Crash takes life of young man who had ‘one of the brightest futures’
Last week as the line of mourners at Sam Kirkland’s visitation stretched out the door of Robertson-Drago Funeral Home in West Plains and down the block, his mother, Cindy Kirkland, heard time and again of her youngest son’s random acts of kindness.
An Amish couple, Lavern and Josephine Yoder, who don’t own a car and travel to local sites on an open tractor, told her about the rainy morning when Sam called them and said, “I don’t want you driving through this rain to the sale barn. I’m coming to get you, and I’ll bring you home when the sale’s over.”
Parents told her about finding Sam’s name on the list of financial donors who had supported their children in showing their livestock at area fairs and livestock shows. “How many young men his age would do that?” one of them said.
“You don’t know me,” another one of those parents told Cindy at Sam’s visitation, “but I want to tell you what Sam did for my child.” Then came another story of how Sam had helped another child at another fair, this one in Texas County.
Clients of his cattle-hauling business told her how, after sales ran long at the Ozarks Regional Stockyard, they trusted Sam to deliver the livestock they’d bought. Working in his pickup and 28-foot stock trailer, it might be midnight or later before he worked his way down the list to deliver their livestock. “But he didn’t just dump ’em and go,” more than one customer told Cindy in various ways. “He put them in the pens where they needed to go, and we never had to worry that they were standing there with no water. Sam made sure they were OK before he left.”
Sam died Aug. 15 in a vehicle crash near Salem, Arkansas, when his pickup, pulling a stock trailer carrying goats to the Salem Livestock Auction, collided with a loaded dump truck on Highway 62.
As the family prepared for Sam’s funeral last week, it helped the grief-stricken mother to hear of her son’s many kindnesses. But she wasn’t surprised. Cindy didn’t have to be told that Sam, youngest of her and husband Bob Kirkland’s four boys, was a thoughtful young man, quick to help others. She saw that big heart of his every day.
Just 23, Sam still lived with his parents on their Caulfield farm, where he not only helped Cindy take care of the cattle they bought and raised together, he also helped her care for his dad. Bob Kirkland, whose well-drilling company marks its 50th year in business this year, began his long, slow slide into disability when he had open-heart surgery in 2006. He’s had nine coronary by-passes since then, and for several years now, he’s been sinking into the darkness of Alzheimer’s disease.
Cindy, who, besides helping tend their farm also works in the kitchen at West Plains Middle School, said her and Sam’s daily routine was that she would get up early and get her husband’s breakfast started. “Then Sam would finish cooking it, get his dad up and help Bob to the table to eat,” she said.
Although most of Bob’s memories are gone, he still remembered, every morning, to ask Sam, “What are cattle prices today? How many at the sale?”
And every morning, said Cindy, “Sam would answer him the same way, whether his dad asked the question once or 20 times. He never got upset or impatient. He was very precious in how he treated his dad.”
Like his older brothers, Rickey, Michael and Robbie, Sam grew up in a hard-working farm family. Back in the days when Bob was able to operate the well-drilling business and also manage the family farm, Cindy was up most mornings at 4 a.m., cooking breakfast. “Everyone ate at 4:45, and then Bob would go out choring as soon as there was enough light to see. And as soon as they were old enough, the boys went with him,” Cindy said. “All the boys were driving tractors when they were still in grade school.”
And when Sam and Robbie were little, “they would also go along in diapers when we were well-drilling,” Cindy said. “They’d take along their little toys and wear their little boots.”
All the Kirkland sons still own cattle. The Kirklands’ oldest son, Rickey, who lives in Diamond with his wife Courtney, works at KIA Motors in Joplin but runs cattle on the side. Michael, their second son, lives across the road from the family farm with his wife Lisa and focuses on running the family’s well-drilling business – and also owns cattle. Robbie, the brother closest in age to Sam, lives in Republic with his wife, Hannah, and still has cattle on the family farm. Both Michael and Robbie helped Sam on the farm whenever they weren’t busy with their other jobs.
