When Wes Michaels turned 58 on Thursday, he didn't think too much about celebrating. That could wait until Father's Day, when the family would gather out at the place on Maple Lake, in northwestern Minnesota.

He'd taken a rare day off from working at the Cenex station in Mentor he had bought four years earlier when the tree nursery he had worked at for nearly 40 years closed. But Michaels was not the kind of guy who liked to waste time, so he'd started to fix an old lawnmower while he kept an eye on the Weather Channel.

He always watched the Weather Channel, and on Thursday he paid closer attention than usual. Thunderstorms and hail were rolling toward his home in Polk County.

They looked ugly.

Sunday was going to be the big day. Michaels' daughters Amy, 32; Kari, 29, and Heidi, 26, were coming out to honor him on Father's Day and celebrate his birthday. His four grandkids would be there. They would put something on the grill for the kids and do some fishing. His wife, Kathy, was going to make his favorite meal -- meatloaf and potato dumplings. Later, Wes would build a campfire and just sit and watch the kids play. As a gift, the girls planned to buy tickets to the Fargo-Moorhead Redhawks minor league baseball team.

But all that wasn't to be. On Thursday, Wes Michaels made the greatest sacrifice a father can make when he died while saving Heidi from the tornado that demolished his gas station.

No one who knew him is surprised by his bravery. He had always been protective of his girls.

"When we'd go to visit him, we'd have to call him to let him know we got home OK, even though it was only 10 minutes away," said Heidi Michaels. "He's always looked after his kids and grandkids."

So when he saw on the television that tornadoes were forming in the area, Wes Michaels jumped in his pickup truck and drove down to the Cenex to check on Heidi, who was managing the station. When he got there, a customer joked that he should be out having fun on his birthday.

A few minutes later, a twister took aim on the station. Michaels ordered Heidi and customers into the cooler as it hit.

Michaels was a big man, about 6 feet tall with a broad chest, "a strong man who wasn't afraid to use his strength," according to his former boss, Orville Lee. Instinctively, he positioned his body above that of his daughter, and took the brunt of the force from debris as the building crumbled around them.

Heidi escaped with a few cuts and bruises, but Wes Michaels died.

"That was typical Wes," said Dean Gudvangen, a cousin, friend and co-worker at Lee's Nursery, where Michaels worked for years. "He hovered over her, just like he hovered over all those girls, but especially Heidi," the youngest.

Michaels may have been an employee, but to Orville and Ede Lee, "he was closer to being a son," said Orville. "If anyone was responsible for making Lee's Nursery a success, it was Wes. To think he's gone is going to be hard for me to handle."

Michaels' mother, Dorris, worked for the nursery nearly as long as Wes did. "She's the only employee I had to tell not to work so hard, and they say the apple doesn't fall far from the tree," said Orville.

When Orville's son, Gary, took over the family business, he made sure Michaels was going to stay. "He worked the business like it was his own money," Gary Lee said.

Michaels was "serious when it came to getting work done, but he had a quick wit and was good with one-liners," Gary said. "You didn't know what was going to come out of his mouth."

Heidi Michaels said that family was at the center of her dad's life. He and Kathy, a nurse in Crookston, would have celebrated their 38th wedding anniversary in November. They met on a blind date just after high school.

Wes Michaels had a shop in his garage filled with tools. He could build anything. He'd built a deck for one of his daughters and laid a kitchen floor for another. "If we had something break at our houses, he'd tell us how to fix it over the phone, or come right over and do it," Heidi said.

"He was always there for us. Always."

Recently he bought a jukebox at a school auction and restored it, said Heidi. He once rebuilt an old pontoon just to keep busy. When he wanted to relax, Michaels would throw a line into Maple Lake. "He'd sit there and watch the ducks go by and listen to the Twins game," Heidi said.

For a hobby, Wes and Kathy carved wooden items, traveling to craft shows around the Midwest. Gudvangen said that Michaels was always making gifts for people, including beautiful wooden jewelry boxes for his daughters.

Heidi said her mother is "hanging in there," relying on family for support and comfort in the wake of her husband's death.

"Wes had a real good wife," said Orville Lee. "It's going to be tough, but she can handle it. There's a lot of support.

"I'd say Wes was a blessing from God," Lee said. "He was a guy who knew how to handle trouble. He saved [Heidi's] life. A guy like Wes, you can't replace."

jtevlin@startribune.com • 612-673-1702