A Wing and a Prayer

Even at 100, Cole Kugel is ready for takeoff.

"By gosh if he didn't go up there," Reid says. "And by gosh if he didn't catch big fish, too. Pike and walleye. I'll tell you what, that Cole sure is adventurous."

So was Mildred. Whenever Cole lifted off, she was usually sitting beside him. He was the pilot and she was the navigator. And while Mildred never received her pilot's certificate, she took enough courses to "get it on the ground without busting it up," Cole says. Two knee surgeries and a hip operation couldn't keep her down: When she struggled to climb into the cockpit, Cole built her a stepladder.

"I don't know how she did it," recalls Gary Kugel, the couple's nephew. "Whenever she could, no matter how sick she was, she'd fly with Cole."

John Johnston
The wild blue yonder: The Longmont Flying Ranchers then (Cole Kugel is ninth from the left).
The wild blue yonder: The Longmont Flying Ranchers then (Cole Kugel is ninth from the left).

"She didn't like staying at home," says Nancy Dworak, the Kugel's neighbor of 31 years. "If he was going somewhere, she was going with him."

Together, Cole and Mildred logged nearly 10,000 hours of airtime. They flew to Alaska, Yucatán and Canada. And wherever they went, they used the call letters 29 CM -- short for Cole and Mildred.

In 1977, the couple was named Colorado Flying Farmers' "Ambassadors of Good Will." The club also elected Mildred "Queen of the Year" and "International Woman of the Year." Cole, meanwhile, was named International Flying Farmers "Man of the Year" and "Oldest Pilot."

"Oh, we went in a lot of directions," Cole says. "She was always raring to go. Weather didn't bother her a bit. She'd just sit there through the turbulent air, bobbling around, and then she'd go to sleep."

Whether up in the air or on solid ground, Cole never seemed to slow down. Even after he retired in 1978 and rented his 1,500 acres of farmland, he kept busy.

To his friends and family members, he's simply inspirational.

"He walks with a spring in his step," says Dworak. "He does not walk like an old man."

"He's an amazing standard of how someone can stay sharp physically and mentally," Warren Rempel says. "Most of us will never make it that far, but he's what we're shooting for."

"My folks have a pool," says Nelson Kugel, Gary's son and Cole's great-nephew. "About fifteen years ago, we were all swimming, and he gets up on the diving board -- he must have been 85 -- and he dives right in. All the adults were sitting at the side of the pool with their cocktails, but there was Cole, in the water with the kids."

"He's real sharp with a wrench, too," Rempel says. "He's always had the ability to fix things, think things through and engineer things. Whatever needs to be done, he can do it."

"Oh, he's an excellent mechanic," Reid agrees. "A natural."

"Anytime we had a problem, he'd say, 'Well. A fella could...' And then he'd get to work," Dworak recalls. "He'll sit and work on something until it's done."

"His house still has the original dishwasher," Gary Kugel says. "People keep saying, 'Just get a new one.' But he just keeps fixing it."

"A while ago, the water heater in his basement develops a leak," Reid remembers. "He calls the plumber, who wants so much money to do the job. And Cole says, 'That's ridiculous.' So he buys a new water heater, drags it to his basement by himself, hooks up a block and tackle, hauls the old one out, puts the new one in and hooks the whole thing up. Then he says, 'I saved $600. And I had fun doing it!'"

"He reversed our refrigerator door, turned it around, drilled holes and put it back so we didn't need a new one," Dworak says. "When my vacuum stopped working, I was going to get a new one, but Cole said, 'What for?' Then he changed the brushes. Last summer, he was up in his attic fixing the air conditioner. I was worried sick!"

"Every day, he'll get up with something to fix," Gary Kugel says.

"And he's a good cook, too," Reid says.

"His wife never cooked," Gary Kugel says. "So I guess he had to be."

"Breakfast is his thing," Dworak says. "Coffee and eggs."

"Bread," Reid offers. "He makes great bread."

"He does toast in the oven instead of a toaster," Dworak says.

"But he doesn't like pies or cakes," Reid adds. "Not too big on desserts."

"He does like meatloaf, though," Dworak says. "He makes that once in a while."

Cole's self-reliance was born on the farm, where he learned to do without, make do and do it himself. Even today, he hates to open his wallet for anything.

"Oh, and he's tighter than a drum," Reid says. "He's got quite a bit of money now, and gosh, he sure holds on to it."

"He never thought he'd have so much," says Gary Kugel. "Now he says he doesn't know what to spend it on."

"He's always had a little money," says Clara Lemons, a longtime family friend. "But if anyone in his family needed help, they knew they could always go to him."

"That's true," Reid concurs. "If you're in trouble, he'll help you out. He will do that. He's always been that way."

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