A man who lived to help: Family, friends reflect on life of Dickinson volunteer firefighter Hammond who died in avalanche

The Hammond family sat at a table, both laughing out loud and quietly shedding tears as they reflected on the life of Levi Hammond.

“He just wanted to help,” said Levi’s sister, Karla, as her eyes welled with tears.

Levi Hammond
Levi Hammond

Her five words brought the room to a brief silence, as it almost perfectly summed up Levi’s short, yet accomplished life.

Levi, a married father of three young children and volunteer firefighter whose family said he put the Lord above all else, died Saturday morning at 36 during an avalanche while he was snowmobiling with friends in the Bighorn Mountains near Sheridan, Wyo.

Levi’s family said he lived life by going all out, whether he was fighting fires, studying the Gospel, selling farm equipment for Butler Machinery, or simply buying his wife, Becky, the best contact solution he could find.

“He didn’t have any concern for himself,” Becky Hammond said. “His concern truly was for others around him.”


Called to help

Levi’s tragic death isn’t just hitting his family hard. It has shocked fire departments in Dickinson, Beach and Golva, as well as the staff at Butler.

Dickinson Fire Chief Bob Sivak said it’s hard to think that someone who was as passionate about life as Levi is now gone.

“In a very real sense, we’ve lost a member of a family,” Sivak said. “This isn’t just a group of people that comes together now and then. There’s a real attachment in a fire service. His loss is truly felt and has truly hurt us.”

Levi spent two summers after high school as a firefighter for the U.S. Forest Service in Miles City, Mont., and continued as a volunteer member of his hometown Beach and Golva fire departments.

He became a state board-certified firefighter last May and Becky said he toyed with the idea of taking a full-time position with the Dickinson Fire Department when new openings were created. Sivak said he and Levi had a good talk about what doing that would mean.

“He prayed about it,” Becky said. “It was a definite no. He did say, ‘Becky, I know that I’m called to be a firefighter. I know that this is what I’m supposed to do.’”

Sivak recalled times after the department had wrapped up fighting a fire and Levi would be standing there sweaty and dirty with a smile on his face. Friends and family said it was nearly comical to see how invigorated Levi was the morning after a late-night call, even if it meant he didn’t get any sleep.

“He loved to help people,” said Ed Hammond, Levi’s father. “He just had a passion for it. He loved to be there. I suppose a lot of it was the adrenaline rush.”


Selfless role model

Tom Irwin, a Dickinson volunteer firefighter who is married to the Hammonds’ cousin, described Levi not only as a selfless role model, but a man who celebrated the achievements of his firefighting brothers.

After the downtown Dickinson fire last summer, where a woman and her child were rescued from their second-floor apartment by firefighters, Irwin said Levi carried enough pride for the whole department.

“Levi wasn’t even the guy who made that rescue, but he was on cloud nine for a couple weeks because one of his brothers had saved somebody,” Irwin said. “That’s the excitement he always carried. He always had a smile on his face.”

When Levi was working at his regular job, both Irwin and Kyle Johnson, manager at Butler Machinery, spoke of Levi as a man who often went overboard — usually at his own expense — to make sure his customers got what they needed.

“He’s just one of those type of employees who’s hard to replace, because he did a very good job at what he did,” Johnson said. “All you had to do was pick up the phone and call Levi, and he’d do what he could to help you out, whether you were a fellow employee or customer. He was there when you needed him.”


Chosen path

Ben Zachmann, Levi’s cousin and best friend, was with him the morning of his death and said Levi was excited about the opportunity to ride through the mountains that day.

While out on the trail, Zachmann recalled Levi saying, “I’m content and I could go home now.”

Later in the ride, the group came to a pair of paths. Levi took one path, while Zachmann and his wife and the rest of their party went in different directions. After a few minutes went by without seeing Levi, the Zachmanns went looking for him.

Using their emergency beacons, they found Levi buried by a snowslide.

Zachmann said he and his wife, a nurse, did everything they could to save Levi. But it was too late.

“They did so much,” said Cheryl Hammond, Levi’s mother. “They did more than anyone else would ever do.”


Godly father

While snowmobiling was his hobby and firefighting was his call, Zachmann said nothing mattered more to Levi than his children.

He leaves behind 6-year-old Gage, 4-year-old Bodey and 1-year-old Rawley.

“It was serving as father, being a husband and a Godly father to his kids that meant more to him than any hobby he had,” Zachmann said.

Becky paused and laughed as she described how Levi would play with his kids, or roll around with them on the floor regardless of who was watching.

