Dee Ann Burkhalter is still in the Rabbit Barn. You can see her amid the rows of cages, as 4-H and FFA participants tend to their animals and continue the tradition of outreach and caring that she fostered over more than a decade.
Dee Ann had served as the assistant superintendent for the Missouri State Fair’s rabbit competitions for about a dozen years. Cancer, that unforgiving demon, claimed her life two months ago. For her son, Wade, a champion breeder of rabbits and chickens, this year’s fair has been an emotional challenge, being his first without his grandparents or his mother in attendance
“She was my best friend,” he said. “We always did everything together. It was pretty emotional. It’s just hard.”
Sedalians Dee Ann and Wade started their adventure down the rabbit hole together when he was 5 years old. With the help of his grandfather, Wade paid $5 for a rabbit as a Mother’s Day gift for Dee Ann.
“It was one of these things where I thought it was what she would like,” Wade said. “Then we started researching and I started showing rabbits – we did it together.”
Getting involved in rabbit breeding and showing was a natural fit for Dee Ann, who was a 4-H Youth Ambassador as a child and always was involved in 4-H, including teaching shooting sports.
Terry Monson, of Warrensburg, was an assistant superintendent in the rabbit barn with Dee Ann for a decade, and she has known the Burkhalters for about 25 years.
“When we first moved here from Wyoming, the first rabbit show we went to was in Gardner, Kan., and (Dee Ann) and Wade were among the first people we met. So I have known Wade since he was a little twerp,” Terry said with a smile.
She and the Burkhalters were inseparable, driving to rabbit competitions and conventions all across America.
“We had so much fun. (Dee Ann) was always happy. … All we did was laugh. I miss her terribly.” Terry said, wiping away tears.
While Dee Ann assisted Wade with his rabbits, she was more cheerleader than challenger.
“Mom was never a breeder, she was not a competitive person,” Wade said. “She was one of those people who wants everybody to be involved, she wanted everyone to have a good time and she wanted everybody to learn. But it wasn’t about winning to her, it was about making sure everybody was involved.”
Terry said Dee Ann’s mindset was: “If we don’t bring the kids up right, they are not going to be here as adults and replace the rest of us who have been doing this for so long.”
Wade said Dee Ann was instrumental in getting youth rabbits included in the state fair’s Sale of Champions, and the first year they were included, she bought the grand champion pen.
“(A rabbit organization) was supposed to put up money, but Mom didn’t think they were going for much, so she bid up and I think she bought the pen for $350 or $500. She thought that those kids deserved more money,” Wade said. “Now the youth rabbits bring around $7,000. It has really helped our youth rabbit exhibitors.”
In recent years, the Rabbit Barn has seen too many older exhibitors and leaders pass away. Dee Ann noticed this and worked to ensure there would be a lasting monument to their efforts visible to all who visit the barn, so she secured a couple of benches made from recycled tires; the benches are dedicated to those departed rabbit breeders , and engraved plaques will go up, as well.
“She did the legwork,” Terry said. “My only regret is that she didn’t live long enough to see it. She would have been really proud.”
Wade is intent on perpetuating Dee Ann’s dedication to the local rabbit community.
“The good part about mom was … she always instilled in me to help everybody that we possibly can, at any time no matter what,” he said. “That’s something that I need to keep working on and keep remembering, is to always help. I have judged in six countries and all 50 states, and I need to remember there are those kids back home in Missouri who we want to get involved … to carry on the tradition.”