Honorable, veteran, loving, wise, funny, compassionate, strong, supportive, generous, irreplaceable, encourager and greatest cheerleader. These are just a few of the words his grandchildren used to describe Eastern Illini Electric Cooperative member Ernest Sjuts of rural Urbana on his 80th birthday.
Sjuts is Opa (a German nickname for grandfather) to 15 grandchildren and three great grandchildren. He and wife, Evelyn, referred to as Oma, have a blended family. He has four children – Mark (now deceased), Keith, Sharolyn and Don; and Evelyn has two – Ranae and Jim. Married in 1978, you would never guess who belonged to whom. That’s just how well-blended this family really is.
Ernie and Evelyn had “gone together” before either of them were first married. Life interceded, and each married someone else. Ernie had been divorced for eight years, and Evelyn had lost her husband in an accident, when they rekindled the romance two years later. He credits his son Mark for being responsible for the marriage.
With a smile, “Mark told Evelyn she needed to marry me because he wanted to move out of the house, but didn’t want me to be alone,” says Ernie.
Ernie dropped out of high school at the age of 16 to help his father with the farming. It was common at that time for sons to quit school to help out. They farmed 320 acres, which was a lot of land at that time. Four years later, he was drafted to serve in the Korean War and assigned to the artillery. Before he could be shipped to Korea, a truce was declared by President Eisenhower. Instead of Korea, Ernie was sent to serve in Vienna, Austria to patrol the Berlin Wall.
“Our Russian counterparts were on one side and we were on the other,” Ernie explains. “I was there for 18 months. Our objective was to slow the Russians down if they came over the wall!”
He met his best friend, Donald Barron, on one of his first days overseas. Barron, of Lewistown, Mo., was the driver of the truck Ernie was in and they struck up a friendship. After Barron’s discharge from the Army, he got a job in Danville so that he and Ernie could live closer to each other. The two have been best friends for 61 years.
Ernie turned the management of the farm, Sjuts Farms, over to his youngest son Don at the ripe old age of 26. Don recalls that one day his dad told him he was the boss and asked him what he wanted him (Ernie) to do that day. “Most fathers won’t do that,” says Don. “They want to keep their nose in it, but he’s not like that. Once he turned it over, he let me make all the decisions. I’ve heard of others whose fathers have turned over the farm to them, and they couldn’t get along. We’ve never had one cross word with each other. Never.”
The Sjuts family has not been without its share of faith-testing challenges. On July 8, 2010, Ernie and Evelyn were at a reunion in Clinton, Iowa, when they received a call from grandson Ryan asking them if they had heard about an accident. As they started calling their children, they learned there had been a car accident involving son Mark and grandson Chason, and one of them had passed. As friends threw their clothing back in their suitcases, Evelyn received a call from Don telling her that both Mark and Chason had passed away, but he didn’t want her to tell his dad. He was worried about how it would impact their drive back.
After they were in the car, Ernie received a call from son Keith telling him the bad news. When they arrived at Don’s house around 10 p.m. there were already about 50 cars in the driveway. Family and friends had all gathered to support each other.
Oddly, Ernie remembers talking a few weeks earlier about how he hoped he never had to bury any of his children. “And then it happened,” he reflects with tears in his eyes. “It’s wrong – that’s the worst feeling you can have.”
Three months later, on Oct. 20, 2010, Ernie suffered a brain aneurysm. Evelyn remembers returning home that day and finding Ernie inside, which was unusual. “He said he had a headache, but he never gets headaches,” says Evelyn. “He asked for a couple of Tylenol and about the time he took them, he started complaining about his neck hurting.”
Evelyn wanted to call the doctor but Ernie told her no. “Well, I can be stubborn, too,” says Evelyn. “I called the doctor, and they told me to get him to the emergency room right away, but he wouldn’t go. They had me put him on the phone and he reluctantly obliged.” On the way to the hospital Evelyn tried frantically to get in touch with one of the children, but no one was answering. Meanwhile, Ernie was sweating profusely and turning gray. She wanted someone to meet her at the hospital and finally got in touch with Ranae, who met her there.
Ernie was immediately cared for by the emergency room staff and tests were ordered. The hospital didn’t have a neurosurgeon there and quickly transferred him to Carle Hospital in Urbana. The only thing Ernie remembers is asking the ambulance driver if the vehicle was a Ford, because he didn’t want to ride in a Chevy! Much to his chagrin, he did ride in a Chevy.
He was in the hospital for three weeks and Evelyn never left his side. She slept and showered at the hospital, and Ranae would bring her a change of clothes and take the other ones home to wash. Ernie credits the neurosurgeon, Dr. Wang, for saving his life and the family’s faith for getting them through those hard times.
In every moment, good, bad and every day, you’ll find the family together. They learned the importance of family from Ernie. “You won’t find a man that will do more for his kids,” Don states. Ernie and Evelyn want to be around to watch their grandkids play sports or whatever they are doing. Ernie states matter-of-factly, “They only grow up one time. If you miss out on it, you’re done!”
Ernie made it a priority to be there for every chemo treatment his grandson Trent required several years ago, always by his side. Thankfully, Trent has been cancer-free for seven years.
Since Ernie had to drop out of high school, he didn’t have the opportunity to earn his high school diploma the traditional way. But that didn’t stop him from receiving it. One of Ernie’s proudest moments was in the spring of 2012 when he received his high school diploma from St. Joseph-Ogden High School alongside his granddaughter Jamie. “It was really special having my Opa there,” says Jamie. “He even got a standing ovation.”
When asked why she nominated him, Ranae chokes up and says, “Ernie is very special to me. If you read anything any of the grandkids have written, the consensus is that he is a great person, a great man. Although we are two families, we are one. There are some kids that don’t get the chance to have a dad in their life. I guess I’m one of the lucky ones because I got two of them!”
Granddaughter Rylee may have said it best in an essay she wrote. “My Opa is a great role model. I love him so much. He is a great man, a hero to me and an inspiration in life.”
Sharolyn passionately adds, “We are one family. Even though our parents were divorced, we are very proud that our dad and our mother Sylvia can still be friends. Our mom and Evelyn are friends too, and that helps us a lot. My mother is part of all family holidays and celebrations, and I think the fact we are all together really shows the character of the three of them. Mom and Dad look beyond what obviously didn’t work as a marriage and became friends.”
“Dad once said to me, ‘you’re a better farmer than I ever was,’” says Don. “I told him you’ve taught me more than farming, you taught me to be a good father. We all LOVE our kids and I think that’s what he taught us, to be a good parent and there for your kids. He’s stern and loving and taught us respect.”
So what does Ernie do to keep himself busy? In the spring you can find him helping Don plant corn and beans, and in the fall you might see him in one of the farm’s semis hauling grain. According to Ranae’s letter, “He doesn’t miss a beat when it comes to cheering on his grandkids at their ballgames and on most Sundays, you’ll find him attending church services at Immanuel Lutheran Church in Flatville.”
And, on Sunday afternoons it’s likely you’ll see him and Evelyn on their golf cart, along with their friends on their carts. Destination? Headed down to Sidney for a picnic lunch and a stop at their favorite ice cream shop. They simply enjoy each other’s company and the peace and quiet. And the crops, he’s always looking at the crops.