“He didn’t care if he made himself look like a fool, if it was to have fun,” she said with a smile.

As the Hammond family prepares to say their final goodbyes, they say they’ll always remember how Levi kept faith and God close to his heart — even going as far away as Oklahoma to attend Bible college after graduating from Williston State College.

“Part of what’s giving us so much peace is knowing where he’s at right now,” said Josh Hammond, Levi’s brother. “He’s such a man of God.”

Calm After the Boom in South Heart

SOUTH HEART — Life is settling back into a familiar and welcome post-oil boom way of life for many in this small Stark County community.

Affectionately and sometimes jokingly referred to as a “suburb” of Dickinson, the farming and ranching community of South Heart has about 350 people, and has seen many more than that come and go in recent years with the oil industry.

And while the Bakken boom has gone bust — at least for the most part — South Heart keeps chugging along. It has a water project nearing completion and an $11 million bond referendum for the renovation of its school scheduled to be voted on in March.

Regular way of life

To many, South Heart is back to hanging its hat on the surrounding agricultural economy that has long been its economic driver, and at least one longtime area farmer said he sees nothing wrong with how the town is handling the post oil-boom world.

“I don’t think they overdeveloped like some towns did, where they’re going to have an extreme debt on their hands they won’t be able to handle,” said Bob Kuylen, a farmer who has lived just outside of South Heart for much of his life and is very involved in the community. “It seems like all the apartments and everything are full around here. Houses are full. There are hardly any for-sale signs on houses here. We’ve got an awesome school and a golf course, and it’s a great town to live in without the big-town feel.”

While taking a few minutes to stop at the Creative Energy gas station and convenience store on a busy weekday afternoon, Kuylen said the oil industry’s slowdown has helped alleviate traffi c through and around South Heart, particularly along Highway 10 just north of town.

“It was just too crazy,” Kuylen said. “Our infrastructure couldn’t handle what was going on here.”

Life in general is back to a slower normal in the community, said bar owner Mike Sticka.

His I Don’t Know Bar bore the brunt of the city’s oilfi eld worker infl ux, along with Pheasant Country Golf Course. The bar, as one would expect, became a meeting and gathering place for many newcomers.

“There were times I’d walk in on a Saturday night and not know a soul,” Sticka said. “Nobody but my bartender.”

Those days are in the past, he said. Local patrons are now coming back to have a beer and shoot the bull.

“It’s slow right now, don’t get me wrong,” Sticka said, “but it’s slowly getting better because of the locals.”

Lori Green, Creative Energy’s manager who moved to South Heart from Oregon during the oil rush, said she and her sister Alice Hyke, who also works there, can no longer rely on the constant infl ux of oilfi eld-related business but are thankful for their local customers who keep coming back.

“I don’t even know what normal is,” Green said with a laugh. “I moved out here in the boom. I’ve been here four years. To me, this is not normal.”

Hyke said Creative Energy is constantly pushing products that customers ask for in an effort to keep them coming back. In the winter months, Creative Energy and the I Don’t Know Bar are the only places in town that serve food.

“We do have a lot of our locals and everything,” she said. “It’s just people who moved here and now they’re gone.”

Western Stark County was one of the fastest-developing areas of the Bakken when oil prices crashed in late 2014. Schlumberger, the world’s largest oilfi eld service company, was in the process of building a large facility on a hill just northwest of the city when prices collapsed.

Now, the fenced-in facility sits silent.

“We were hoping Schlumberger would get up and running, but they’re at a wait and see,” South Heart Mayor Floyd Hurt said.

School outlook positive

Though the energy industry’s slowdown has made an impact on its business community, South Heart could begin an $11 million school overhaul as early as this summer.

Calvin Dean, superintendent of the South Heart School District, said a bond referendum open to all district residents of voting age is set for March 22 and will be held at the school from 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. that day. If the referendum is approved, construction could start shortly after the end of the school year.

Dean said the district held a meeting on Jan. 20 to present all relevant project information to the public and received “really positive feedback.”

The meeting concluded with the issuing of three questions to the attendants intended to probe their support for the project as a whole.

“The first question was, ‘Do you agree that the South Heart School District should pursue a project?’” Dean said. “We had 88 out of 88 surveyed say, ‘Yes,’ which is fantastic.”

The second and third questions asked whether respondents believed the timing of the project was right, given the oil production slowdown, and if they would vote in favor of an $11 million bond referendum if given the chance.

