Leaving a mark: Family recalls Klempel’s love for branding, football and life
“There’s been an accident.”
It’s every parent’s worst nightmare.
The tiny, tightly-knit community of Reva, South Dakota, is still numb with the shock of the news that came Wednesday, June 5. Seventeen-year-old Jaxon Klempel died when his pickup rolled while he was driving home from a neighbor’s branding. Jaxon’s parents, Josh and Erin (Lermeny) Klempel and his older brother Jaden and younger brother Jace are trying to find a new normal with the middle son of ‘the Klempel boys’ suddenly gone from the family circle.
“You know the possibility of losing a child is there,” Jaxon’s father Josh Klempel shared, “but you never imagine it.”
The teenager loved anything ranch related, and especially loved brandings.
“We had to plan our work around the boys’ schedule for the last few years,” Josh said.
Jaxon’s younger brother, Jace, laughed, remembering how they told their parents they had to get on their branding calendar a month early, or they’d be out of luck for having the boys’ help at home!
In the midst of their grief, Josh said it helps a little to know that Jaxon spent his last moments doing what he loved best. Helping a neighbor brand.
“He wouldn’t have any regrets,” Josh said. “From the time they were little all the boys were in the back pushing calves, and he was itching to get up front to run the table. As soon as he was big enough, he was doing the next job.”
Jaxon’s family shared that he loved sports and outdoor activities: hunting, fishing, horseback and motorcycle riding. And football.
“Jaxon ran track to have a good time,” his mother, Erin, remembered, “And he played basketball to be with the kids. While he put his heart and soul into everything he did, he was never competitive for the sake of being competitive except for football.”
“He loved football. That was his passion,” Josh concurred. “He was proud to play for ‘his’ Harding County Ranchers.”
Jaxon always took things in stride, and always had a smile. Even when he broke his thumb during the first of four football games at a Wall Jamboree. “He didn’t tell his coach because he didn’t want to be taken out of the game,” Erin said, “So he played all four games with a broken thumb. On our way home through Rapid City I asked him if he wanted to stop and get it looked at. ‘Nope.’ He said. ‘I’m hungry. Let’s go to Famous Dave’s and eat.’”
“He ate his meal with his hand in a cup of ice,” Josh added.
Jaxon’s ability to live life as it came and roll with it showed in every area except for hunting.
“When it came to hunting he was very flexible,” Josh said. “He would get his heart set on a particular deer, and the whole school bus would know that was the deer he was after.”
But then things had a way of changing.
“Even if that big buck was in his sights, he would find the oddball every time,” Jace remembered.
Two years ago Jaxon helped guide some visiting hunters to fill their tags, and he had so much fun he didn’t even want to apply for his own tag.
“He absolutely loved it,” Erin said.
While Jaxon enjoyed sports of all kinds, academics were not his favorite.
“He really struggled in school for many years,” Erin said. “He had dyslexia and dyscalculia, so it was hard for him till he was able to take some extra classes and get help from teachers who understood the problem. The last two years he was finally flourishing in school.”
This didn’t mean everything was perfect, though; Jaxon was known for his poor spelling abilities. “You knew if he got ahold of your phone and texted someone with it because of the spelling errors,” Erin laughed.
“There were some spelling errors in his obituary, and we left them,” Josh said, “Because he always made mistakes in his spelling.
“Mostly he enjoyed anything he could do so that he didn’t have to do ‘real’ school,” Erin said.
“If he could do it with his hands he was happy,” Jace agreed.
“He really loved the mobile unit,” Erin said. This educational service provided through the Northwest Area School Districts brought a new study unit every semester, including skills ranging from small engine repair, welding and electrical work to health and graphic design.
“Jaxon had an ability to learn hands on,” Jace said.
Jaxon’s future plans included studying Diesel Mechanics at Lake Area Technical Institute in Watertown, South Dakota, and then returning to his community to start his own shop in the area.
“He was very mindful about what path he wanted to take and how to pursue it,” Josh said. “He also wanted to continue with the ranch and raising cattle. He really loved anything ranch related. And he had the patience for it. It just came naturally to him.”
The only animal Jaxon didn’t get along with was the family’s rooster.
“We had chickens a few years ago, and they had a hate/hate relationship,” Erin remembered. “The boys all liked to sleep outside, and one morning Josh woke me up saying, ‘You’ve got to see this!’ There was the rooster, standing about three inches away from Jaxon’s head. He had singled Jaxon out.”
Jaxon also had a steady girlfriend, Alayna Tomac of Webster, South Dakota. “A distance of three hundred miles is ideal for a teenage relationship,” Jaxon’s parents laughed. “They really had to get to know each other. They talked every night, and even read the Bible together over the phone. For the last two and a half years she spent a couple of hours every day in our living room with us—on video chat!”
“That was annoying,” Jace put in!
“We always said Jaxon was an ‘old soul’ from the time he was little,” Erin said. “If we were at a wedding dance or some event, you wouldn’t usually find him with the kids his age. He’d be sitting with the old farmers talking farming. He had a habit of being early to bed and early to rise. He’d get up around four thirty or five and be to bed by eight. He’d just lay down and go to sleep.”
