Orphaned family’s rock dies on the farm

A man, who became head of a large orphaned family when he was little more than a boy himself, died Saturday on the family farm north of Mott.

Jim Kerzman
Jim Kerzman

By LAUREN DONOVAN | Bismarck Tribune

A man, who became head of a large orphaned family when he was little more than a boy himself, died Saturday on the family farm north of Mott.

Jim Kerzman, 68, was killed in a farm-shop accident sometime around 3 p.m. and was pronounced dead at the scene, said Hettinger County Sheriff Sarah Wanner.

Kerzman was a longtime member of the North Dakota Legislature, currently a 30-year board member for Slope Electric Cooperative, a board member of North Dakota Farmers Union and served various other church and farm-related organizations.

“He was a big man, with a big heart. He truly had compassion for other people,” is how he’s remembered by fellow Democrat Kenton Onstad, who served alongside Kerzman in the House from 1991 until he was defeated in 2010.

The Rev. Terrance Kardong, of Assumption Abbey at Richardton, remembers him as a big strong athlete with an undersized self-image.

Kardong, a teacher at the Abbey High School for boys in those years, recalls taking Kerzman to the state high school wrestling tournament in West Fargo. On the way to the final round, Kardong recalls him saying, “ ‘Just think Father, me, Jim Kerzman, the second best wrestler in the state.’ I told him, `You idiot, you can crush this guy.’ “

Kerzman did crush that guy, but not many months later in November, 1965, life just about crushed him, along with his 14 younger brothers and sisters, including a baby sister, not yet one day old.

The family’s parents, James and Ione Kerzman, were killed when an ambulance, taking them from the Elgin hospital to Bismarck after problems from birthing May Ruth Kerzman, crashed in a snowstorm.

The story of the orphaned Mott farm family of 10 girls and five boys was carried by The Associated Press and made headlines around the world.

Anita Kerzman Friedt, who eventually married into a farm family nearby, was one of the little girls in the family at the time. She said her big brother was the rock for the rest of them.

“He was who we went to; he was our strong one. He carried a lot on his shoulders. We appreciate all he did for us and was still doing,” she said.

Bill and Pat Friedt, close family friends, reached out after the accident to help the children, especially Jim Kerzman, who was then just 18 with a farm to run.

“He was alone over there and he was at our place every day. He ate a lot of meals with us,” Pat Friedt said. “It wasn’t easy, but the farmers around and the aunts and uncles all helped. Everybody just pitched in.”

The other children lived with family in Garrison and Pat Friedt said neighbors would carpool to bring them from New England St. Mary’s Catholic board school to the Kerzman farm for weekends together.

Bill Friedt said Kerzman put together a solid farm operation.

“He was a good manager, level headed,” he said.

It is an extra sadness that he died on the farm he worked so hard to keep going in those early years, the Friedts said.

Jim Kerzman’s wife, Jill Kerzman, said those early years at Assumption Abbey High School remained with him all his life.

“He never had political aspirations, but all that he did stems from being at the abbey where they instilled in him a very firm sense of social justice. He believed so strongly in helping those less fortunate than himself by how he voted,” she said.

He never turned down a neighbor who needed something welded, either, she said.

Besides doing what he could to help his own brothers and sisters grow up, Jim Kerzman, with his first wife, Lila, had six of his own children. After her death in 1986, he married Jill Dietz Gard, and added her four children to the family. There are 21 grandchildren and two more on the way.

“The most important thing about him, he was such a great husband. The obituaries all say that, but he really walked the walk. What a baby hog he was,” Jill Kerzman said.

She said she takes some comfort from her last moments with him.

“When I knelt by him, and held his hand and prayed, I felt…the community of saints, all there welcoming him. I could feel their presence,” Jill Kerzman said. “As tragic as it is, our faith allows us to know that he is OK.”

Funeral services was be held at 10 a.m. Wednesday at the National Guard Armory in Mott.

(Reach Lauren Donovan at 701-220-5511 or lauren@westriv.com.)

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