An Emotional Reunion as a Man Meets His Rescuer 50 Years Later

Loren Oelkers (left) and Rick Goff.
Loren Oelkers (left) and Rick Goff meet for the first time in 50 years. (Image: Loren Oelkers)

In the summer of 1973, a 17-year-old teen was saved from the jaws of death. Loren Oelkers was swimming in the murky waters of Montana’s Canyon’s Ferry Lake on the 4th of July when things went wrong. Two strangers rescued him and saved his life that day, but unfortunately, Loren never thanked them for this fantastic gift.

The debt has been lingering on Loren’s conscience since that day. Thanks to the men, he got a chance to have a remarkable career and family. But in August 2023, more than five decades later, he got to show his gratitude to one of his rescuers, Rick Goff. 

“This is just such a beautiful story; I call it a miracle come full circle 50 years later,” said Christine Mailett, Rick Goff’s daughter.

Events of the fateful day

On that day, Loren and his best buddy, Steve Miller, had gone camping with Loren’s parents at the National Guard Chalet Campground east of Helena. It was a place the two teenagers had explored before

“We used to camp out there a lot,” Loren said of the camping area just south of the dam and across from the Yacht Basin boat launch. “As high school students, we’d go out there during the week and swim across the bay. It’s a little cove, probably 50 yards across, if that. I’d probably swam across it 40 or 50 times before.”

It was a lovely sunny day, so the two buddies decided to go for a swim. Loren says they wanted to swim to the other side and see if they could mingle with other high school friends at the docks. 

Steve went first, and Loren followed. As mentioned, they had been swimming here many times before, but on this day, as Loren came close to the shore, he “froze”; he couldn’t swim. 

 “I got very close to shore, but couldn’t continue. I don’t know if I cramped up or got exhausted or what it was. I just panicked,” he says.

Steve, who had already crossed the lake, turned back to see his friend struggling. He dove back into the lake from the rock ledge to rescue Loren. 

“He was on the shore and jumped in to help me. I grabbed ahold of him, and we both went down. Then we came up, and I pushed Steve away and said: ‘Get help.’ Steve started screaming, and that’s the last thing I remember,” Loren recalls.

A 1973 newspaper clipping of Rick Goff shortly after the rescue of Loren Oelkers.
A 1973 newspaper clipping of Rick Goff shortly after the rescue of Loren Oelkers. (Image: Helena Independent Record)

How did Rick Goff come to rescue Loren?

As fate would have it, Rick Goff was also camping at the National Guard Chalet Campground. He had just returned from an unsuccessful fishing trip with his teenage son that morning when they heard screams from women and children at the rock ledge. So he rushed to the shoreline to see what was going on. 

At first, when he saw Steve in the water, he thought he was the one drowning. “I was about ready to throw him an empty cooler so he could use it as a flotation device, but he shouted: ‘No, no, no — it’s not me. Down there, it’s my buddy,” Rick remembers.

But peering into the deep, murky waters of the dam, he couldn’t see Loren. He was also still fully clothed and admits he hesitated. 

“Thoughts raced through my mind,” he recalled. “I’m hesitating about whether I’ve got to dive in there. What if I drown trying to save the victim? Who will care for my family? Here I am, this old guy at 43. Where are the other men?”

A second hero in the hour need

As Rick pondered his next move, 25-year-old Jim Funk swung into action. He raced down the hill, yelling, asking where the drowning teen was.

“I pointed to the area in front of the ledge we were standing on. He was on the run and never even stopped to say hello or goodbye; he dove right in off the rock, never hesitated for a bit.”

Jim Funk disappeared into the murky waters, and for a few moments, Rick couldn’t see him. “The next time I saw them, they were coming up through that six- or eight-foot depth of water, and Jim had Loren in his left arm and was paddling up through the water with the other.”

It is reported that Loren had been lying 12 to 15 feet underwater. With limited visibility, his long red hair came to the rescue, and that’s how Jim located him.

As the exhausted Jim brought Loren to the shore, it was Rick’s turn to jump into action. As part of his training, he had just completed a first aid course that included CPR (cardio-pulmonary resuscitation) — a skill he thought he would never use.  

At first, he thought Loren was dead because he was lifeless and color had drained from his face. But he quickly started mouth-to-mouth resuscitation and chest compressions, and miraculously, one of the women helping him yelled: “We have a pulse!” It was like a scene from a movie as Loren began coughing out water and gasping for air.

An ambulance came, and Loren was rushed to the hospital for further checkup. He was hospitalized for three days, but he survived the ordeal without permanent injuries.

Unfortunately, he never had the chance to thank his rescuers as they both went their separate ways. All he had was reports from the local newspapers that said the two strangers were Jim Funk, an army personnel on leave, and Rick Goff, a full-time pipe-fitter and a part-time Technical Sergeant for the Montana Air National Guard.

A lease of a new life

Loren married his high school sweetheart, and they have three children and 10 grandchildren. He also served in the Army National Guard for 33 years and has a blessed life.

However, in 2020, he suffered a stroke. Part of his recovery required him to write recollections of his life’s experiences. His daughter, Erin, further pushed him to write his story through Storyworth. This is a digital subscription that encourages people to share their life stories. 

That’s how the events that happened that morning in 1973 came to light. The story moved his daughter, and Loren still felt the weight of his debt. “I said: ‘But the story isn’t finished. I need to find these people. Hopefully, they’re both still alive. I want to meet them and thank them.'”

Loren Oelkers and his family today.
Loren Oelkers and his family today. (Image: Loren Oelkers)

Meeting his rescuer

Loren and his family doubled their efforts to find the rescuers. It wouldn’t be easy because Rick would be in his early 90s if he had not passed away. But they found Rick’s address and wrote him a letter thanking him and asking to meet him.

I had a picture of Mr. Goff with the Air National Guard, and I knew he had lived in Great Falls,” Loren explains. “So I went to the Montana cadastral, and that’s how I found his address.”

He had moved from his home of 67 years, but luckily, his daughter, Christine, was still picking up mail sent to his father’s house. So when she received the letter, she contacted Loren. He assured Christine his intentions were genuine, and she allowed the reunion.

Like all heroes, Rick says: “I am not a hero. Anyone with knowledge of CPR could have done the same thing. God was busy that day and asked me to do Him a favor. So, I did. The miracle was in the timing of events. We were down to the last 60 seconds.”

Fifty years later, they met. It was an emotional day, and they could not hold their tears back as they remembered that fateful day. 

“None of this would have been possible if Jim hadn’t jumped into the water and pulled me out and if Rick hadn’t been at the lake that day and knew how to do CPR,” Loren said. “I’ve thought a lot about those guys. They added 50 years to my life.”

What about Jim Funk

Unfortunately, Loren and his family haven’t located Jim Funk yet, but they are still searching and holding out their hope. Still, the story shows how gratitude brings positive emotions and stronger relationships. It’s never too late to count your blessings and say thank you.

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  • Nathan Machoka

    Nathan is a writer specializing in history, sustainable living, personal growth, nature, and science. To him, information is liberating, and it can help us bridge the gap between cultures and boost empathy. When not writing, he’s reading, catching a favorite show, or weightlifting. An admitted soccer lover, he feeds his addiction by watching Arsenal FC games on weekends.