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83-year-old tractor and owner to make last appearance in CMU homecoming parade

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Brett Dahlberg
/
WCMU News
Rich Fleming, 83, of Mount Pleasant, sits atop his tractor, also 83, and also -- until Saturday -- of Mount Pleasant. Saturday will be the pair's last Central Michigan University homecoming parade together. Rich's wife, Diane Fleming, is in the background.

An 83-year-old Mount Pleasant man will make his last appearance in Central Michigan University’s homecoming parade with his 83-year-old tractor this weekend.

Rich Fleming and his 1938 John Deere Model B have been appearing in the annual parade for decades. But this year will be their last together. After Saturday’s parade, Fleming will give the green and yellow machine to one of his cousins, who lives in Idaho.

“I wanted to do another parade before I can’t anymore, and I wanted the tractor to stay in the family,” Fleming said. “This way, I get both.”

On a recent Tuesday, the tractor was in the entrance to the garage at the Old North End house where Rich lives with his wife Diane. The air around the tractor was suffused with that semi-sweet smell of decades of gasoline and motor oils that have permeated the floor and walls.

Dad would be absolutely thrilled at us driving it in the parade. He would have thought that was terrific.
Rich Fleming

Diane restored the machine for Rich while he was away at a math conference in 1994, she said.

“I wondered how long it would take for him to notice when he got back. Well, it took about 30 seconds,” said Diane.

Since then, it’s been a parade tractor, aside from the few times Rich takes it around the block to keep everything lubricated, he said.

The exposed mechanical parts are streaked with black grease. The tractor has no ignition and no battery. There’s almost no electrical wiring at all.

Rich started cranking on the heavy flywheel to get the two-cylinder engine chugging, heaving his whole body into turning the disk and grunting with the effort.

After about a dozen cranks -- and an exclamation that this had worked yesterday! -- the 8-horsepower motor sputtered to life.

Rich then had to hop around the machine, adjusting the choke, finessing the fuel-to-air ratio by hand, and climbing up the back to handle the clutch.

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WCMU
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He spent his boyhood in Iowa. Rich said his family’s farm went through a five-year rotation of crops -- corn (“of course,” he said), then soybeans, then corn again, then oats and clover or alfalfa, then hay, and then back to corn.

Rich said the tractor was a fixture of his childhood.

“I grew up with it. I was probably driving it by age 6,” he said. “It’s really easy to drive.”

When his dad died, Rich, who by then had been a student at colleges in Missouri, Florida and Tennessee, was working in CMU’s math department. He arranged to have the tractor brought to Mount Pleasant from Iowa, and he started riding it in homecoming parades not long after.

“Dad would be absolutely thrilled at us driving it in the parade,” said Rich. “He would have thought that was terrific. The tractor was kind of a bond between us.”

Diane said she had only one qualm about sharing their city property with the tractor.

“The only thing I was concerned about was where the tractor would be here. Either the garage or the living room,” she said. “I gave up garage space.”

But as Rich gets older, he wants to make sure the tractor has a good home in his family before he can no longer drive it. This weekend will be its last run in CMU’s parade.

“I wanted to drive it this one last time. That’s what I was waiting for. Last year we couldn’t do it, see. And the year before that I’d just had surgery. So I wanted to do it one last time.”

As the time to say goodbye to the machine approaches, Rich said he was handling the situation pretty well.

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Brett Dahlberg
/
WCMU News
Rich Fleming ducks under the overhead door as he guides an 83-year-old tractor back into his garage in Mount Pleasant.

“It’ll be a bit nostalgic, this being the last time. But it’s okay. I know where it is, and it’ll stay in the family,” he said.

Diane was having more trouble. “I cry at everything,” she said, her eyes watering.

But her smile came back when she remembered an amusing piece of evidence from the tractor’s owners manual of how different the world is today than when the machine was built.

“There’s 20 pages of what to do not to hurt the tractor, as opposed to now when you’ve got 40 pages on what not to do to hurt the person,” Diane said.

“They were more worried about you doing something to hurt the tractor. That was before all the lawsuits,” said Rich.

In their last homecoming together, Rich and his tractor will pull a trailer decked out with banners advertising the Central Michigan Area Concert Band’s Veterans Day performance. The band’s board chair said it will be the best advertising they’ve ever had.

As our interview wrapped up, Rich walked back to the tractor, clambered into the driver’s seat, and backed it into the garage.

He ducked his head under the overhead door and negotiated a tight turn around a 50-gallon drum marking the corner of his parking spot, and he shut the engine off for the second-to-last time in Mount Pleasant.

The tractor’s last run in the city is at tomorrow’s homecoming parade. It’ll be puttering along somewhere near its top speed of 5 miles an hour, starting at 11 o'clock.

Amy Robinson contributed reporting.