Three years after he was diagnosed with ALS, retired Hutchinson dairy farmer Robert Dobratz will again see the results of his labor Saturday at the annual McLeod County Fair Truck and Tractor Pull.
Though Dobratz mainly communicates by nodding his head and with a laser on his eyeglasses, his mind is fully intact, said Becky Puckett, his daughter. A passionate tractor puller since 1996, long before his diagnosis, Dobratz has built on the power his tractor needs for the event each year, even as his doctor told him and family members his body would lose its own power to move.
“How the doctor described ALS,” Puckett said, “is that he needs power but keeps losing it. He hasn’t been able to walk in a year and a half. … He has lost almost all his power.”
ALS, or amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, is a degenerative disease that affects nerve cells in the brain and spinal cord, according to The ALS Association. Loosely, in Greek, the term means “no muscle nourishment.” The muscles atrophy as motor neurons from brain to spinal cord die.
“And during all that, today is the best day you’re going to have with ALS,” Puckett said. “The next day something else will lose power (and stop functioning).”
Such was the case when, shortly after his diagnosis, Dobratz battled respiratory failure.
“That was shocking to all of us,” Puckett said. “Typically the loss of breathing is the last to go, and for my dad, it was the first.”
Dobratz had a tracheotomy and spent the summer recovering in the hospital. That August at the County Fair, his children and grandchildren participated in the Ice Bucket Challenge, and his son Steven drove the tractor, a FarmAll Model M that Dobratz dreamed of restoring.
“We pulled it out of the shed, and it looked terrible,” Puckett said, laughing. “But it got down the track, and we watched it go. Dad got to watch it one more time. We brought him to the fair so he could see that.”
But August 2015 was not the last time Dobratz would watch his tractor roll down the track. Since his diagnosis and loss of motor functions, Dobratz has continued improving and upgrading his tractor, piece by piece, with help from his kids, neighbors and friends.
Puckett said she and her dad spent recent summers in the garage, where he instructed her with his laser and an alphabetical communication board. All improvements to the Farmall M were made after the diagnosis.
“We did a ton of work to it that summer,” Puckett said. “The McLeod Truck and Tractor Pull was rained out in 2016. I was devastated, thinking that he would never get to see it again. Our thinking has always been so short-term that we never thought he would have another year.”
This year, McLeod County Fair board member Bob Paulson will take the wheel and drive Dobratz’s tractor.
Because of Paulson, the McLeod County Fair tractor pull saw its 50th consecutive year in existence in 2014, as he felt it should continue after he’d grown up seeing the event.
The Dobratz family asked Paulson to drive their dad’s tractor because he’d been in charge of the event for so long.
“Robert is a nice guy,” Paulson said. “From what I know of him, I don’t think he’s got an enemy in the world. He’s one of those guys who is nice about everything. I always admired him for that. If there was something not quite right at a tractor pull, he would make it right.”
Dobratz is well known for his kindness.
“The toughest change for him is the loss of speech,” Puckett said. “He loves to talk to people. If a person wants to know a history of Hutchinson, my dad is the guy to talk to. He’s always wanted to know what’s going on, make connections with people, and what I’ve heard over the last three years from people visiting is that he’s such a good man.”