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Houston County produced a 'big crop' of U of M Extension staff
By Jan Lee Buxengard
, Freelance Reporter
Tuesday, September 18, 2012 5:29 AM
Retired University of Minnesota Extension Service Educators, left to right, Carol Ann Burtness, Diane (Treangen) Damerow, Naomi Fruechte, Phyllis (Troendle) Onstad and Janet (Albee) Beyer.
The Houston County 4-H program has a record to be proud of. The county has produced more University of Minnesota extension agents than any other county in the state.
This record is unique to the state and implies the strong influence Houston County had on the career choices of these individuals.
In the fall of 1975, 10 former Houston County 4-Hers who became staff members of the University of Minnesota Agricultural (later Extension) Service and were recognized at the annual Extension Conference: Home economists - Diane Treangen Damerow, Carol Ann Burtness, Lois Blegen Anderson, Janet Albee Beyer and Phyllis Troendle Onstad.
County extension agents - Harlan Johnsrud, Robert Leary, Frederick Bergsrud, Neale Deters and Gregory Luehr.
Diane, Carol Ann, Janet and Phyllis, along with former Houston County Extension Home Economist Naomi (Radman) Fruechte, all now retired from Extension work, met on May 25 to reminisce about their careers.
Their faithful years of service include: Naomi total of 28 years, Diane 34 years, Carol Ann and Janet 35 years each, and Phyllis 26 1/2 years.
"We learned to fly, and we built the plans as we flew," is how Naomi described changes that have taken place through the years of the Extension Service. "We reorganized and reinvented ourselves."
Diane added, "If you couldn't handle change, you should not be in Extension," with unanimous agreement from the others.
"We looked at Extension as a 'calling'. We're in the 'people' business and you have to be a certain personality for this career," another added.
Outreach arm of the University
For over a century, the Extension Service in Minnesota has served as the connection between the university and the county extension office as its outreach arm and educational bridge.
In its early beginnings, transferring knowledge and technology from the campus to the farmer was the mission of the Extension Service.
Through the years this core idea of "helping people help themselves" became a means to relate to the whole of life in rural America, and not just transferring expert knowledge.
Over time Minnesota Extension has gone through structural changes. What began with extension agents in each county, changed in 1987 to the concept of clustering of counties to encourage collaborative work across county lines, and the establishment of specializations where Extension agents/educators focused their work versus being a generalist.
Most recently, the structure was downsized again, to placing extension educators in regions of the state.
Roots in the county
Diane, daughter of Orvel and Valborg Treangen, was a member of the Newhouse Norsemen 4-H Club and a 1966 graduate of Spring Grove High School.
Carol Ann, daughter of Arthur and Erma Burtness, was a member of Wilmington Gophers 4-H and a 1970 SGHS graduate.
Phyllis, daughter of Cyril and Agnes Troendle, belonged to the Portland Prairie 4-H Club. With the closing of Loretto High School in Caledonia, her high school education was continued at Spring Grove, also graduating in 1970.
Janet, youngest daughter of Charles and Mildred Albee, was a member of the Caledonia Rockets 4-H Club and graduated from Caledonia High School the same year.
Naomi Radman came to Caledonia from Randolph, Minn. in June 1962 as a Houston County Extension Home Economist.
Houston County Extension agents Wayne Hanson, Francis Januschka, Naomi Fruechte and Russ Krech were huge influences on choosing Extension careers along with their experiences in 4-H, the women agree.
"It's the Houston County legacy to Extension," Janet added.
"Sue Petersen, who was my Home Ec. teacher in school and later became Dave Kjome's wife, got me interested in going into extension," Diane explained.
Kjome, a 1954 graduate of Spring Grove, was Extension agent in Olmstead County.
The other three women, who were a few years younger, accredit Naomi as being the influence for their career choice.
"Us 4-H girls looked to Naomi," they pointed out about their participation in the youth organization.
Janet's desire for the career also goes back to when she was in eighth grade. "Gwen Griffith was going to college, and I helped her make a display for her Home Economics degree."
College to present time
Four of the women earned degrees in home economics from the University of Minnesota.
"We all started as generalists," Phyllis noted. Through the years, each has completed specialized course work, as well as continuing education in their field of work.
After high school, Naomi earned degrees in adult education from the University of Minnesota and in home economics at St. Olaf College.
Through the years, she served a total of 28 years with the Extension Service including: summer 4-H assistant for Faribault and Carver Counties, and in Houston County as Acting Extension Agent, Educator and Director before retiring in June 2002.
