Hearts & Angels: Family, friends remember two ag women killed in car accident
Nanna Flesch and her three kids were headed east, delivering bulls to customers in Wyoming and Nebraska.
Ruth Anne Smathers was headed west, hauling her dogs and her horses home from her Friday job, penning back cattle at Crawford Livestock Market.
At about sunset on Friday, March 25, just east of Harrison, Nebraska, where Highway 20 crests a hill and curves, the two women collided.
Thirteen-year-old Preslee Flesch called 911, then called her dad, Jeff Flesch.
Nanna, age 42 from Shelby, Montana, and Anne, 67 from Lost Springs, Wyoming, were both pronounced dead at the scene, according to the press release from the Nebraska Highway Patrol. The crash remains under investigation.
Preslee was taken to Chadron Community Hospital, where she was released the next day, bruised and sore, but otherwise unharmed. Jagger Flesch, 10, ended up at the hospital in Denver, where he was treated for fractures to his jaw, cheekbones and eye sockets, and released, according to a Facebook post by Jeff. Lennon Flesch, 6, was transported to Monument Health in Rapid City, where she was treated for a broken left ankle and broken right arm and released March 30.
Both Jeff’s and Nanna’s parents were able to help cover the various hospitals, and on Tuesday, March 29, five days after the accident, the whole family was together for the first time. All the kids are now at home, with Jeff.
Nanna collected heart-shaped rocks.
“She was a ray of sunshine,” said her friend and former co-worker, Shandi Bradley. Nanna’s friends Joan Wellman, and Sanna Clark said the same thing, word-for-word, in separate interviews. “She lit up the room,” all three women said.
“I can’t imagine Nanna gossiping, or being judgmental,” said Sanna. “When she walked in, anything bad that happened that day just kind of disappeared, and she just rolled with whatever was happening.”
Sanna, a teacher, was talking with some of the kids in the class, who go to school with Preslee, and they agreed, “You always thought maybe you were Nanna’s favorite. She had a way of making you feel special.”
But the most important people in Nanna’s life were her husband, Jeff, their kids, and extended family. “She adored Jeff, and would do anything for him, and those kids were her life,” Shandi said.
“She had the cutest giggle,” said Joan. “The giggle, the smile that went from ear to ear. Just the sweetest heart, a good heart. She had a soft heart.”
Joan tells of seeing Nanna when Nanna was expecting each of her children. “I’d tell her she reminded me so much of my daughter. Her tears would well up and she’d tell me how much she missed her momma. I’d give her a hug because she was lonesome for her momma because they were miles apart when she was pregnant. She was tender, because if you said something sentimental she always had a tear for you.”
Shandi tells of time spent mothering together, since Preslee and Jagger Flesch are the same ages as Shandi’s kids. They were 4-H moms, sports moms and ranch moms, in addition to working together for several years at the Glacier County, Montana, Farm Service Agency.
“We always tried to celebrate birthdays at the office,” Shandi said. “I had a bunch of cards at my desk, and I decided I was going to look at those, knowing there would be many with Nanna’s message. It was uplifting to read her words to me.”
Together, with their other co-workers at FSA, they put together a music video, voiced by Nanna, to promote the FSA programs. Much of the video was filmed at the Flesch ranch, where Nanna invited the staff and their families to film and a barbecue.
“She was always up for anything,” said Sanna. “It was hard to get Jeff away from the ranch, but at Christmas they’d try to go skiing or something. She made sure that her family built those memories together.”
Sanna remembers a girls’ trip Nanna planned. “She gathered up a few of us, bought the tickets and said we’re going to a Miranda Lambert concert. You just don’t do that as moms.”
About a year ago, Nanna got her realtor’s license. Sanna said, “She had a genuine personality. She wasn’t trying to sell you a line. I’m sure that was one of her greatest strengths in being a realtor.”
Jeff and Nanna operated Flesch Angus, near Shelby. They met in college at Colorado State University, and in 2007 they moved from Colorado, where Nanna was raised, to Montana, to start the process of taking over the management of the ranch from Jeff’s parents. They focused on building the embryo transfer and artificial insemination programs, and together worked toward producing cattle that would perform in northern Montana. Nanna put together the sale catalog every year, and did a beautiful job with both the graphics and the photography, Sanna said. Nanna was as at home with her arm in an OB sleeve, in an AI chute, as she was with a camera, or a sorting stick in her hand, and a baby on her back.
In a video Nanna made for her job as a realtor, she said, “Living on a ranch and raising our kids here is really wonderful. They have skills and knowledge that most kids their age don’t have. They can do things even I can’t do. I’m shocked and amazed every day by the things they are able to do, and it’s because of this lifestyle that we live.”
Fleschs’ bull sale was March 11, and Shandi was there. “Nanna was floating that day. She was so happy, the sale was going great.” One of their sale promises was to deliver bulls for their customers, which was what Nanna and the kids were doing when the accident happened.
Saturday, after they heard of the accident, Sanna and her husband, who grew up with Jeff, started going through the sale tickets and bulls still in the pens after the accident, calling customers and explaining the situation, asking if they could come get their bulls to take that much of the burden off Jeff. “Nearly every customer said, ‘Absolutely, and can I deliver any others for you?'”
Sanna has lists of people who want to help with food, who offered to help with the AI and ET work that has to be done on schedule this spring, who can help with the kids, and who just offer, “whatever you need.” There’s talk of fundraisers, and the Angus community has turned out en force to support the family. A GoFundMe account raised more than $50,000 in less than a week.
