'Cow whisperer' boy in wheelchair leads steer, melts hearts at Iowa State Fair

Wisconsin State Farmer
Alec Gotto, 11, leads his Angus steer J.D. (John Deere) in the Governor's Charity Steer Show on Saturday, Aug. 12, 2017, at the Iowa State Fair

DES MOINES, IA - The signature moment of the Iowa State Fair may have arrived early, as early as Saturday, Sept. 16, when Alec Gotto of rural Dyersville rolled into the arena of the Livestock Pavilion alongside his massive steer, J.D.

The fair offers a continuous stream of 4-H kids like Alec, 11, who lead beasts into the show ring that outweigh them by hundreds or even thousands of pounds. 

But keep in mind I said “roll”: Alec has been paralyzed since he was 8 months old, since before he could crawl. 

The arena erupted in cheers and applause as the audience lavished the pair with a standing ovation that would carry them to victory for the People’s Choice Award. 

“I can tell you I had goosebumps,” said Doug Bear, director of industry relations for the Iowa Beef Council. "Definitely it was one of the top memorable moments of any of the Governor's Charity Steer Shows I've coordinated." 

Alec operates his wheelchair by turning his head to nudge sensor pads situated in key spots such as just beyond his temples. His dad, Chad, custom fit a metal bar to the base of the wheelchair. But the steer is attached to the bar by nothing more than a pair of Zip ties — so that if the beast gets spooked and runs, Alec would be cut free, not dragged across the show ring. 

But true to his gentle nature, J.D. was Zip-tied to Alec for about two hours Saturday and barely stirred. 

“He’s the cow whisperer,” Chad said of his oldest of five children with his wife, Carrie.

J.D. was “just a totally different steer when he was with Alec,” he added. 

I caught up with the Gotto family Tuesday — Alec, his parents and his four younger siblings — when they returned to the fair to watch friends from Dyersville compete in the Angus Beef Cattle Show. 

Alec was quiet and not in the mood to entertain my prying questions, which I totally understood. But I didn't let that fool me: His head is full of ideas and dreams, and he wields a powerful voice: He was the one who approached his parents last year, wanting to compete with Angus. 

“I didn’t think the determination would be as much as it is,” Chad said, “but it’s there.” 

The Gottos live on a Century Farm just a couple miles from Iowa's famous Field of Dreams rural ball field, where they raise 220 head of Angus and 700 acres of row crops. 

Chad and Carrie, both 38, grew up on farms. Carrie also runs a hair salon in nearby Farley.

When Alec was stricken with transverse myelitis, a swelling of the spinal cord, it was a swift and heart-wrenching change in the middle of the day. Almost as if a switch had been flipped, suddenly the couple's son was paralyzed. 

His parents don't know precisely what caused it, although a virus or bacteria often can be a culprit. 

“You felt sorry for yourself. You felt sorry for him," Chad said of the swirl of emotions that rocked the family through Alec's first years. But as the initial shock and sadness subsided, the growing family rallied to support Alec and his strong resolve.  

"It hasn't slowed him down on too many things he's wanted to do," Chad said of his son's neurological disorder. 

It certainly hasn't slowed him down in the show ring: The Governor’s Charity Steer Show was the fourth time in which Gotto and J.D. had competed in little more than a month. They walked into the same arena in July for the national Angus show on the fairgrounds. A photo from that event, posted by a spectator on Facebook, was shared tens of thousands of times as "one of the most memorable, inspirational and emotional moments ... ever witnessed in this great business." 

Alec began showing cattle last summer, with J.D.’s equally mellow older brother. 
Watching their son's first forays into the ring was nerve-wracking at first, Chad said. Although the dad grew up around cattle, he doesn’t remember ever building the sort of intuitive connection that he has seen between his son and the animals. 

Now, Alec’s cattle season is finished for another year. J.D., meanwhile, renamed "Thanks a Million," sold for $11,000 among a record $271,000 gross in the charity auction that benefits, appropriately enough, the Ronald McDonald House Charities that help care for seriously ill children and their families. 

The steer also happened to be the sale that pushed the 35-year fundraising total past the $3 million mark. 

J.D. for now will reside at Iowa State University, where he will be used in showmanship classes. 

“It’ll be hard to top that show season,” Chad said. “Just a really great way to end it all.

“To help somebody else the way the steer has helped us.” 

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