Jaxon would sometimes express frustration with kids at school or on his sports teams who didn’t give it their all, step up, and take responsibility. He had no interest in the typical teenage drama at school either.
“He was never in the cliques in school because he had no time for drama,” Jace said.
“He knew that life was so much bigger than all of that,” Josh agreed.
Jaxon’s coaches at the Harding County School filled a special role in his life. While he loved sports and excelled at several, he may not have started out with a large amount of natural talent.
“Jaxon was not graceful,” Jace said.
But Jaxon learned early on that making an effort in sports gets noticed even if you’re not the star player on the team. Eighth grade was Jaxon’s first year in basketball. As he prepared to make the transition between Junior High and High School, he received a letter from coach Matt Weakland along with the “Most Improved Player” award.
“That letter meant a lot to him,” Erin said. “He learned that his effort would shine through even if he wasn’t the most talented.”
Other coaches that played a special role in Jaxon’s life included Jr. High football coach Waylon Sabo, High School head football and basketball coach Jay Wammen, and Track Coach Ron Slaba.
Ron also worked as a para-professional at Harding County High School for the last two years, and so had a unique perspective on Jaxon’s academic struggles and growth as well as his athletic achievements.
“I got to see him in study hall every day,” Ron shared. “He was a special kid. He had a unique ability to balance being a kid, having fun, and pushing buttons with an ability to understand the big picture of life that’s unusual for a kid his age. He would come in every morning, plop into a chair in my office and put his size 17 feet on my desk with a chuckle and ask me how it was going. I knew every single morning when I walked into class that Jaxon would be there, and I enjoyed my work in part because I knew he was going to be there and he was going to make it fun. But he could also sit down and talk calf prices, fencing, and how he was going to have to help out at home when his dad had knee surgery and how he planned to make sure he got his homework done even though he would miss some school because he was needed at home.”
Over the last two years Mr. Slaba watched Jaxon grow from a child with learning challenges to a young man who made the Honor Roll.
“All kids go through that stage where they say that school is just a waste of time, and Jaxon used to say ‘School’s not for me,’” Mr. Slaba remembered. “But he had a huge amount of respect for his parents’ wishes that he get his degree, and once he understood the importance of getting his High School diploma he decided to buckle down and get it done. But he knew how to be a kid at the same time, and loved to push peoples’ buttons—-both with his classmates and with adults—yet knew to keep it fun and what lines not to cross.”
During the 2019 season, Ron enlisted Jaxon as an assistant track coach of sorts after Jaxon injured his knee in basketball.
“Jaxon was pretty down about not being able to jump this year, but when I told him we still needed him as a teammate and suggested that he could be my unofficial assistant he brightened up. By the time we got to the conference meet his knee was better, and he came to me and said, ‘Coach, I think I’m going to jump. We need more points as a team.’ I wouldn’t let him jump, but he ran the 300 meter hurdles and the 400 meter dash back to back. That was incredibly challenging physically.”
Jaxon had never run the 300 meter hurdles before, yet he won an Honorable Mention in the Little Moreau Conference that day.
“I leaned on him pretty hard to help me get his teammates ready for their events,” Coach Slaba said. “He was a real team player. He was such a genuine kid. There was nothing fake about him. He didn’t do things for people just for recognition or appearances, he really cared about others. I learned so much from him. On the track, the football field, or in the basketball court he never compared himself to others. He was not out there trying to be better than other players. He was always asking ‘How can I be better?’ but he wasn’t trying to best anyone else. He was just trying to be the best player that he could be each day.”
“In this day and age it’s easy to be pretty discouraged about the state of humanity with all the things we hear on the news,” Ron said. “Out here we’re lucky, we still get to raise our own kids the way we choose. We still have really good kids in our society, and Jaxon was the best of who we are. Getting to interact with these kids is the best part of coaching and teaching, and I loved Jaxon like my own. He was one of those kids I was lucky to know. He really touched my heart.”
While Jaxon was undoubtedly proud of his achievements in sports, his parents know he was most proud of his family. He always had time for a high -five for his young cousins on the sidelines of the basketball court and would often take time to sit down and play tractors with them.
“You could always find Jaxon with a little kid on his lap,” Erin said. “He was never too busy to just go hang out, whether it was with kids his age or with his three year old cousin.”
“Jaxon was proud of where he came from,” Josh said. “You could tell.”
As Jaxon’s family grieves, they are still confident that Jaxon would want them to remember what was most important to him.
“Don’t sweat the small stuff,” Jace said. “Just go out and live life and enjoy it.”
“Enjoy those around you and take time to build a deep relationship with them,” Erin said. “We have a family habit that every time we leave the house we say ‘I love you. Have a good day.’ Jaxon would reply with ‘I love you too’—in his quick boy way. I’m so thankful we made a point of doing that.”
“We had no idea how many people Jaxon had touched,” Josh said. “The turnout for both the family service and the funeral was incredible. Jaxon loved brandings, so before the burial we invited anyone Jaxon had left his mark on to bring their branding irons and leave their mark on his casket, and as we branded the casket more and more irons were brought out. It was amazing to realize how many people he had impacted.”