As September turned into October, I was recuperating from a cold I seemed to have picked up after attending the World Beef Expo in West Allis the weekend before. I had to get better fast as my biggest assignment yet was approaching — coverage of the World Dairy Expo at the Alliant Energy Center in Madison. I’d read the schedule over and over, making plans on what to cover and which booths to get to. But honestly, I had no idea what to expect as I’d never been to the Expo before, leaving me with a feeling of anxious joy as I rummaged through my closet trying to sort out the last and final detail — what I was going to wear.

I woke up early Thursday morning, getting ready as I would have any other morning with the exception of one extra step. Reaching into my jewelry box, I grasped in my hand my high school class ring. We probably shouldn’t admit to Mom that I had maybe worn it five times since I begged her to buy it for me all those years ago, but it seemed fitting to wear it during my days at Expo.

One of my Dodgeville High School classmates, Kayla (Dolan) Sonnenburg, worked as the sponsorship manager at World Dairy Expo. She had an undeniable passion for agriculture, growing up on her family’s farm just outside of Dodgeville and as an adult, working alongside her husband on their own dairy farm in Belleville.

I remember when our community found out Kayla had cancer; it was a rare form of liver cancer called Fibrolamellar Hepatocellular Carcinoma. And I remember when we found out it had come back after several years of treatment. I was working at The Dodgeville Chronicle at the time and asked my editor if I could interview Kayla and her family ahead of a benefit planned to help pay for medical expenses. I was nervous to reach out to a classmate with a cancer diagnosis, but Kayla agreed, even though she said she wasn’t a very public person, because she wanted to inform people about the rare form of cancer she had.

It was an interview that I’ll never forget — and a family that I’ll never forget, either.

A few days before the Expo, I sat on a bench on the grounds placed there in her memory, running my fingers over the gold plate that bears her name. I knew there would be dozens of other people she’d likely be watching over during Expo, but I hoped she’d be there to guide me and help me keep my cool if I got overwhelmed. I know if she’d been there in person, she would have certainly pointed me in the right direction a few times.

The first day of the Expo came and went. I listened to a few speakers and wandered through the trade show, heading home early to write up a few things before the Friday deadline. I ended the day tired but ready to tackle another day, one where I’d meet up with the governor and listen to more experts give their insights on the dairy industry.

Without the pressure of a deadline, I had more time to visit the trade show area on Friday. I couldn’t help but notice several children looking in awe at some of the innovative technologies on display — in particular, a feed pusher, moving almost gracefully around the booth as the little ones pointed and observed. In the background of noise, I could hear a group of men talking to each other in what I thought was German. Two attendees of Asian-descent snapped dozens of photos, curious about and interested in a robotic milker inside one booth.

I stopped and chatted with Sara Bredesen in our The Country Today booth, and she gave me a few story ideas going forward. I also had the opportunity to talk with some of our subscribers who also stopped by; it’s always nice to hear people like the paper and that journalists are actually still appreciated by most.

Saturday held the most promise for me as I had arranged to have a photographer’s pass for the Parade of Champions and selection of the Supreme Champions from this year’s show, which meant I got to go down onto the colored shavings and take photos up-close, something I’d never done before. I had to be in all black, like a photographing ninja, and stay out of the way of everyone else.

I watched as volunteers and staff prepared for the final show, laying down a few bags of new shavings, arranging podiums and organizing several pots of colorful mums around the ring. I waited for what felt like forever for it to start — and then the lights went out and my adrenaline started to pump. I quickly adjusted my camera to capture shots of exhibitors and their animals walking under the spotlight, looking at the image preview with satisfaction.

My favorite part of the evening was, without a doubt, the announcement of the Supreme Champion, a Brown Swiss exhibited by a gentleman from New York. Not only was he thrilled, but his family was elated, as well. It really encompassed for me this idea that has been forming over my short tenure as a reporter for an agricultural newspaper — more often than none, being successful boils down to hard work and family.

As I headed home on Highway 151 that night, every fourth or fifth vehicle I passed was a large truck pulling a trailer with an animal or two inside. I smiled as I passed by — one of the trailers had Reynolds Livestock of Dodgeville on it. We were heading back to the same community, and it brought it all home for me.

Brooke Bechen covers news and writes feature stories in southern Wisconsin. She can be reached at brooke.bechen@ecpc.com or 608-574-5405.