Dean said 86 and 83 of the 88 total respondents answered favorably to those questions, respectively, and some of those that voted “No” to the third question said they’d vote in favor of some amount, just not the total $11 million.

“In terms of surveys, I don’t think you could ask for anything more favorable than that,” Dean said of the results. “So we feel pretty good, but until it’s actually done, you never know for sure. So it’s really important that people who are eligible to vote — they get and out and vote.”

The fi rst phase of the project would include an addition to the elementary school wing of the facility’s north side while expanding the south end to create space for the school’s vocational and agriculture department. It would also add high school classrooms to the building.

If the referendum is approved, Dean said construction would start this summer and be completed and ready for school by the 2017 fall semester. Phase two would include the demolition and replacement of the school’s oldest building, which was originally constructed in 1916, and would begin at the end of the next school year with a 2018 completion date.

JE Dunn building the state

With the oil boom in full swing, Marc Mellmer saw the possibilities for growth and looming building projects in western North Dakota, and he wanted JE Dunn Construction to be a part of it.

Nearly three years and more than 20 building projects later, the 31-year-old construction operations coordinator sits in his sensible, windowless office in one of the city’s newest buildings — one his firm had no hand in building, he notes with a laugh — and said despite the economic downturn in North Dakota set off by plunging oil prices, business is still looking good.

“I’ve been asked a million times, ‘Why would JE Dunn put an office in Dickinson, N.D.? That just seems crazy. Why would you do that?’” he said with a smile. “But our goal was to touch the entire state, and we’ll continue to touch the entire state and create relationships.”

This year, JE Dunn will begin or continue work on — among its many projects — the North Dakota governor’s residence and the new Bank of North Dakota Financial Center in Bismarck, Harold Newman Arena in Jamestown, and the Trinity High School reconstruction and expansion, a project near to Mellmer’s heart as he’s a graduate of the Dickinson Catholic school.

Mellmer graduated from Trinity 13 years ago and went on to earn his degree in construction management at the University of Minnesota. He was working for JE Dunn on the Sanford Health Clinic in Detroit Lakes, Minn., when he began pushing for the company to bid on projects in booming Dickinson.

“I requested that we begin to chase projects in western North Dakota, and it was made my primary responsibility to not only pursue the projects I wanted to back home, but also take them from the pre-construction all the way through the completion and warranty phase of projects,” Mellmer said.

So far, Mellmer and his team are doing just what he set out to do.

JE Dunn came to the area in 2011 to build the Mercy Medical Center Birthing Center in Williston, where they’ve had an office since 2012. Not long after that, the company was awarded building contracts for the $70 million Williston Area Recreation Center and the $100 million CHI St. Joseph’s Health campus in Dickinson.

“When we were about halfways through St. Joe’s hospital project, we decided we needed to open an office in Dickinson,” Mellmer said. “What anchored those projects like that were not only the fact that we were building those two big jobs, but also servicing those buildings and staying close to the owners and being committed to the area — to both Williston and Dickinson — after we completed the projects. And then the smaller projects started to spawn off of the two big anchor projects.”

Mellmer said what makes the JE Dunn Dickinson and Williston offices unique within the company is that they chase projects across in the entire state.

“The logistics of the North Dakota offices are different than the logistics of any of our other offices in the country,” he said. “They’re all in metropolitan areas, where you have a certain radius of work that keeps the business afloat. We think of North Dakota as a client. That’s been our motto from day one.”

JE Dunn, which is headquartered in Kansas City, Mo., has 22 offices in cities across the nation. It’s two smallest are Dickinson and Williston. Between the two Oil Patch hubs, the firm has about 20 full-time employees, and Mellmer said at any given time, it can employ 10 to 15 more specialists working in the state for up to two years at a time. Most of its work is done by local subcontractors.

“We thought it was in the best interest of us and our clients to open a physical office and hire local people to work for JE Dunn,” said Mellmer, a Dickinson native. “And also import our people to become local residents of western North Dakota and commit to the area.”

The newest employee is Michael Murphy, a project engineer and recent graduate of North Dakota State University who’s doing pre-construction work on the planned Newman Arena

Murphy, from Fargo, works in the Dickinson office but said he’ll be traveling around the state regularly once the arena project begins. He said he was convinced to join JE Dunn after speaking to the firm’s representatives at a job fair.

“The Dickinson area, at the time, was a very expanding market,” he said. “With the recent oil declines, the construction is still going strong. Being a new hire here, it’s a good opportunity.”

