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Barton County Commissioner Don Cates was a good friend
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You know you have a good friend when they change you just by being a friend.
I had started working at the Tribune five years ago, and I was in Claflin looking for an interesting person to write a feature story about.
I was immediately directed to Don Cates.
We instantly bonded that warm summer day talking about our shared need for speed. Don loved to race cars, speed across the lake, and fly planes the old-fashioned way.
Don was a helicopter pilot in Vietnam and was the recipient of medals and awards for his bravery.
I once asked Don why veterans don’t talk about their war years. He got that fierce look on his face that showed whenever he struggled with a decision.
I laid down my pen, and he told me.
That fierce look that crossed his face indeed told the story of a man who in war time risked his life on a daily basis and saw horrific things but stood strong. He set aside those memories and lived an honorable life.
Deeply connected to family, Don named his business, The 94 Store, after the telephone number that his father, Vivan Cates, was assigned for his business back in the day.
He was so proud of his parents, and his mother. He asked me to write a story about her because she lived an ordinary life, but was extraordinary simply by being a great mom.
I did what he asked.
In the five years that I have known Don Cates, I never once heard him say an unkind word about anyone. He was a devoted father, husband, son and man.
When Don decided to run for county commissioner at the urging of others, I knew he would do a terrific job and would absolutely be a contender.
As I was out and about, people would say, “but no one knows who he is.”
I always replied, “He’s sharp.”
Don did a terrific job as a county commissioner because he was a consensus builder. He was a true leader.
Anytime I was in Claflin, I stopped by The 94 Store, hoping to see Don and the rest of his family. Not only was Don a great source for news, I simply wanted to see him.
Don was well-respected and loved in the community he grew up in. The Claflin community has suffered a great loss. Barton County has suffered a great loss.
The last time I spoke to Don a few weeks ago, he had called to talk about Claflin and Ellinwood working together to collaborate on the Chamber of Commerce. He was on his way to Pratt to fly.
Mandatory retirement age for commercial pilots is 60, and that time had come and gone for him anyway. Don loved flying the crop duster because it took piloting skills whereas the commercial planes today are flown primarily by technology.
He died doing something he loved.
Don, my life and so many others are better because we knew you.

Tribune reporter Karen La Pierre can be reached at