Maegan Spindler was the shy girl from Cazenovia, N.Y., who fell in love with the American West, its rivers, and the wild things in the water – beaming at the camera with a brown trout in her hands while working for the Wyoming Game & Fish Department, or cradling a paddlefish in her arms on the Missouri River near Pierre.
At 25, the big question she faced was where she would go for her graduate degree in fisheries science.
Rob Klumb, 46, was one of the Ivy League’s best-kept secrets, a blue-collar Ph.D. who bought only American blue jeans, drank cheap beer and expensive coffee, and spent his work hours directing U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Great Plains Fish and Wildlife Conservation Office efforts in South Dakota to study fish species such as the endangered pallid sturgeon.
They died together July 8 in Pickstown, S.D., at the end of a 12-hour day on the Missouri River when an out-of-control driver missed a stop sign, roared through a parking lot and smashed into the two of them and two parked cars as they stood talking in the parking lot outside a hotel.
The Charles Mix County Sheriff’s Office announced Tuesday that Ronald Ray Fischer Jr., 28, has been arrested and charged with two counts of vehicular homicide. Tests showed he had a blood alcohol content of more than twice the legal limit, according to law enforcement. Personnel in the office said Fischer turned himself in on Tuesday.
Taking on the scourge in South Dakota
The crash was as devastating as an artillery shell going off – for the victims, and also for their families.
“We weren’t able to get a final look at our beautiful 25-year-old daughter,” said Maegan’s father, Gregg Spindler. Maegan was one of three children that Gregg and Susan Spindler raised partly in New York but also for some years in Arizona. It’s probably there that Maegan began feeling at home with the West’s rivers and mountains and vast distances.
“Even in South Dakota it’s Big Sky country once you hit that 100th meridian, or even a bit east of that,” Gregg Spindler said. “She just absolutely loved it.”
Instead of flowers at the funeral earlier this month, Maegan’s family asked that donations be made to Mothers Against Drunk Driving or to the Center for Biological Diversity in Tucson, Ariz.
“She would have firmly believed that all life forms are precious and gifts that should be nurtured and preserved,” said Gregg Spindler.
And, he adds, some good can come from Maegan’s death if it can draw attention to the problems of alcohol abuse.
“There are a lot of people in your state who view this as a scourge, and it is,” Spindler says. He adds that when he comes to Pierre to gather his daughter’s personal belongings in the near future, he was hoping for a chance to meet with Gov. Dennis Daugaard.
“We were disappointed the governor has scheduling problems,” he wrote in an email. “The Spindlers feel the state should levy a modest excise tax on the sale of all alcoholic beverages exclusively dedicated to adequately fund enforcement, prosecution and incarceration of DWI offenders and provide education to middle and high school students. We also feel it is scandalous that South Dakota specifically exempts bars and other sellers of alcohol from any liability from the sale of alcohol to visibly intoxicated persons.”
Spindler feels so strongly about cracking down on alcohol abuse that a story about Maegan that appeared immediately after the accident in the Spindlers’ nearby daily, the Post-Standard in Syracuse, provoked a discussion in the comments section of the story.
“We need to prevent more deaths by simply placing a breathalyzer in every car,” a comment posted by someone called Humpbacktroll says. “It’s a minor inconvenience that could save thousands of lives every year. It must be done.”
Another comment by someone called runothecat simply expresses sympathy for both families. “Hope justice prevails so you can get a smidgin of closure. It’s South Dakota … so good luck!”
Finally Dan Klumb entered the discussion: “The man killed in this accident with Maegan was my brother Rob. I just want to go on record saying that we cannot legislate this type of incident out of existence. I know that my brother was not one to drink and drive, but I also know that he was a definite proponent of individual freedom. We do NOT have the right to take the life of others, but we do already have laws on the books limiting blood alcohol levels … This is a senseless tragedy and I would give anything to have my brother back, but not at the expense of the freedom of the rest of this country’s adult population.”
A comment posted by Maegan’s family replied with praise for Rob Klumb as a mentor for Maegan, then went on: “Maegan and Rob were killed in a location which sadly has a reputation for alcohol and substance abuse and third world poverty is the norm. This, in no way, excuses Ron Fischer’s behavior and it is our sincere hope that he is charged with 2 counts of vehicular homicide and has to serve 2 consecutive 15 year sentences, plus whatever else the troopers can add.”
Mentor and friend
At the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service office along Garfield Avenue in Pierre where Rob Klumb helped oversee the Missouri River’s fisheries, Klumb’s colleagues – some of whom were standing only feet away when the crash took place – have been told by supervisors not to discuss what happened in Pickstown. But they’re happy to discuss Rob Klumb, a one-of-a-kind scientist who never paraded his expertise.
