DEBS -- Jim Skerik was loved by many, but mourned in person by only a few when he died last month from pancreatic cancer at the age of 81.

Skerik grew up on a farm near Debs and spent all of his life farming nearby. He also drove school buses for 43 years, retiring in 2006 with an accident-free record. He never missed a day of work and rarely went to a doctor.

In early March, after shoveling snow off the roof and cutting firewood, Skerik thought he strained some muscles, prompting a visit to the doctor. Skerik found out he had end-stage pancreatic cancer, and he died just one week later.

“Jim left us at the worst possible time,” his daughter Pam Nelson wrote in a tribute to her father. “We sure could use his strength during this apocalyptic crisis. … Life is not certain and there is not always a reward for being a great person. Sometimes death is just a reminder to us. A reminder that life is precious, to treat each other kindly, to be a good neighbor and friend.”

Nelson, who lives in Oregon, scrambled to get to Debs after learning of her father’s diagnosis.

“He waited,” Pam said. “He kept asking what day I was coming. He gave me a kiss and a hug, and told me he loved me, and that was pretty much the last thing he said. He died 18 hours later in his chair in the living room.”

That was on March 20, two days before he and his wife, Judy, would have celebrated their 62nd wedding anniversary. She was at his side, along with four of their five children. Only their son Rick, who lives in Hawaii, could not be there.

Policies of physical distancing and limited gatherings created challenges for the family members as they made funeral arrangements. Besides his wife and children, Jim is survived by four siblings, 18 grandchildren, 19 great-grandchildren, numerous nephews and nieces, and many admirers who rode the buses he drove for so many years.

“Jim died quietly amidst the coronavirus,” Pam wrote in her tribute. “No overflowing church funeral, filled with neighbors and family friends or other fellow tractor collectors. Just a quiet simple funeral for 10. No big church meal put in by the local ladies aide, where everyone shared their best Jim stories and shed a few tears.”

She appreciated the help of Kevin Cease, funeral director and owner of Cease Family Funeral Home in Bemidji.

“We had grandkids coming home to see (Jim),” Pam said. “They couldn’t make it before he died. We couldn’t have a visitation. (Kevin) set up four little half-hour meetings for the grandkids to come in so they could all say their goodbyes. He didn’t have to do that. He did that because he understood what we were going through.”

Even though they could not join the family to mourn, neighbors and friends were able to share memories on the funeral home’s website. One tribute came from Sharon Lauderbaugh, who was one of the many children who rode the bus with Jim Skerik at the wheel.

“Jim was an amazing bus driver for us kids out in Pinewood,” she wrote. “I remember whenever we had a long break from school that he would give us all a can of pop to drink on the bus and we always helped him keep the bus clean every day. He always told us kids to try not to grow up so fast and to cherish our childhood.”