Other employees, like project coordinator Melissa Gjermundson, have been around the area their entire lives. She said working for JE Dunn has been a good fit.

Gjermundson came on board after spending time working for Dickinson’s planning and zoning office, Marathon Oil Co., and as a Dickinson Police Department dispatcher. She met Mellmer while working for the city shortly after its leaders decided to build the Public Safety Center — the new police and fire station that’s now the workplace of her former dispatch co-workers. At JE Dunn, she primarily works with subcontractors.

“I make sure they get their contracts,” she said. “I make sure they’re compliant and I make sure that they get paid.”

Having a strong stable of subcontractors is vital to JE Dunn’s success in western North Dakota, Mellmer said.

When the firm moved first started working in North Dakota, he said the oil boom made it difficult to hire top-quality subcontractors.

“The biggest successes were building the hospitals and the Williston recreation center at the peak of the boom, when contracting was at it’s highest level of difficulty,” Mellmer said. “From then, being able to transition to do smaller projects and more of what I’d call normal-size projects for western North Dakota, we’ve made a really smooth transition to become economic in building those projects and really creating relationships with our owners of these smaller projects, which seem to be difficult for a large corporation.”

Because the firm planted roots during the oil boom, Mellmer said he knows projects will become fewer and farther between with the state in an economic slowdown. He said that just means JE Dunn will have to venture out of western North Dakota more often and seek contracts in cities like Fargo and Grand Forks.

“That’s where we hold our ground and stretch our wings even further, and chase projects down every rabbit hole,” Mellmer said.

He said JE Dunn doesn’t view itself as a construction firm that only chases huge projects, and notes that the slowdown has afforded it the opportunity to do work that means a big deal to some small towns.

He pointed to the projects such as a new classroom and library at the Home on the Range near Sentinel Butte, the Killdeer Aquatics and Wellness Center that’s nearing completion, and the Flasher High School and Gymnasium.

All are small projects compared to JE Dunn’s usual scale, but Mellmer described them as fun and a positive experiences because of the response the firm receives from the small communities.

“We’re not too big or too proud to chase and work in any town, on any project, of any size,” he said.

Monke: Obama's silly oil tax just another ego trip

When you ask three members of Congress the same question about a proposed policy and every one of them laughs about it, you know it can’t be good.

That was the case when I interviewed members of the North Dakota Congressional delegation about President Barack Obama’s proposed $10.25 per barrel oil production tax in his 2016 spending budget.

Republican Rep. Kevin Cramer called the tax “dead on arrival.” Sen. John Hoeven, also a Republican, believes it would go so far as to threaten national security. Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, a Democrat, said trying to impose this kind of tax on the oil industry right now was like kicking someone when they’re down.

All three of them agree it would mean thousands of lost jobs across the country.

And for what? More “environmental progress” as the president himself put it last week?

Look, I’m all for green energy and agree that we need an all-of-the-above energy strategy in this country. We know wind farms can work and earlier this year, I visited Yuma, Ariz., a city where solar panels are a common sight to see on rooftops.

Green energy is good energy. But there’s only so much we can do with it right now as a country.

Cars don’t run on hopes and dreams, and plastic isn’t created by fairy dust. Oil does that. Not wind. Not sunshine. Oil.

Obama said during a Feb. 5 press conference that Americans need to wean ourselves off “dirty fuels.” And that by doing this, and implementing this tax, it’s going to make for a stronger economy. “A wise decision for us to make,” he said.

I’m not sure our president understands — or for that matter, cares — about how much the oil industry matters to the American economy. Heck, I didn’t understand it until the industry planted itself in western North Dakota.

At that Feb. 5 press conference, Obama touted more fake job numbers handed to him by some lackey at a government agency being paid to create them for him out of thin air. But, you never heard one peep about the job boom created earlier in his presidency by shale oil production in North Dakota and Texas. Because he wanted nothing to do with it.

Now, with the oil industry on the downslide, Obama is doing what all good environmentalists do — he’s going for a killing blow and he’s trying to do it through government policy. Even though he’s highly likely to swing and miss on this one.

This pipe dream of a tax isn’t aimed at building roads and creating self-driving cars, as the president claims. It’s an ego trip wrapped around his radical agenda that the majority of Americans don’t even agree with.

Let’s hope Congress has some sense and tells Obama to kick this can down the road and straight into his recycling bin.

Nutrition specialists at St. Joseph’s happy changes that came with with new hospitals

More was expected of CHI St. Joseph’s Health when it moved into its new state-of-the-art, $100 million facility in December 2014.