U.S. Army Corps of Engineers employee George Williams remembers when he first met Rob Klumb in about 2008 at a meeting he was attending with Wayne Nelson-Stastny of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
“We were walking into a room and Wayne said, ‘OK, pick out the Cornell Ph.D. in the room,’” Williams recalls. Williams dutifully scanned the crowd, scarcely pausing at the man with the ponytail hanging down his back wearing the flannel shirt and worn blue jeans.
“He was probably my last pick,” Williams said.
Nelson-Stastny said that’s how Rob Klumb was; for all his academic degrees, he also had a high degree of humility.
“My wife called him our fish-squeezing, tree-loving hippy friend,” Nelson-Stastny said. “She told him, ‘You’re a big shot who never acts like one.’”
The “tree-loving” label was well-deserved. Though Fish & Wildlife Service colleague Dane Shuman said Rob Klumb was glad to spend some of his free time in winter spearing fish through the ice on the Missouri River – “hardwater fishing,” his brother Dan says he called it – during the summer his weekends were spent tending his trees, his flowers, his vegetables and about a hundred houseplants. The plants that needed special attention even went with him on trips, Shuman said.
“His plants traveled with him like pets,” Shuman said.
Colleagues say he was deeply concerned about issues such as climate change and gridlock in Washington; he was a firm supporter of NPR and also supported the college station at Stevens Point, Wis., where he worked as a DJ while earning one of his degrees; and he had a deep knowledge of music and football teams, especially in the NFC North.
Brother and son
It was well-known among his colleagues that Rob Klumb acquired his passion for growing things from his mother, Florence Klumb. She said they would still garden together when he came home to Wisconsin.
“A lot of times he would help me garden and we would talk about politics and the way things are,” Florence said. “We had quite a few of the same ideas and political views.”
A dedicated Packers fan, and to a lesser degree, a Brewers fan, Rob had gently let his mother in on his passion for conservation after he abandoned his plans to study electrical engineering and switched in midstream to biology – and eventually to fisheries science.
“He bought me the book, A Sand County Almanac,” she said. “He just said it was a marvelous book and gave it to me to read.”
The most bookish of four sons in a Catholic family, Rob Klumb also began, gently, to disagree with some of what he’d been taught as he studied biology more deeply – including those texts on prehistoric biology that are written in the rocks.
“He wasn’t quite the believer that we are, put it that way,” Florence Klumb said. “He was involved in fossil digs and things like that out west. He was probably more of a firm believer in evolution.”
And, Florence Klumb realized after she attended a meeting where Rob spoke, top scientists around the country knew and respected Rob for his deep knowledge of river ecology and fish biology.
“I only attended one once in Milwaukee and it was like listening to someone I didn’t even know. It was almost shocking,” she said. “He was just a down-to-earth person that you didn’t know had a Ph.D. He wore the blue jeans and flannel shirt, kind of like us – a hometown, farmer-type person.”
Milwaukee resident Dan Klumb, after spending four days recently in his brother’s house and reading through some of the letters Rob had filed away, realized Rob’s charities stretched far and wide. He was giving fishing kits to underprivileged kids to introduce them to sport fishing, for example.
Dan Klumb has similar memories of a brother who was always broadening his horizons.
“He introduced me to Frank Zappa when I was very, very young,” Dan said. “His whole room back at our old house was nothing but posters – Iron Maiden, Pink Floyd, John Lennon – big John Lennon fan – David Bowie, Metallica. But he also like old country, like Johnny Cash and Hank Williams.”
Another brother, Kevin Klumb, also of Milwaukee, said Rob brought the same passion to football. The two of them would call back and forth during halftime of Packers games and then afterward to discuss the game. And Rob would monitor how the Packers fared in the NFL draft for both of them.
“I called him to find out what was going on,” Kevin said. “He always had the info. I’d say, ‘Who’d we get?’ He’d say, ‘Well, there’s this linebacker we got. He’s a rookie, but he’ll be good once they start playing him.’ He was a great brother.”
For the past six years, Kevin said, he and his brother Dan and their father, Robert, had been coming out to South Dakota in the fall to hunt pheasants with Rob. This year would have been the seventh.
It was no surprise to the family that Rob ended up a fish biologist.
“For as long as I can remember, we were always fishing. That was my dad’s thing. We always fished,” Dan said. “Particularly the ice fishing the past 10 years. We’d always come back to Wisconsin for the ice fishing – our annual walleye harvest, we called it. It was always over New Year’s because Rob was in town.”
Dan Klumb said his brother was frugal to the point of being cheap when it came to spending on himself. Except for his eclectic and voracious appetite for music, and the occasional spree in Wisconsin when he might buy 20 pounds of coffee from Eagle River Roasters, he tended to spend little.
“He bought very cheap beer – Milwaukee’s Best, Hamm’s,” Dan said. “He liked cheap beer, expensive coffee. Huge coffee fan. The booze he had was always top shelf.”
But Dan adds that Rob was generous toward his family in ways that matter.
