A Wing and a Prayer

Even at 100, Cole Kugel is ready for takeoff.

But you'll never hear Cole talk about that. Although he and Mildred were quite generous with their time and money, especially for women's and children's groups, he's always been modest.

"He's never one to pat himself on the back," Nelson Kugel says. "He gets a chuckle out of the things he does, sometimes, but that's about it."

But get him in the right mood, and he can talk for hours.

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).

"Wherever he goes, he strikes up a conversation," Gary Kugel says. "He has that old farmer ethic about visiting. We went to Walgreen's once, and he started talking to this fellow while the prescription was filled. When they left, they were old friends."

"He's very social," Dworak agrees. "Very entertaining. A real nice guy to visit with. People just show up at his house. Sometimes he'll get on the phone and call all over."

"He's got a very dry sense of humor," Nelson Kugel says. "You have to listen closely to make sure he's joking."

"I asked him once how many broken bones he's had, and he says, 'If I remember correctly, maybe my little finger,'" Rempel recalls.

"He likes to say 'Yonder,'" Dworak says. "'Over yonder.' 'Out yonder.' 'Up yonder.' 'Down yonder.' I've heard other people use it, but not the way Cole does."

"Cole is not put-on," says Shirley Richardson, a friend of thirty years. "He's just a good fella."

"A good, solid citizen," says Clara Lemons.

"Just a neat old guy," says Nelson Kugel.

"A really good sort of guy," says Reid.

"Just like a dad to me," Dworak says. "I love him a lot."

In 1986, as Mildred prepared invitations for the couple's fiftieth-wedding-anniversary celebration, she suffered a seizure that "left her to where she couldn't write," Cole recalls. Doctors later determined that she'd had the first of what would become a string of mild strokes. Over the next fifteen years, her health slowly deteriorated. "She'd have one of these things, and after four or five days, she'd overcome it pretty good," Cole says. "But then she'd have another one, and that would knock her down a little more, and afterward, she wouldn't be quite as good as she was before."

Cole, who suffered from only minor ailments well into his eighties and nineties, cared for Mildred the best he could. He drove her to and from doctor's appointments. He helped her navigate around their home. He made her eggs, toast and coffee. He tidied the house, maintained the yard, kept her company.

"It was difficult talking him into getting more help," Nancy Dworak recalls. "He didn't want to give up and put her in the nursing home. But it began to wear on him. You could see it begin to affect him."

Cole eventually hired in-home nurses and took Mildred to a care center for part of the morning. But in late 2000, Mildred suffered a massive stroke. After that, she required 24-hour care and, eventually, hospitalization. Cole visited her every day, often twice a day.

"He was completely devoted," Dworak says. "He'd do anything for her."

Cole's friends and family rallied around him. When he turned 99, newspapers wrote articles about his exploits. The Colorado Legislature recognized his contributions. President George W. Bush wrote him a birthday letter. The 2001 Guinness Book of World Records proclaimed him the "World's Oldest Qualified Pilot."

Cole enjoyed the attention. "I didn't think I was that old," he'd joke. But privately, he thought about selling his plane, a white Cessna Skylane 182 with mustard and brown striping that he'd bought from the factory in 1976. It was his sixth plane, and it had taken him and Mildred to many more places than the previous five. He'd kept it in mint condition, too, even replacing the engine himself after it had logged 1,527 air hours.

Lynn Ferguson, a Longmont veterinarian and grandson of Cole's old Flying Farmers buddy Lee Hagemeister, had had his eye on Cole's plane for a while. He'd made offers from time to time, but Mildred had always said no.

"She did not want him to sell that plane," Dworak recalls. "She wouldn't let him do it. She always thought she'd be well enough to fly again."

By late last spring, that was no longer a possibility. Mildred was critically ill, and without his navigator beside him, Cole lost much of his enthusiasm for flying. He'd suffered a setback of his own, too: minor retinal damage in his right eye that blurred his vision.

"I bought that plane to go places," Cole says. "For the both of us to go places. When she got sick, it took all the fun out of it. I was only going to the airport to crank it up and fly around the field. I just didn't care about going out by myself. I decided that I didn't need it anymore."

When Ferguson renewed his offer in May, Cole invited him out to the hangar that he'd helped build 54 years earlier. "Let's see if it starts," he said, wiping dust from the windshield of the Cessna.

When the engine roared, Cole opened the passenger door. "Get in," he told Ferguson.

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