Family and friends remember Philip, S.D. man who died in Christmas blizzard
January 11, 2017
It was about 3 p.m. on Christmas day, 2016, when George Gittings drove away in his pickup, headed two miles down the road to water the cows. He figured he'd be home in time to watch the football game that evening.
Twenty-four hours later, his wife, Sandee, knew she would never see him again. She still didn't know where he was, or what had happened, but she knew, she said. "It wasn't going to be good."
A short time after he left the house, the Christmas blizzard that left thousands without power moved in at their place near Philip, South Dakota. "Within minutes after it hit, you couldn't see out the windows," Sandee said.
The cows were near their old ranch house, which had food and a wood-burning stove and plenty of firewood. Sandee assumed George would hole up there until the storm passed.
His pickup was found in the ditch about 300 yards from their old house. George was found about 100 yards from their home, with his foot stuck in the auto-gate.
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"My granddaughter and her husband came out and found him," Sandee said. Though he was only 100 yards from the house, Sandee couldn't see him because of the drifts. She said two neighbors told her they'd driven by twice that day and hadn't seen him.
George didn't carry a cell phone and if he did, the likelihood of having service was slim. The power was out at the couple's home and cell service at their place is scarce, so Sandee couldn't call for help. The ice left by the rain that preceded the blizzard spread a treacherous coating over the area, and Sandee said the vehicles were in the garage and drifted over.
"The funny thing is, he watched the weather every night for a week," Sandee said. "They told it was going to be a horrendous storm and if you get stranded, stay with the vehicle. He was more than half Irish. He was going to make it home. He had walked in blizzards many times and made it home, but this time he didn't.
"We couldn't figure out why he tried to walk home instead of the 300 yards back to the other place. We'll never know," Sandee said.
"He was always dressed extra-warm," said long-time friend and neighbor Marsha Sumpter. "He was the old rancher from years gone by. He had a lot of his father's characteristics. He always had on his overshoes and coveralls. He really respected the weather. That's why it was such a shock that he passed away that way."
George and Sandee's son, Robin, was already in the process of taking over every-day operations on the ranch, so now he's running the ranch. Sandee will continue to live on the ranch with her son and run the bed and breakfast.
The funeral was a reflection of George. The family asked the florist to make an arrangement in George's ice cream maker, an odd request to those who didn't know him.
"Homemade ice cream was his specialty," said Sumpter. "Sandee would make up the mixture and he would always have his churn and the ice and salt." George took his hand-crank ice cream freezer to family and community gatherings.
"Everyone would take a turn, especially the young people," Sumpter said. "One year we had a failure. The bucket got a hole in it, so the ice cream got the brine water in it. He was so embarrassed. We had hauled it all the way up to Union Center for a meeting. The first few scoops weren't too bad, but after that we were into the briny water."
"He wore out four ice cream freezers in 48 years," Sandee said. "They were all hand-crank. No electric to them. My daughter had bought him a new ice cream freezer she was going to give him for Christmas because this one was shot too."
At the lunch following the funeral, a local 4-H club made ice cream and served it to the guests.
George also loved John Deere tractors and had a collection of John Deere toys and collectibles. "We had a John Deere tractor cookie jar that we used for his urn," Sandee said. "It seemed rather fitting."
George grew up not far from where he and Sandee lived in a renovated missile command center, turned house and bed and breakfast.
He worked at Philip Livestock Market for 24 years in the yards. "He enjoyed it immensely," Sandee said. "He was never late for work. He was late for everything else, but not for work."
A year ago in November, a cow got up on the catwalk where George worked and threw him in the air three times. He ended up in the hospital with a broken leg. "He was going on about it and I told him he was lucky he wasn't dead," Sandee said. "He calmed down then. It just wasn't his time."
George was known for being a people person, loving to visit with folks and kid them a little.
Sandee said after he died she got a call from Milesville, South Dakota, where they had lived briefly. "They said George would be trying to call someone in Philip and call a number in Milesville. After 10 or 15 minutes he'd get off the phone."
He also frequented the 73 Bar in Philip, just to socialize. "He didn't drink, but he'd go to the bar and buy drinks for everybody. That was his social time," Sumpter said.
"He was always ready to lend a neighbor a hand. He milked cows for years and carried gallon jugs of milk to this neighbor or that neighbor. The same with eggs. I told him, 'George, you're going broke, delivering milk for $2 a gallon,'" Sumpter said.
Dan Piroutek, auctioneer and ringman, said, "He was such a nice guy. He'd take care of somebody else's stuff before he'd take care of his own. He really was always willing to help a neighbor. George was one of the kindest persons, and would give you his last $10, no questions asked, if you said you needed it."
Family was very important to him, as well, Sandee said. "The grandkids and great-grandkids were his most favorite things."
Sumpter said, "George and their son and grandchildren worked together a lot. It was a learning experience for them. He was always handy and explaining what was going on."
George and Sandee were neighbors growing up. They were married for 48 years and shared plenty of laughs.
"He loved candy," Sandee said. "He always got me the heart-shaped box of candy for Valentine's Day because he knew I didn't like it and he'd get to eat it. So one year I got him six pair of earrings for Valentine's Day."
The family was planning to celebrate Christmas on Dec. 29, when all the kids and grandkids could be home. Instead, they attended his funeral that day. They gathered to open gifts the day after the funeral, allowing the little ones to open their great-grandpa's gifts. "It was mostly candy and ice cream toppings," Sandee said. "He liked to go to town just before Christmas and buy what he wanted and tell me to wrap it and put it under the tree."
George served in the National Guard, was a member of Sacred Heart Catholic Church in Philip, a member of Knights of Columbus since 1962, serving as Grand Knight, then 45 years as the treasurer. He was also the Haakon County president of South Dakota Farmers Union for over 30 years.