Ramon D. Criss, killed in drowning accident, had transformed El Dorado

Ramon Criss was a longtime proponent for youth programs and the Governor's Turkey Hunt in El Dorado. Last month Sydney Wooldridge, left, of Arizona, gave Criss a hug after she shot her first-ever turkey on Criss' property.
Ramon Criss was a longtime proponent for youth programs and the Governor's Turkey Hunt in El Dorado. Last month Sydney Wooldridge, left, of Arizona, gave Criss a hug after she shot her first-ever turkey on Criss' property. The Wichita Eagle

Ramon D. Criss’ death by drowning on Friday, in the Walnut River, while doing yet another good work for his community, leaves a hole in the lives of many people, including former Kansas Gov. Mike Hayden.

Criss mentored and gave scholarships to young people, built homes, developed subdivisions, gave generously to charity. He was a key advocate for bringing the El Dorado Correctional Facility to his town, which brought jobs and an economic boost, his family said. And he died doing yet another good work, Hayden said.

Butler County authorities on Saturday found Criss, 82, in the Walnut River, Sheriff Kelly Herzet said.

“I talked with my father not long ago, and he said he just didn’t get what this whole retirement nonsense was about,” Michael Criss, his son, said. “He said he was going to work until the day he died – and that’s what he did.”

Searchers found his body partially submerged on the bank of the river about half a mile downstream from where Criss’ tractor was found partially submerged on Friday, at a low-water dam just south of El Dorado Lake.

“His tractor had a front-end loader, and a bush hog attached to the back,” Herzet said. “There’s a running event coming up (Storm the Dam Trail Run), a fundraiser, and he was apparently trying to clear logs off the low-water bridge where his tractor went in, because they run across that dam during the event.”

“He was just a very good man, well known for years for doing a lot for the community and for Butler County,” Herzet said.

“If you ever worked with him, you’d better be prepared, because ‘lazy’ was not ever part of the program,” Michael Criss said.

“It is a terrible tragedy and a terrible loss,” Hayden said. “It’s not surprising to me that he was still driving a tractor and still trying to help his community at age 82.

“He loved the Walnut River – he grew up on it, his farmland is bisected by the Walnut, and it was special to him,” Hayden said.

The property along the low-water dam where he drowned belongs to Criss, Hayden said.

“He went out there to mow along the trail,” Michael Criss said. “When he saw that eyesore, with all those logs lying on the dam, he said he was going to go out there and clear it off.”

Someone called 911 at about 3:15 p.m. Friday to report seeing the tractor in the river, said Tyler Brewer, chief of the Augusta Department of Public Safety.

Recent rains have filled El Dorado Lake, leading to the Army Corps of Engineers to increasing the flow rate into the Walnut. But the corps reduced the flow rate to assist in the search and recovery.

“We found a couple articles of clothing downstream,” Herzet said Friday night.

Criss, with Hayden as Kansas governor, founded the annual Governor’s One-Shot Turkey Hunt 31 years ago, Hayden said.

“He went to 20 people and asked for $300 apiece from them,” Hayden said. “None refused. And that’s how we started it.”

“He was keen on young people, and because he’d grown up hunting and fishing, he knew how important the outdoors was to young people,” Hayden said. “So he mentored a number of young men and women by giving them a place to hunt and fish, on his land, giving them opportunities to do things they’d never have done without his help.”

Criss was an entrepreneur with a big and varied portfolio of successes, his son said. He and his wife, Betty, gave money to a variety of charities and schools.

“He worked in oil drilling for a while, was the proprietor of Criss Optical in Augusta,” Michael Criss said.

He had a plastics and Styrofoam company in El Dorado. He founded Lewis and West, doing concrete construction.

Bringing the prison to El Dorado meant a big economic boost for the town, Michael Criss said.

“He fought tooth and nail to advocate for the prison and to demonstrate to the community that this was a total net gain,” Michael Criss said. “He worked very hard to dispel community fears of prisons in general.”

In more recent years, he built homes, developed subdivisions, and built assisted living facilities, on land he bought.

“He wanted to build affordable homes with access suitable for empty-nesters,” Michael Criss said.

“It’s really incredible how many people live in El Dorado in homes” the family developed, Hayden said. “Many people there have adequate housing because of what he did.”

Criss and his wife also gave generously to community endeavors, Hayden and Michael Criss said. He always looked for a way to use his money, his influence and his charm to help people and community organizations, Hayden said.

“He and Betty have been huge supporters of education, providing longtime substantial help to Butler Community College, for example,” Hayden said. “They gave money not only to the athletic side, but the academic side, providing a number of scholarships for students.”

Those scholarships will continue, Michael Criss said. They are set up in a trust designed to give money to Butler students “in perpetuity,” he said.

“I don’t think he would go around crowing about what the amount was that he gave,” Michael Criss said. “But it was substantial, to Butler Community College and more – 4-H was a big one. The Susan B. Allen Memorial Hospital, in El Dorado. The high school. The Methodist Church in Augusta.”

Criss was also the first president of El Dorado Inc., an organization set up to further economic development, Michael Criss said.

Criss leaves Betty, four sons, two daughters, 13 grandchildren and 13 great-grandchildren, Michael Criss said.

Contributing: Stan Finger of The Eagle

Roy Wenzl: 316-268-6219, @roywenzl