In July 1970, Houston County Extension Agent Russ Krech contacted Diane, who had just graduated from the U of M with a degree in home economics. In late July, Naomi and husband Vernon Fruechte become parents and there was an immediate need for an acting Extension agent until the end of the year.
"I got in the door and started in the county I grew up in," Diane stated about being recruited and starting the job at the busiest time of the 4-H year with fair time, food stand and demonstrations.
Diane went on to be Extension agent in Freeborn County for 15 1/2 years, Extension Educator in Waseca County for 7 1/2 years, followed by Cluster Extension educator for more than 7 years, retiring in 2003. "Since retirement I have been a professional volunteer."
Early in her career, Phyllis was an Extension Home Economist in Renville County, and then accepted the position of Home Ec. teacher at Spring Grove serving from 1982-1987.
"I was a single mom with a couple kids, and teaching. When student numbers were going down, I was wondering what would happen with the course. Then Naomi called and said Winona County was looking for somebody for Extension work."
Phyllis and Carol Ann, who had also been college roommates, both applied for the position. Carol Ann pointed out, "The hardest part was interviewing against my best friend."
Phyllis returned to Extension work in August of 1987, serving primarily Winona County, and providing targeted programming in both Fillmore and Houston County.
"Retiring in January 2012, I'm the newest retiree," Phyllis pointed out, adding, "Our family recently returned from the Dakotas, where we were engaged in rebuilding the homes of families devastated by last year's flooding."
Just out of college, Carol Ann worked as a cook at Tweeten Memorial Hospital/Nursing Home, Spring Grove, and as the head cook at Whispering Hills Girl Scout Camp, Houston, before taking the position with Todd County (at Long Prairie) as Extension agent/educator from 1975-2004.
Next she was regional Extension Educator specializing in Food Safety - based in the Brainerd Regional Office until retiring in 2010. After retirement, she continues to do some teaching on food safety and food preservation methods throughout areas of Minnesota.
A month after college graduation, Janet was hired by Winona County Extension, and served as an Extension 4-H Educator from 1974-2002. Then she was as a Regional Extension Educator and program leader - Community Youth Development 2002-2009.
For a year after retirement, she was interim grant coordinator for the 4-H science/engineering, and technology initiative.
Over the years, all these women have received numerous awards and recognitions for their service and dedication with the Extension Service. And, they were and continue to be actively involved with volunteer and service to their communities.
Extension experienced another structural change to choosing a specialization or a focus of programming. The next step was to clusters, which were groups of neighboring counties working together where educators focused programming in their specialization.
After that, it went to the current structure of regionalization, which includes specialization programming in larger areas of the state or statewide. By doing so, they could do more in depth programming and focus on one area of programming.
"When you specialize, you get more technical answers for people," Phyllis pointed out, adding, "Specialization and clusters go hand in hand."
Diane's specialized area focused on parenting and the family, Carol Ann's on food safety, and Janet Community Youth Development.
"My choice was family relationship, and I ended up in family resource management," Phyllis stated. "I learned so much in depth, again embracing change."
Era of changes
There was a great deal of change in our era, the women said about their experience.
In the early years, the huge change was to computers, which had become part of the job. There has been a great deal of change in technology, background screening began in the 1990s, and more recently the need of financial records and a paper trail of every transaction.
"There was so much variety," Naomi stated about their Extension agent work before Extension's structural changes.
"We would serve people where they're at and what they're doing. Consumer calls were a big part of what we did. There is a lot of good research done and we shared that information. Now people can Google for that information."
Extension cares and proves the best care. It was always different and challenging meeting the needs of people, the women agree. We continue to believe in the importance of education based on the needs of today's families and communities.
"Through the years, with all the questions we got asked, we should have written a book!" Diane commented.
Naomi added, "I remember at club tours, 4-Hers would show animals first, then foods. It was amazing I didn't get a food borne illness. I must have had a tough immune system."
"I spent my life planting seeds," Naomi stated about her career. "You plant seeds and you wait and eventually someone will come up with the original plan for their life."
People have seen us grow up, the women commented.
We were always really close. We started together, were pregnant at the same time (except Carol Ann, who is not married), and our kids are about the same age. We are good comrades, they echo. We have always looked to each other as a resource and friend, and that has continued into retirement.
"We have a retiree group to reconnect with others, and it is so much fun to relive our experiences," Carol Ann stated. There will be many stories shared in the days and years to come.
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