FULTON, S.D. — In the wake of tragedy, residents in the small southeast South Dakota town of Fulton just outside of Mitchell showed the true spirit of their farming community.
Between the Bender family's soybean and corn harvests, the family patriarch was killed in an automobile crash in late October. The death of Robert Bender, 57, shook the small town to its core, marking the loss of a man beloved in the area and involved in several Hanson County organizations.
And as Fulton, a town of 91 people, and the surrounding community grieved, the Bender family was left with the task of harvesting approximately 300 remaining acres of corn without the help of their father.
That's when the community spirit truly shined.
"You know, that's kind of what we do in the farming community out here," said Scott McManus, of Fulton, who helped the family with the corn harvest. "When something like that happens, we get together and try to help out any way we can."
Those who knew Robert Bender saw a family man, someone who was willing to drop everything to help another person in need. He was known by many in the community for years, leading longtime friends like McManus to do what Robert did so many times: Putting himself aside and prioritizing the needs of someone else.
Robert's 21-year-old son, Tristan Bender, echoed the same sentiment.
"There were times when we kind of got on Dad's case about him dropping everything he was doing to go help someone else," Tristan said. "And you know, sometimes Dad had his plates overflowing and he had to really get something done, but he would still drop everything he was doing to go help a neighbor."
Tristan said approximately 15 people came out to help with the corn harvest, and McManus was one of those who were quick to offer assistance. Because of Robert's various roles in the community — helping out with the local cemetery and serving on Hanson County boards — so many people wanted to help that some had to be graciously turned away.
With an abundance of people jumping at the chance to support the Bender family, Tristan said it shows how influential a presence his father was in the community.
"They had a lot of respect for him and what he did," Tristan said. "He was always the first guy to give you a lending hand."
That respect in the community caused it to be no surprise when so many people volunteered to help with the corn harvest.
"I had a hunch that people were going to offer to help, especially with harvest time, that's pretty hectic for just about everyone," Tristan said. "Trying to manage a hectic time and also a tragic time, it's a handful."
Those who came to help with the harvest Wednesday, like McManus, brought all the equipment needed to get what Tristan said would typically be a five-day job completed in mere hours.
"All the neighbors got together and went and helped him get all of his corn out just so that'd be one less burden on the kids' shoulders," said McManus.
McManus said the assistance boiled down to some "good neighbors" and "good friends" offering a helping hand.
Surviving Bender were his four children — his fifth child died in a vehicle crash in 2006. Another son, 25-year-old Jacob, was also proud to see the support locals gave for the Bender family and his father's legacy.
Despite the immediate challenge the Bender boys were met with in harvesting corn without their father's help, both Jacob and Tristan were in good spirits at their Fulton farm on Friday following the swell of community support. And Jacob, along with his fiancee Miranda Donahue, both let out a glimpse of a smile at times when remembering the kind heart of Robert and the Fulton community.
"We're just one big family," Jacob said about the Fulton community.