When the family gathered after Sam’s death, the brothers headed out into the field on a four-wheeler to check the cattle. “Robbie was driving,” said Cindy. “He would stop, back up and point and say, ‘See that calf right there? Sam texted me a picture of it.’ And then they went on down, and Michael said to stop. He pointed into the field and said, ‘Sam talked to me about that calf. Boy, he was proud of that calf,’” Cindy said, adding that the conversation continued that way as they went on through the herd.
“Sam loved his brothers so much. They were very, very close,” said Cindy. “And we miss him so much.”
‘The most likable kid of all times’
After his graduation from Bakersfield High School in 2014, Sam went to work part-time as an intern at the FFO furniture store in West Plains. During that time, he also enrolled in the welding program at South Central Career Center and worked for a veterinarian at Ozarks Regional Livestock Auction.
FFO store manager Will Bonham said Sam worked in the warehouse, unloading trucks, moving furniture to the showroom floor and loading it into customers’ vehicles. Bonham said Sam “was probably the most likable kid of all time. Everybody loved him. It was always fun when Sam was in.”
After the Kirkland family started attending Gospel Hill Church of Christ, where Bonham is in charge of assigning church duties, “Sam would do anything I asked of him,” Bonham said. “He would lead songs, do the Lord’s Table, lead prayers, anything.”
When Sam’s workday ended in mid-afternoon, his mom would pick him up, bringing him water to wash up, a clean change of clothes, and his dinner to eat in the truck. Then he’d be at SCCC until 9 or 10 that night, she said. And the next morning, he’d be up in time to help feed their cattle before he headed out to do it all again, sometimes managing three part-time jobs at once.
At SCCC, Sam became an “excellent welder,” she said. And while most of his classmates went on to become boilermakers who traveled the country plying their trade, Sam was happy using his skills to build pipe corrals, fences and hay rings on the family farm. After he finished welding school, he focused on what he enjoyed most – any work that pertained to cattle. As his family wrote in his obituary, “If you wanted to talk about cattle, he was your best friend.”
He started working at CS Cattle Company in Pomona, and he also worked at area sale barns, especially Ozarks Regional Stockyards in West Plains, where owner Randy Hoover “took him under his wing and mentored him,” Cindy said. Sam worked the auction ring, helped sort livestock and rode his horse to get to the areas where cattle were being sorted and loaded into semi-trucks.
Sam loved cattle, and one of his favorite things to do was hauling cattle – or goats – for sale barn customers. A few years ago, he bought a new truck, a 2015 Dodge Ram, with a bank loan, using his cattle for collateral. Cindy co-signed the note but never had to make a payment for him.
With his truck and trailer, and his reputation as an honest, trustworthy young man, Sam started his livestock hauling business.
“Sam was young when he came into it,” said his friend Jeff Smith, one of a small group of independent livestock haulers who work together when one of them has a big job that would require multiple trips – or multiple haulers. “We all just use each other like that,” said Smith, who added that he was “probably twice Sam’s age, but he was just one of them guys who growed on you.”
A good livestock hauler, said Smith, “takes care, don’t overload, don’t pressure the animals, don’t drive crazy and does it all in a timely manner.” Sam, he said, was a good hauler. “If his trailer can haul 12 head, and you bought 17 head, for sure he wouldn’t cram ’em all into one trailerload. He would make two trips,” said Smith. “You might work all night. This is not something you do fast. A lot of places you go at night on a regular basis, there might not be no one up. You’re the only one there. You turn the lights on, put the animals where they need to be, check that they’re OK, turn the lights off and get back on the road. I get into a lot of that. Sam did too. There’s a lot of trust involved in this work.”
Sam was easygoing and rarely got upset, Smith said. “If you heard him say something made him mad, you would snap your figures, and he was smiling again.”