The food served to patients and visitors was no exception to that, registered dietician Darcy Stafford said.

Not only did the hospital put its new cafeteria front and center in the building off Fairway Street in west Dickinson, Stafford said its staff created an entirely new patient menu — which allows them to order what they want instead of eating whatever the cafeteria is serving that day — and changed its system to better track patients’ nutritional habits and make better recommendations for patients.

“Much like when you when go into a restaurant, you’d open our menu and order what you’d like to eat — which is probably one of the best things I can say happened in our department,” Stafford said.

Some patients may have limitations on sodium, dairy or carbohydrates, Stafford said, and the hospital’s staff can better track that and tailor meals to their needs now.

“We have an operator in our diet office who really monitors that,” Stafford said. “Since everything is computerized, as they order, it will add up.”


Better for patients

Lona Gordon, the hospital’s director of dietary services, said everyone received the same meal at the old St. Joseph’s cafeteria.

Patients appreciate the ability to choose now, she said, even if everything on the menu is a healthy choice.

“Patients can accept it so much better when it’s explained to them,” Gordon said. “(The dieticians) are great at furthering and helping the patient understand why they can’t or what it does to them. These guys are like scientists.”

She said the cafeteria recently received the highest rating of all Catholic Health Initiatives hospitals in a recent survey. The health system has more than 100 hospitals and in 19 states.

“That was for the patients and total meal experience, from food servers to food options, to the timeliness of getting their meal,” Gordon said.

Stafford said an operator in the kitchen either calls a patient’s room — when the patient is able to answer for themselves — or goes and visits them before each meal to ask what they’d like to order off of the hospital menu. The operator has the ability to tell the patient which items are restricted and steer them to choices that will be healthier.

“It’s a very nice personal touch, because the operator gets to talk to the patient,” Stafford said.

Being able to monitor what patients put into their bodies is good from a dietary standpoint, Stafford said, and patients enjoy being able to have a choice.

“When they get the choice, it’s so much better,” Stafford said. “It maybe makes it not feel so institutional. That’s a real benefit for us. As we go along, we’ll get to make more changes to the menu, too, and we’re really seeing what people like and what they don’t like. That’ll be upcoming here in the near future.”


Bigger, better and brighter

Cook Shaun Rattin likes to chat with people.

His job at Lefty’s grill and cafeteria inside CHI St. Joseph’s Health give him the chance to do that much more than the old hospital’s dining area ever did.

“It’s better, it’s brighter, it’s bigger,” sadi Rattin. “People can come in and see us.”

Lefty’s — affectionately named in honor of state Rep. Mike Lefor, the hospital’s former chairman of the board — serves a healthy menu daily for St. Joseph’s staff, clinic patients, hospital visitors and the occasional customer who stops by just because they like what it offers.

Stacy Stice, a dietary aide, said customers enjoy that Lefty’s has grill food without fried food.

“Customers love it,” she said. “They like it healthier, the healthier options that we give them.”

Lefty’s offers a daily salad bar, a yogurt bar during breakfast, ala carte snack options from its cooler, such as yogurts and cheeses, and always serves a lunch special.

“It’s not your average cafeteria food,” Rattin said. “It’s way better. It’s fresher.”

Gordon said Lefty’s has received a 92 percent customer satisfaction rating in a survey.

“We were proud of that,” she said.

Stafford said every item at Lefty’s is also labeled to include calories and ingredients, which she said helps customers make informed choices and avoid items they may be allergic or intolerant to, such as nuts, gluten or lactose.

“People are becoming more aware of their food, and wanting to know what the ingredients are in there,” she said.

Rattin said when they made the move to the new hospital, the kitchen lost its deep fryer — a decision he was totally against at the time. Now he sees how people enjoy the fresher food, and what he calls “reasonable prices.”

On top of getting rid of the fryer, Stafford said, the new menu made the staff become short-order cooks instead of assembly-line cooks.

“When we did move over, it was all new recipes for our cooks to learn,” Stafford said. “That was a huge challenge. We went from what they were used to to a totally new environment. … They all embraced it. Moving into a new facility was hands down just a big booster for us.”

After more than a year in the new hospital and its kitchen, Stafford said most things run like clockwork.

“It’s much more relaxed and they’re getting the system down,” she said. “I think they’re understanding, too, that as a hospital, you need to be one of the leaders as far as healthier choices. They’re excellent people in our cafeteria. They like people so they visit well, and they bring customers in.”