Former state Sen. Ron Raikes, who oversaw major changes in rural and urban school districts, has died after an accident on his farm in Saunders County.

Raikes died Saturday night after getting caught in a haybuster, or grinder, Saunders County Sheriff Kevin Stukenholtz said. Raikes was 66.

A neighbor found Raikes under the machine about 10:30 p.m., and he was pronounced dead at the scene shortly after 11 p.m. Cause of death will be determined in an autopsy, Stukenholtz said.

A phone message left Sunday at the Raikes residence was not immediately returned.

Raikes was appointed to the Legislature in 1997 after the death of Jerome Warner and was elected in 1998. Raikes served 11 years, until he was forced out of his District 25 seat because of term limits.

"Sen. Ron Raikes was a friend and an outstanding state senator," Gov. Dave Heineman said. "He cared deeply about the education of our children, and he will be missed."

Raikes was best known for his work as chairman of the Education Committee.

"Nebraska has lost one of its best," University of Nebraska President James B. Milliken said in a written statement. "I know of no one who conducted himself with more dignity, integrity and intelligence in both public and private life than Ron Raikes."

Raikes drew the ire of many in rural Nebraska when he backed a plan to force some of the state's smallest schools to combine with their larger neighbors in the name of efficiency.

He also brokered the controversial "learning community" deal under which Omaha-area district boundaries would not change, but they would share a common property tax levy base and guarantee students could remain in their home districts unless they wished to change.

Whether working on his family's farm or tending to matters such as school funding at the Capitol, Raikes was known to be approachable and laid back.

"I don't enjoy having people mad at me and I don't enjoy or feel comfortable having power over people," Raikes told The Associated Press in 2004.

Despite those feelings, he was unapologetic about introducing unpopular ideas if he believed the change was for the better.

Raikes was born in Lincoln and grew up on a farm. After high school, he attended Iowa State University, where he earned a degree in farm operations. He got a doctorate in agricultural economics at the University of California-Davis in 1970, then worked as a professor in agricultural economics at Iowa State University before returning to run the farm in 1978 for his ailing father, Ralph.

He ran a large cattle operation and grew corn, soybeans and wheat.

Raikes never had a life as state senator in mind. But his wife, Helen, persuaded him to apply for the job after Warner died.

"I was terribly naive and uninformed going into that," he said in 2004.

He got up to speed quickly. After just three years i n the Legislature, he was elected chairman of the Education Committee in 2001. He also held a position on the Revenue Committee.

Funeral arrangements had not been set as of Sunday afternoon.

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