CHAMPAIGN, Ill. — Mike Walden loved his family, friends, the outdoors, farming, the fertilizer supply company he managed and truck and tractor pulls.

After the 40-year-old died unexpectedly on Feb. 4, 2011, family members pulled together to find a way to not only keep his memory alive, but also help others. They have succeeded in a big way.

The result was the annual Hammer Down Truck and Tractor Pull at the Champaign County Fairgrounds with proceeds going to the March of Dimes and other causes.

The first truck and tractor pull in 2012 raised $10,000, and last year’s weather-impacted event still raised $8,000 for the March of Dimes.

Mike’s wife, Kim, and their children, Samantha and Spencer, were honored as the 2013 March of Dimes ambassador family and participated in the Signature Chefs Auction in Champaign this past fall.

The third annual “Hammer Down,” a phrase Mike could be heard saying at the countless truck and tractor pulls he attended, will be held June 7.

Jared Little, Mike’s nephew and an ag salesman at Birkey’s Farm Store, coordinates the annual fundraiser.

Idea Forms

The notion of raising money for a worthy cause in memory of Mike began in late 2011, when Jared and Kim talked about various ideas.

“I was just trying to figure out something to show what he was all about,” Jared said.

“One of the big reasons I selected March of Dimes was that Mike and I had lost a pregnancy halfway through in 1999. It was very traumatic and left a mark on both of us, and both of us felt really strong about if there was some way we could honor that baby’s memory,” Kim said.

“Unfortunately, sometimes those situations don’t really allow the same type of memorial that someone who has lived a good long life does.

“When Mike passed away, Jared asked me about a beneficiary. I don’t know why, but I just thought back to that baby and thought is there was some way we could honor both Mike’s memory and that baby’s memory.”

“I think Mike would have been very pleased to know that the March of Dimes was selected. It was some way we could honor the memory of the baby that we lost in 1999,” she said.

“Since he passed, I decided I want to do this. Mike was a huge family man. He loved kids. He was like a big kid himself,” Jared said. “Mike loved farming and being the general manager of Fertilizer Dealer Supply.”

Ag Community Steps Up

The annual truck and tractor pull has been successful through the generosity of sponsors, the farming community and others.

The two main sponsors have been Birkey’s Farm Store and Fertilizer Dealer Supply where Mike managed.

“Then we get multiple sponsors from the area, ranging from local farmers to seed companies such as Great Lakes Hybrids and Beck’s Hybrids and the local FS. I get a lot of support from the ag community in the area,” Jared said.

“I get multiple volunteers from the community, family and friends, people who worked with Mike and people who work with me at Birkey’s.”

The event features four classes with five to 10 competitors per class.

In addition to the March of Dimes, local families and children also have benefited.

“We gave $1,000 to the family with a boy who had leukemia,” Jared said. “The wife of an employee who worked for Uncle Mike at Fertilizer Dealer Supply had a brain tumor, and we contributed $1,000 to them.

“One year, we bought toys for children at the church my uncle attended. The toys are for boys and girls who don’t get as many gifts and need help for Christmas.”

A Hammer Down Truck and Tractor Pull family team participated in the March for Babies Walk each spring, an event that also benefits the March of Dimes.

“Kim helped spread the mission of the March of Dimes through sharing her story about prematurity, infant mortality and birth defects. Jared has done the tractor pull the last two years to help benefit the March of Dimes,” said Kristina Oncken-Cortez, March of Dimes community director.

“They’ve seen great success with that and an outpouring of community support for the family and the March of Dimes.”

Fighting Birth Defects

Kim said she knew of the historical importance of the March of Dimes in supporting research toward preventing birth defects, but did not know it was started by President Franklin D. Roosevelt until she did her own research.

“Its main mission was to eradicate polio, so we can thank the March of Dimes for supporting that effort to eradicate polio,” she said.

“I was also impressed with their efforts to reach out to mothers that might have at-risk pregnancies and encourage positive behaviors and attitudes and regimens so they can maintain their pregnancy in a healthy state and not deliver prematurely.

“I was really impressed with their research and outreach efforts for preventing pre-term births and supporting research on how to take care of those babies.”

As for the main fundraising event, it was something that had been a part of Mike’s life since he was a youngster.

Mike spent his youth watching his father, Jimmy Walden, and brother-in-law, Chris Little, Jared’s father, compete in pulling, and that interest continued to grow into his adulthood. He and his son, Spencer, later became regulars at many of the events in Illinois.

Jared’s uncle, Lance Little, also builds and pulls pro stock tractors.

“That’s kind of how we decided to do it, through connections I’ve had and the people I’ve known throughout the years of people in tractor pulls,” Jared said.