“Rob was the only one in our family with an honest-to-God college degree even at a bachelor’s degree level,” Dan said. “He was putting away money every year for his nieces and nephews so that they could go away to college. But he always joked that he hoped they wouldn’t go so he could buy himself a Camaro.”
Future fish biologist
When the story about the accident appeared in the Post-Standard in Syracuse, a woman named Lexie posted a comment that said, “I had the privilege of working with Rob and the Pierre office in 2008. They are an amazing bunch of individuals! I admired Rob and he was an amazing man and mentor. He inspired me to go on to graduate school and was a true friend.”
Dane Shuman, Rob Klumb’s colleague in the Pierre office, said that was another aspect of Rob – his work on behalf of young scientists who would become the next generation of fisheries biologists.
Shuman said everyone in the office was impressed with Maegan Spindler’s intelligence and work ethic, and Rob was already thinking of fisheries research projects that Maegan could work on when she went away to graduate school.
Spindler had come to Pierre with some experience. With a bachelor’s degree in wildlife science and a fisheries diploma from Vancouver Island University, Maegan had first found work with the Wyoming Game & Fish Department.
“All of us were looking forward to having her as part of our community, the fisheries community,” said Hilda Sexauer, Maegan’s supervisor when she worked for the Wyoming Game & Fish Department in Pinedale, Wyo. “Her heart was there. She was going to be one of our future fish biologists.”
She was a hard worker who took her job very seriously.
“She had all the right ingredients to become an exceptional biologist,” Sexauer said.
Working with Rob Klumb, who was highly respected in the fisheries community, would have been one more stepping stone to help prepare her, Sexauer said.
Gregg Spindler agreed.
“Once she started working in Pierre with Rob Klumb’s group, she started talking to us about graduate school,” Spindler said. “She just wanted to be out there and be working on native species, in particular. She did some of that in Wyoming and of course that’s what the project in Pierre was about. Those scientists were taking her under their wing and mentoring her.
“My daughter said working with those guys she realized how little she knew about fisheries. She was talking about going to graduate school in Brookings.”
Gregg Spindler said his daughter was quiet about her politics, but that her views were not as conservative as the views she encountered in states such as South Dakota and Wyoming. That had to do with her passion for the environment.
“I’d say she was a pretty hard-core Lefty,” he said. “You don’t meet too many Bush supporters on backpacking trips.”
Gregg Spindler said there was just one variable affecting all her plans for the future. That was this guy named Cooper whom she’d met in Wyoming.
“We’ve got all these pictures of them together, some in the Black Hills, some in the Big Horns. They’re just radiantly in love. You can just see it,” Gregg Spindler said.
Cooper Balke was working at the Wind River Brewery in Pinedale when he met Maegan Spindler. They were both transplants – he was from Texas, she was from New York – united by a streak of quiet on the inside and a love of Wyoming’s outdoors. Before long they were both calling Pinedale home.
“We did a lot of things together outdoors – hiking, camping, fishing. We did a lot of hunting together. She was the perfect match for me. We both were the same. We didn’t like crowds. We were always comfortable, on road trips or down at the house, if nothing was being said.”
She also loved fly fishing – her default setting for when she wanted think or unwind, and for times when she just wanted to be alone. Cooper liked fly fishing, too, but he knew when he’d met his match.
“She was excellent. She was way better than I was. She loved fishing. If she went with me or if she wanted to be alone, that’s always what she wanted to do.”
Maegan was already an outdoors enthusiast but Cooper helped her get deeper into hunting.
“That was her own decision, that she wanted to try it out,” he said.
Cooper loaned her his .270-caliber rifle and taught her to dress out an animal after she got the first big game animal she went after, a pronghorn.
Later, fitted out with shotguns, they hunted for mallards on Boulder Lake and on Green River.
She liked the jewelry the Shoshone and Arapaho people made, so Cooper took her to Fort Washakie on the Wind River Indian Reservation so that she could buy a pair of earrings.
Their relationship had gone long-distance when Maegan landed the job in South Dakota, but still they managed to meet at points in between. They met in the Black Hills, then in the Big Horns.
“We met over the Fourth of July weekend and spent the weekend together until the day before the accident.”
That has changed all their plans.
“The plan was she was going to be coming back in October. This is where she wanted to be. She was working on getting into grad school. That was the next step in her career,” Cooper said. “We always talked that we’d stay here in Wyoming. This is where we were going to be.”
“You go through the day and nothing around you seems right,” Cooper said. “It kind of makes it hard to look at any river the same way.”
Maegan’s parents gave Cooper some of Maegan’s ashes. Cooper Balke won’t give precise details, but said he plans to take them to one of their places – a peak in the Wind River Mountain Range.
It’s probably a gesture Maegan Spindler, a young fisheries scientist in the making, would appreciate – to a place where the rivers begin, and return again.