He added sadly, “It just kills you to know he’s gone.”
Stephanie Guffey and her husband were some of the many customers who trusted Sam – a fact she might have questioned 10 years earlier, when she was his middle school math teacher in Bakersfield.
“Math wasn’t his favorite subject, but he was always respectful and well behaved,” she said. “He could be funny and would be the clown occasionally. If you had told me when I had him in middle school that he would grow up and we would trust him to buy cattle for us, I wouldn’t have believed it,” she said. “He bought cattle for us all last winter, and many Friday nights he would drop off calves and stay for dinner.”
Stephanie Guffey also spent a lot of time when Sam and the Guffeys’ daughter Zoey were 4Hers together. “We spent a lot of time showing cattle and goats,” she said. “Then we got into breed cattle. We show and breed Angus cows now, and so did Sam. We transitioned into that together.”
She added that, as far as she knows, Sam was the youngest person ever elected to serve on the board of directors of the Heart of the Ozarks Angus Association.
Stephanie’s husband, Stacy, called Sam “Sunshine,” maybe because he “always had a sideways grin on his face, and he could take teasing better than anyone I know.” Often, conversations would start with her husband asking, “Well, Sunshine, what have you been up to?”
Sam’s response was always the same: “Just livin’ the dream.”
Besides his sale barn and livestock-hauling work, Sam also helped his brother and sister-in-law, Michael and Lisa Kirkland, keep the Kirkland family’s well-drilling business going. He was making plans to help with more of that work while also focusing on the family farm he and his mother were operating together.
Sam and Cindy talked every Monday night about the farm and the cattle they bought together. Sam had told his mom he wanted to “get the cattle back to the number Daddy had years ago, before he got sick.”
Cindy told Sam she didn’t want him to put himself in a financial bind “just to stay here with me.” But Sam answered that he could make money hauling cattle and that would let him “work on the farm and buy cattle with you.”
Then he added, “This is where I want to be, Mom.”
‘The happiest person’
Sam’s long-time friend Dustin Cotter is the auctioneer at the Ozarks Regional Stockyard in West Plains, and he also owns the livestock auction in Salem, Arkansas, where Sam had also worked for a while. He still hauled livestock to and from the Salem sale barn frequently.
Cotter said Sam was “the happiest person you ever met. Always had a smile, never met anyone he didn’t like and could tell stories about anything and everything. Whatever it was, he could make it funny. Sam made everyone around him better.”
Wednesday evening, Sam picked up a load of goats in Pomona and took them home with him, planning to deliver them to Cotter’s sale barn in Salem Thursday morning.
When Cindy got up at 5:15 that morning, she walked into Sam’s bedroom and touched his foot to wake him up. “I touched his arm and his face,” she said. “I said, ‘I saw you got some goats.’ He said he was taking them to Salem. I told him, ‘Be careful. I’ll see you when I get off work, OK?’”
Sam got up and helped his dad with breakfast. When his brother Michael came in, Sam told him, “I’m going to run them goats to Salem, and I’ll be home quick.”
It was the last time they would hear his voice. On his way to Salem, the collision with the dump truck occurred. It’s not clear how the accident happened. The investigation is continuing, Cindy said.
Dustin Cotter got a phone call that morning, asking if one of his trucks had wrecked with a load of goats. After Cotter called Sam’s cell phone and got no answer, he rushed to the scene, about 5 miles from the sale barn in Salem. Later he told Cindy he watched as “10 men gently took Sam out of the truck, so carefully and slowly with respect and love,” Cindy said. “That helped me, to know that.”
“He had one of the brightest futures,” Cotter said. “He was going to be right there in the middle of the livestock business.”
The Heart of the Ozarks Angus Association’s website seems to agree, referring to Sam in a memorial post as “a great member of our organization.”
The tribute ends with this: “The Lord owns the cattle upon a thousand hills…and now he has a new hand to help Him.”