A board member at Black Oak Gin found Donnie Kelton. He was in the front seat of his pickup parked on a gravel road about three miles from their home. He couldn't wake Donnie up.
When the news reached Donnie's wife Kim, she called their only son, Kris, 17. Kris and Kim had known that something wasn't right. They had started calling Donnie around 2 that afternoon and couldn't get an answer. Donnie, hard-working and conscientious, always answered his telephone.
His mother's words confirmed that the news was not good. “She asked me if I would come and get her,” Kris recalls. “She said, ‘They found your father.’”
Kris couldn't remember much of the drive, other than the flood of memories and thoughts racing through his mind.
Less than a year before, in 2005, Kris and his father had squared off in a battle of wills over Kris' desire to start farming on his own.
It wasn't that Donnie didn't want Kris to farm. But the stress of farming had driven Donnie from the profession he loved in 1998. When the need arose for a manager at Black Oak Gin in 2000, Donnie, one of the owners of the gin, filled in part-time that fall. Later on that winter, he became the gin's full-time manager. The pay was stable and the hours reasonably consistent.
He put a little money back over the years to help if Kris ever wanted to farm on his own. “But his plan was for me to go to college for four years,” Kris said. “He wanted me to be a kid, enjoy life and start getting serious when I got out of college.”
But farming had gotten in Kris' blood. Between his junior and senior years in high school, Kris worked for Arkansas cotton farmer Dennis Finch, one of Donnie's close friends. The experience only stoked the passion he had for farming. “As I got older, I started realizing what I was missing. All my friends' fathers farmed and I saw the enjoyment that they were having. I wanted to farm.
“It took an act of Congress,” Kris said, to get his father to go along with it, along with reassurances from Finch that Kris was ready. But he finally acquiesced.
By the spring of 2006, Kris' first cotton crop was in the ground, 100 acres on land owned by his parents and grandparents, Ruby and Hershel Kelton, in Caraway, Ark. He leaned heavily on his father's friend, Dennis, for equipment needs that first year, and of course, his father was always there for advice and to lend a helping hand.
By mid-May, the planting rush was over for Kris, and on May 19, he graduated from Riverside High School, allowing him to give full attention to his cotton crop for the summer.
Then two days later, on a Sunday morning, Donnie grabbed his rod and reel and left the house for a day of fishing at Big Lake, near Manila, Ark. That afternoon, they found him on the gravel road. He was already dead from a heart attack by the time Kris arrived on the scene. He was 57.
Quick as a lock of cotton snatched off a boll, Kris's mentor and best friend had perished, without any warning. At the tender age of 18, there was so much he could have rebelled against from that day forward — the pain left by the sudden void or the unexpected wrecking of his adolescence. Instead he took an unwavering step forward into manhood, and the result still surprises to this day.
After mourning his father's death, Kris plowed ahead to fulfill every dream his father had for him, and more. “I was motivated. I wanted to succeed for him. I pushed myself really hard that year. I would have lost my mind if I hadn't been farming.”
Kris finished the cotton crop out that year, and harvested almost a 4-bale yield off one field. He inherited his father's seat on the board of directors at the Black Oak Gin and two months after Donnie's death, he was seated at his first board meeting, a 18-year old among men two and three times his age, soaking up what he could.
He has gained a great deal of respect and admiration from those who run Black Oak Gin, the new manager, Larry Teague, among them. “I wasn't sure what Kris would think about me since I took his father's place at the gin,” Teague said. “But he didn't treat me any differently than anyone else, and I respected that. We've become good friends since then.”
Kris soon focused on another of his father's dreams for him. The fall after his father's death, he enrolled full-time at Arkansas Northeastern College in Blytheville, Ark. Two years later, he enrolled at Arkansas State University, in Jonesboro, Ark., majoring in ag business.
In his second year of farming, Kris increased his cotton crop to 200 acres and purchased his first tractor. Last year, his farm grew to 300 acres.
This year, at 21, he's still juggling a full schedule of classes as a junior at ASU while farming around 150 acres of cotton, 120 acres of soybeans and 220 acres of corn. He also works as a hand for Dennis Finch, essentially another full-time job.
Thinking about his father, and his grandfather, Hershel Kelton, who passed away in October 2006, keeps him going through farming's stressful times. “I was just another common, teenage kid. One day, you wake up and you're a grownup. I changed overnight. Seeing my father there in the truck, something just came over me. I changed that moment. I never went back to the old me.”
The “old” Kris, “was without a care in the world. Don't get me wrong, I did care about things, but I was a kid. When Friday and Saturday rolled around, I didn't want to be in the field. I wanted to be out with my buddies, hunting and fishing. All of a sudden, it was like bang, you have to be the man of the house now,” Kris said.
“He had to do a lot of growing up fast,” Kim said. “To be honest, it worries me sometimes that some of his youth has been robbed from him. But he seems to carry it off really well. I'm just really proud of him.”
Kris is quick to point out that he couldn't have made it through the last three years without the help of friends. Kris now claims Donnie's friend, Dennis, as a good friend of his own. His consultants, Danny and Eddie Dunigan, “have been around my family for years. I couldn't ask any more from them. They walk through the fields, tell me what's out there.”
“He's already an excellent farmer at a young age,” Eddie Dunigan says. “Just as soon as we find something in the field that needs taking care of, he's right on top of it. He wants to do it the way his father would have done it.”
Kris scouted cotton for three years with his mother's best friend Gail Ramsey. “I learned a lot about chemicals, insects, plant growth regulators, and learned how to make those applications,” Kris said.
And he and his mother have grown closer. “We're like a team now. I was always real close to my father. He was my best friend. After he died, my mom and I started getting close. She helps with some of the bookkeeping and helps get me signed up with FSA. She's a strong backbone of my operation.”
The person who helped Kris the most, however, is not able to lend a hand or offer an encouraging word — at least not in the traditional sense. But Kris feels that his father is still watching, and this has given him a guiding principle that keeps him going — the best way to honor those you love is the same in death as it is in life. It is simply, to make them proud.