The family is active in the local Catholic church, and, according to Sanna, anyone who wants to provide food for the family will have to get in line behind the Catholic ladies. The Extension office has set up a sign-up sheet for a meal train. “We need to be in this for the long-term,” Sanna said.
Nanna’s friends can see Nanna in her kids’ kindness and focus, in Preslee’s organizational, take-charge, take-care spirit, and in her smile.
When her friends think of Nanna, that smile, and a certain polish come to mind.
“She always had on flashy earrings, or a touch of turquoise or a little leopard-print,” said Sanna. “Even when the rest of us moms were at the fair in our jeans and t-shirts, Nanna would walk through with cute jewelry and cute boots.” She was working as hard as anyone else, making sure the kids’ clothes were pressed, and the cattle were clean, but, “She wasn’t trendy in an attention-getting way, just something that raised her to a different level.”
Nanna wasn’t too bothered by the gas gauge hovering near E in her vehicles, and always added a touch of fashion to “fashionably late,” Shandi said. “But that was just Nanna. She was always taking care of everybody else.”
Last Saturday, the night after she heard of Nanna’s death, Shandi had a dream about Nanna. “This is so indicative of Nanna. She was smiling, her beautiful, lit-up, radiant smile–she was so happy–and had this massive pot of glitter gold. She bent down and scooped up a bunch of it and she threw it into the air, and it turned into fireworks. I think she wanted me to know she’s happy, and she’s still taking care of everyone.”
Ruth Anne Smathers
Anne carried a quarter-sized stone angel in her pocket for years. The only day it wasn’t in her pocket was when her son, Toby Bartschi, and daughter-in-law, Kit, got married, and she loaned it to Kit for “something borrowed.”
Kit and Toby got the angel back on Thursday, the day before Anne’s funeral.
On many Fridays, Anne drove the 150-mile round-trip from her ranch near Lusk, Wyoming, to work at Crawford Livestock Market. That was her chance to visit with friends and show off her horses, Toby said. The paycheck was a bonus for a day spent doing what she loved–anything horseback.
For years Anne worked at sale barns in Douglas, Glenrock, and finally, in Crawford, Nebraska. She took her horses and her dogs–working dogs, blue heelers and corgis, though they didn’t work in the pens–when she went to work.
The accident that took Anne’s life also took some of her favorite horses and dogs. One special dog will be making a home with Toby and Kit. Anne’s daughter, Gynette King, is taking care of the rest of Anne’s dogs.
Anne’s “day job” was ranching. She was the fourth generation to inherit and run the family ranch on Harney Creek in Converse County Wyoming. Anne learned young to be self-sufficient, tough and neighborly. When Anne bought and moved to her Niobrara county ranch, about 12 miles north of Lusk, and 40 miles from the ranch her family homesteaded in Converse County, she continued to use the name, Harney Creek Ranch, along with the quarter-circle TX brand she put on her black Angus cattle.
“Since 1998, when she took over the ranch from my grandma, she just struggled and thrived,” Toby said.
“Everybody was always enamored of her horses and how hard they worked, not to mention a 70-year-old woman doing it.”
Anne ran the ranch by herself, until Toby moved back to Wyoming from Oklahoma about a year ago to help out. That was the first time she had any help other than hired day-help on the ranch. She would let Toby saddle her horse, if he was around, but at age 67, she was still working full days.
“Even when she wasn’t feeling healthy, or feeling good, she’d do it anyway,” Kit said.
“She could do anything from haying to branding to cutting calves, tying up horses, breaking horses, fixing fence. What needed to be done got done,” Toby said.
Toby remembers his mom telling him, “Put your boots on and get to work.” When he asked what they were going to take off for lunch, she said, “one glove.”
But for being “tough as a boot,” in Toby’s words, she put thousands of miles on her pickup, 40 at a time, traveling back and forth between her old neighbors in Converse County, and her new home in Niobrara County, usually with a trailer full of horses and a pickup full of dogs, to help with anything that needed to be done. She also made time for anyone who wanted to go out to the ranch and ride a horse–usually a “retired” favorite old palomino pet gelding, Hollywood–or work cows, or learn about ranching. From the grandkids to strangers, if someone wanted to be there, she wanted them there.
Since Anne’s goal in life was to spend as much time horseback as possible, when they started Pony Express reenactments in Wyoming about 25 years ago, she signed up. She’s been carrying the mail twice a year ever since, for their annual Christmas and summer rides.
“Any job she could do on a horse was her favorite,” Toby said. “She could find any excuse to ride.”
Kit said, “We’d jump in the side-by-side and she’d say, ‘I’ll saddle up and won’t be far behind.'”
Though Anne’s hands were callused from fence pliers and leather reins, they also sparkled with the rings she wore every day. She wore her long, blonde hair tied up in a tight bun wrapped under a baseball cap, and most people either never knew she had it, or forgot, until she let her hair down. In the evenings, to relax, she traded her work boots for Ropers.
“She was only 5-foot-4, 5-foot-6, but she was bigger than life,” Toby said. “She didn’t go to church, but she believed in God. God was everywhere around her. The Bible says church is a gathering of two or more, and for her it was her and her horse.”
Make checks out to Flesch Family Benefit.
They can be mailed to:
PO Box 778
Conrad, MT 59425
Or make contributions via GoFundMe at shorturl.at/asIM1, or go to gofundme.com and search Nanna Flesch.
For funeral expenses and care of livestock send checks made out to
PO Box 931
Lusk, WY 82225
Please write “Anne Smathers” in the memo.
Or contributions can be made in her name to the Niobrara County Fairgrounds Foundation. Those funds can be sent directly to Lusk State Bank.
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