Friends and family expressed shock and sadness Monday about Sunday’s sudden death of longtime Finney County farmer Dean Gigot.

Just a few days ago, Gigot, a lifetime Finney County resident well known for his and his family’s pioneering farming practices, was looking forward to the fall harvest and planning a trip to Stephenville, Texas, to look at dairy heifers.

But according to his wife, Betty Jo Gigot, shortly after sitting down at his home at Circle Land and Cattle Corp. southwest of Garden City to watch 60 Minutes like he had for years, Gigot died suddenly. He was 84.

Betty Jo Gigot said the family hasn’t been given an official cause of death.

“I walked in the kitchen, started dinner, heard one sound, came back and he was dead. It was sudden, but it was very, very peaceful,” she said Monday. “They haven’t told me exactly how it happened.”

Gigot gained notoriety in the late 1990s in a brush with a federal grand jury. But in December 1997, a jury acquitted him of federal charges alleging that he used four partnerships to steal millions in farm subsidies from the federal government.

“Some things may have not been by the book,” he told The Telegram following the acquittal. “But I didn’t do anything illegal.”

Gigot was born and raised in Garden City and graduated from high school in Pierceville. He traveled extensively in his life. The only time he didn’t live in Garden City was when he fought in the Korean War as a member of the U.S. Army.

With his father, Clarence, and brothers Gerald, Terry, Mike and Jeff, Dean Gigot pioneered center pivot irrigation in southwest Kansas in the early 1960s. The family bought swaths of scrubland in Finney County originally thought to be of no use in farming and brought them to life through pivot irrigation.

In the late 1970s, Fortune Magazine named the family the world’s largest corn grower, with more than 35,000 acres.

Gigot is survived by his wife; five children, Gina Stillwell of Holcomb, Lisa Mason of Holcomb, Marc Gigot of Garden City, Jacque Portillo of Amarillo, Texas, and Darren Gigot of Garden City; two stepsons, Brad Geiger of Highland Ranch, Colo., and Lance Geiger of St. Louis; three brothers, Terry, Mike and Jeff Gigot, all of Garden City; two sisters, Marjorie Van Camp of Topeka and Jennifer Priddy of Garden City; and 16 grandchildren.

On Sunday morning, Gigot sat down for breakfast with Betty Jo and friend Leland Crist.

It was like any other day, Crist said. Eating a bacon sandwich, Gigot told him about a circle of irrigated corn that had just yielded 30 tons per acre.

“He was as happy go lucky as he always was,” Crist said. “I didn’t even think about him getting sick. He was just talking and visiting like always.”

Gigot was passionate about his profession. Betty Jo said her husband harvested his first crop circle at age 14, and “farmed passionately all his life.”

“Dean loved the land,” she said. “He was responsible for taking as good of care of it as he could, and passing that down to the next generation.”

His son, Mark Gigot, spoke with him Sunday afternoon.

“It was probably an hour before his death,” Mark said. “He was checking crops and looking at cattle on the farm. We talked about fall crop harvesting. Everything was normal. Everything’s been good.”

Mark said the last 35 years of farming with his father and sister, Jana, have been “an education you can’t put a price on.”

“He was my mentor. He taught me everything I know about farming. We plan for the generations ahead of us,” Mark said. “We plan for further on down the line to keep farming with innovative practices that he’s come up with and that we’re using right now.”

Gigot and Crist had a shared passion for traveling around the country, collecting antique hi-crop tractors. Crist said he restored more than 100 tractors that he and Gigot hauled back to Garden City.

“About 10 years ago, we stopped somewhere in Louisiana to get a steak. They told us the steaks were too high, so we had to eat a fish,” Crist joked.

Betty Jo said Dean’s hobbies were collecting tractors and taking care of his 16 grandchildren and his cattle.

In 1995, Betty Jo met Dean while she was reporting on Beef Empire Days for the magazine she now owns, Cattle News. They got married that December.

“Dean was a character in his own right,” she said. “He was a charming guy in a big white hat.”

Betty Jo said the federal case adjusted Dean’s insight into how the government works.

“He felt he followed the rules, and the government thought a different way,” she said. “A jury of his peers stood up and said not guilty, not guilty, not guilty, not guilty.”

Dean spent the last three hours of his life doing what he loved, Betty Jo said, touring his farm.

“It was too soon to go, but if he had to go, Dean did it right,” she said.

From 2 to 5 p.m. Saturday, the family plans to hold memorial services for Dean at Samy’s Spirits and Steakhouse at the Clarion Inn, 1911 E. Kansas Ave.

“It’s for all of his friends and relatives. Everybody’s invited,” Betty Jo said. “We’re going to have a party. We’re going to celebrate Dean’s life. He always loved a good party.”

Austin is a reporter with the Garden City Telegram. Email him at  afisher@gctelegram.com.