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About Utah: After 57 years, a family thanks its hero

Published: Monday, May 13 2013 7:00 a.m. MDT

BOUNTIFUL — About the last thing Richard Falkner expected last Tuesday night was to answer the doorbell to a hug and heartfelt thank you from two of the daughters of the man whose life he saved — 57 years ago.

But there they were, standing on his doorstep, bearing scrapbooks and gifts with arms full of the kind of gratitude that has no expiration date. For the first time in nearly six decades, ever since that day, members of Jesse Peavey’s family had a chance to personally face Dick Falkner and inform him that he isn’t just a hero, he’s their hero.

Kathy Gritton was six when the 4-foot tall saw at the lumber mill sliced off her father’s legs just below the knee — her sister, LeNae Onstad, wasn’t even born yet. If Falkner hadn’t done what he did, when he did it, Kathy wouldn’t have grown up with a father and LeNae, well …

The date was Nov. 29, 1955. Peavey and Virgil Hobbs, a co-worker at the Niederhauser Lumber Company in Logan, were prepping a large tree to be cut up into lumber. They were trimming branches off so the trunk could fit through the huge saw. But one of the branches hit the switch that turned on the conveyer belt they were straddling, and before they knew it, they were being sucked toward the saw, where its blades, like a huge jaw, freakishly awaited.

In seconds, both men had limbs cut off — Peavey lost both of his legs and Hobbs his right foot and part of his left. Blood gushed out in torrents.

At that very instant, customers Richard Falkner and Joseph Berger walked into the front of the lumber store and heard the distress cries from the back. They ran to the sounds and the first thing Falkner saw was a boot and a leg lying on the floor, with no human attached to it. Half a dozen employees were seeing the same thing, and doing nothing, paralyzed by shock.

Not Falkner and Berger, recognizing immediately that the flow of blood needed to be stopped — and needed to be stopped now. They whipped off their belts to make tourniquets. When that wasn’t enough they took off their shirts and tore them into strips for more tourniquets. They grabbed pieces of wood to tighten the pressure. When the ambulance arrived, the injured men were still alive.

The entire episode lasted no longer than 10 minutes, but Falkner would never forget it. Later, he would consider the irony that he’d learned first-aid skills, including the proper way to apply a tourniquet, while serving in the Navy during World War II and never used them once. The ships he was on in the Pacific were subjected to dozens of kamikaze attacks, and yet he’d never seen any emergency like he saw in that sawmill.

When the men whose names he did not know were wheeled away, he never saw them again. His friend, Joe Berger, who lived in Logan, told Falkner that they both survived, and the write-ups in the newspapers — where he learned that both men were fathers of four, with one on the way — was the extent of what he knew about them.

Until last Tuesday night.

For years, Kathy Peavey Gritton, Jesse Peavey’s oldest child, had wondered about the man who saved her father’s life. After her dad died in 1996, she wondered even more. She’d made attempts to find him. But she searched for “Faulkner,” with the letter “u” — but Richard’s last name has no “u.” She mentioned her difficulties to a genealogist friend who searched online and found a newspaper clipping with the right spelling.

After that it was amazingly easy. Kathy looked up Richard Falkner without in the phone book and there was a listing in Bountiful. She called the number, Falkner answered, and just like that, 57 years melted away.

Richard is 87 now. In the years since the sawmill, he’s enjoyed a career with Rio Grande Railroad, raised four children, lost his wife, Verla, to cancer in 2000 just three weeks before their 50th wedding anniversary, and retired with a pension.

These days he shares the house in Bountiful he bought in 1957 for $13,800 with his grandson, Nathan, and Sparky, his dog. He still drives his own car and tends his own yard.

When Kathy asked if she could come to meet him, and bring LeNae, Falkner checked his schedule and said, “Sure.”

They talked for hours. Kathy and LeNae told Falkner that it was only a month after the accident that their sister Bonnie entered the world. Three more brothers and sisters came after that: Donald, LeNae and Geniel. Just think how many lives he’d saved, they told him, just think of the family he’d kept whole.

Kathy and LeNae handed Falkner the scrapbook and cards they’d made. Inside the scrapbook, along with letters of thanks from extended members of the Peavey family, was a medal of honor.

“Who’s that for?” he asked.

“That’s for you,” they said.

“I never dreamt anybody would look me up or anything,” was all Falkner could think to reply, and then he let the women hug him and show affection all they wanted.

“Something got us there at the right time. I don’t know what it was, but it was something,” Falkner said, reminiscing about that day. “We weren’t there but 10 seconds and they told us two guys was hurt … ”

Lee Benson's About Utah column runs Mondays. EMAIL: benson@deseretnews.com

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