tell him how he should think. He always questioned why so many in agriculture consider themselves Republicans when so few party positions help family farmers. That's not to say he thought Democrats were better. He didn't need any political party to see — and articulate — the strengths and problems with any number of policy positions and worldviews.

And while Grandpa Bob loved to argue his position, he was comfortable enough in his own skin to consider other people's positions, too. He spent more than three decades on boards that deal with water and ditches, and, as anyone in agriculture knows, arguing over water can bring out a person's worst. But Grandpa never faltered from looking for the best in someone, even when it wasn't deserved.

I wish there were more people in the world like Grandpa Bob. People who think for themselves, then roll up their sleeves and find the best way to get things done. People who describe their opinion without saying, "Well, I'm a conservative, so ..." or "I always vote Democrat, so ..." People who stand their ground when it's necessary but who aren't afraid to bend when bending is better for the common good.

I've spent my adult life as a journalist, so my instinct is to suppress or question my opinions. Writing a column will be a departure for me, as the only other professional column I've written was to make fun of myself for getting caught on the interstate in a blizzard. But as I try to figure out what kind of columnist I'm going to be, I know for sure that I'll be the only thing Bob Michael's granddaughter can be:

I'm independent.

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