Wyatt Wilke’s Sunflower: A Bittersweet Victory

Wyatt Wilke grew a sunflower to enter in a contest in a nearby town, but died unexpectedly the day of the competition. Instead, his family took his flower to the show—and won the prize in his name.

Each year, the Sunflower Fair in La Porte, Indiana held a contest to judge the largest sunflower. And last year, seven-year-old Wyatt Wilke was eager to win the prize.

Months before the contest, Wyatt planted sunflowers in his family’s backyard. He tended them carefully, watching them grow.

“He was so careful with them,” Wyatt’s mother, Catherine Wilke, told CNN. “A few weeks before the fair, there was a heavy windstorm that knocked his biggest sunflower over. He called to me: ‘Mom, it’s on the ground—my flower, it’s down.’ He was afraid it was ruined. But he managed to save it.”

But just a couple of days before the big event, Wyatt came down with a sore throat. At first, it just seemed like a cold—but his illness progressed quickly. When his parents took him to the hospital, they discovered that he had contracted a severe bacterial infection. His organs were shutting down.

Just a few days after Wyatt became ill, his body went into septic shock. He died at the hospital early on Saturday morning—the day of the Sunflower Fair that Wyatt had been so eager to attend.

Although Wyatt’s parents were devastated by their son’s death, when they realized what day it was, they became committed to seeing Wyatt’s dream come true: since he couldn’t enter the sunflower contest, they would do it for him.

They went home to get Wyatt’s largest sunflower, and brought it to the fair. They didn’t tell the tragic story of their circumstances to anyone there, but simply filled out an entry form, listing Wyatt’s name as the gardener who had grown the flower. Soon, it came time for the judge to announce the winners. And sure enough, when Wyatt’s category came up, the judge held up a trophy for the winner: Wyatt Wilke.

“I don’t even remember which one of us went up to accept it for him,” said Catherine Wilke. “But Wyatt had won. He had won.”

His parents brought Wyatt’s trophy home, along with his prizewinning sunflower. Though they knew the sunflower wouldn’t last forever, they collected the seeds, and gave them to the children at Wyatt’s school. Wyatt’s classmates have now planted them in the school’s garden. One of them might just win a prize next year—in the newly-renamed Wyatt Wilke Sunflower Contest.