I’ve got a sad task in this column today. I scrapped what I was writing yesterday when we received word this morning that a much-loved WaKeeney icon has left us. Mike Dreiling, our own “Mr. WaKeeney” passed away Monday night. It was a day we always knew would come, but somehow, I just wasn’t prepared, and I kept hearing the Beatles sing “I heard the news today, oh, boy”. And when I heard the news, a whole bunch of thoughts and memories came flooding back, along with a few tears.
When I was little, on our weekly visits into town, there was no place I was more excited about visiting than the hardware store. One reason was because I never failed to convince my Dad that I NEEDED some peanuts from the red and chrome 5-cent machine located on the counter. They were always the good kind of Spanish peanuts, slightly oily and very salty, with the red skins that slipped off and fell to the bottom of those little, tiny, brown paper sacks Mike would always give me. I’m not sure if it was the nuts or the cute little sacks that made me insist on peanuts at every visit.
When I was really small and scrawny (yes, there was such a time) Mike would have to help me up to reach the machine, where I carefully deposited my nickel and turned the handle. I had to hold that mini-sack exactly under the spout so as not to lose any of the precious peanuts it dispensed, and sometimes, I just wasn’t tall enough, but I could always count on Mike to help me out. Then, and only then, could I walk around the store, peanuts in hand, and look at all the stuff on the shelves.
I was never impatient to leave when we visited Mike’s store. Oh, I liked Mr. Jeffries when he was the proprietor, but it was really Mike I wanted to see. He always talked to me like I was an adult, never, ever like I was a pesky kid, which was most likely the case.
I liked to look at the pocket knives on display, always wishing and hoping that one of them would go home with me, but that never happened. Knives were not for girls, my Dad would scoff, but Mike never treated me like just a girl. He would patiently answer all of my questions about the various tools and gadgets to be found on the shelves. I especially loved the ropes of all sizes and materials that magically sprouted from a hole in the floor. Some of those ropes became leads for my 4-H steers, and some became leads for my horse, and some were just used by Dad for unknown but always interesting farm things. I knew that we could always count on Mike to give us just what we needed. He always knew things that fascinated me and he showed me how to tie knots and which rope was used for every task.
The other reason I loved to visit my friend Mike was that he was, I think, the first person to call me “little August”. I can hear him like it was yesterday, calling to us, in his perpetually cheerful voice, “hey, there’s August, and little August”. I loved hearing that, because I completely idolized my Dad, and wherever he was, I could generally be found about three paces behind, trying to keep up. It always made me grin when Mike called me “little August”. And every time we went into the store, Mike would always ask me what I wanted to be when I grew up. “A farmer” I’d say with conviction. He always got a big kick out of that and would heartily reply, “that’s my girl”. And later, when I said I wanted to be an architect, he’d remind me of how important school was and that I should study a lot of math. “Yuck” I’d reply, and he’d laugh a little. “That’s my girl,” he’d still say.
Schooling was very important to Mike, as everyone in town knew. He served so many years on the school board and with the district in various capacities. Mike never had any children of his own, but really, he didn’t need any. EVERY kid in town was his, in his way of thinking, and we were all special to him. I’ve known a lot of people who loved kids, but I can’t think of anyone who loved them more than Mike. He attended every event, followed all us kids with pride, and always had an encouraging word to keep us on the straight and narrow.
In fact, after one particularly harrowing day during high school, it wasn’t my Mom and Dad or my friends I went to see. It was Mike. I poured my heart out to him while he stood behind the counter, and just listened and nodded. I don’t even remember what his advice to me was, I just remember that he listened. And he probably asked me about college and where I wanted to go. He approved of my choice of Ft. Hays, and that mattered a lot. Mike’s opinion always mattered, not just to me, but also to a lot of folks around town. If Mike thought you were on the right track, you usually were.
A lot of folks have been called “Mr. WaKeeney”, but no one deserved the title more than Mike Dreiling. No matter if it was wearing his blue hat and working at the weekly car races, once sponsored by his beloved Lions Club, or taking tickets at some athletic event, or handing out diplomas at graduation. He was always ready with a smile and a cheerful word. He never had a discouraging comment to say about anything, and was always quick to brag about his hometown. He could always be counted on to support whatever community project was underway. And his support was not just with money, but also with time, and patience, and always the belief that WaKeeney’s brightest days were ahead of us, not in the past.
At noon, it was common to see Mike walking down the street on his way to have lunch at Cleland’s. It was something he loved, eating with friends, catching up on the latest news, and offering his uniquely “Mike” commentary about local events. He never failed to tease the girls behind the counter, or to ask about my mother, or recall some fun time he’d had in the community. In the last few years, the pace of those walks slowed as his health become more of a problem. And finally, we didn’t see him walking around town at all, we just heard the reports about him from his family and the many people who loved him and watched out for him.
I find it especially poignant that his family has said that in lieu of flowers, contributions to the Michael Dreiling Education Fund would be appreciated. Even in the after life, Mike is still looking out for his kids and his community. And even though this kid is far from young, I’m glad to know that he’s probably reading this and smiling.
A lot of people love this town, but Mike was one who was loved right back. The best way to remember him is to do something nice for the town, encourage a kid, and spread the word that our best days are still ahead of us. But they won’t be the same without Mr. WaKeeney. And like hundreds of other kids who graduated from TCHS, I’m still “your girl” Mike. I always will be.