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More vets join local legions after 2019 rule change

St. Peter resident Jerry Pfeifer spent 18 months serving in the United States military overseas, and then he waited over 60 years to be recognized as a veteran through the American Legion.

While local legions, including the one in St. Peter, have always been good to Pfeifer, he was never officially a member until two years ago. That’s because United States Congress had previously set a rule that only allowed those who served during war-time to join the legion. The rule changed in summer 2019, allowing veterans who served anytime from December 1941 and on to be eligible.

Jerry Pfeifer, of St. Peter, is one of the veterans who benefit from a federal rule change in 2019 that allowed more veterans to join local American Legion posts. Community legions want to get the word out to more veterans that they are now eligible to join. (Philip Weyhe/St. Peter Herald)

Pfeifer was one of the first to take advantage of the change.

“I believe the rule change was in July, and I joined in August,” he said. “Yeah, it felt good. It’s something I’ve believed in my whole life since I got out of the military.”

He added, “I waited 63 years before I was eligible to join.”

The expanded eligibility opened up membership to thousands of veterans across the United States, and many have taken advantage in Minnesota, but not as many as some leaders expected. According to Mike Maxa, a rural Le Center resident and Montgomery American Legion member who currently serves as the Minnesota Legion adjutant, there is opportunity to gain more members.

“We haven’t seen the big bounce we were anticipating, but there are a lot of veterans that don’t know that they’re eligible, so we need to get the word out,” Maxa said.

In addition to Pfeifer joining in St. Peter, the Le Center and Le Sueur legions have seen a few new veterans trickle in since the expansion, but local members think that many who were previously ineligible don’t know about the change. Long-time St. Peter Legion member Keith Keogh noted that these veterans, and their families, need to hear that they can join up.

“If they have a son, they’d be eligible to join the Sons of American Legion, a daughter could join the American Legion Auxiliary,” Keogh said. “We want to tell the people that have been waiting and are now eligible to join.” The American Legion Auxiliary is open to a range of family members, including daughters, grandmothers, mothers, sisters and spouses (men or women).

Don Hayden, of the Le Center American Legion, who previously held state and national ranks, echoed Keogh’s sentiments. He said the previous rule never made sense, and he fears that, even after the change, the old restrictions are still alienating many veterans.

“There are some that have said ‘No, if I wasn’t good enough back then, then I’m not good enough now,” Hayden explained. “There have been a lot of them out there that couldn’t be part of any (veterans organizations), so there was no place for them.”

Hayden is grateful for the rule change.

“They served, so it should be open to them,” he said. “If they served in active duty, they belong. It should’ve been done a long time ago, but Congress finally got their act together on it.”

Shannon Frost, of the Le Sueur American Legion, agreed.

“I think it’s good they made the change,” she said. “I think the other veterans organizations that have popped up came about because people weren’t eligible for the Legion or VFW.”

The wait had been frustrating for Pfeifer. He was drafted into the United States Army May 10, 1955, and he went on to serve in Germany from November 1955 to April 1957. The Korean War era officially ended Jan. 30 1955, and the next era didn’t start for a few years after Pfeifer served.

Because he served during that period in between wars, he was ineligible to join the American Legion.

“It just didn’t seem fair,” Pfeifer said.

But despite his official exclusion, Pfeifer always joined his local legion in an unofficial manner, whether in Illinois, Iowa, Missouri or now his long-time home St. Peter.

“The reason I’ve always been a person who has participated in Legion stuff, going to their clubs and such when they were open house and all that, is because I thought I got a better education in the military then I did in five years of college,” he said.

It’s that pride in service and the camaraderie with others who have served, Maxa said, that makes Legion membership so important to many.

“Us veterans are a rare breed. We talk a different language, we walk to a different beat, we’re proud, we’re patriotic,” Maxa said. “If you get around a group of veterans at a convention or something, you’ll see them jabbing between the different services back and forth, but, you know, when it comes down to it, we have each other’s backs.”

For Pfeifer, the importance goes beyond his time left in this world.

“One of the things, if you’ve been in the military, is that at funerals, you get TAPS. It’s the (American Legion) Honor Guard that does that,” he said. “That was the main reason I wanted to belong. When my time runs out, I’d like to have TAPS played over my grave.”

New Nicollet County Extension educator young but ag experienced

Generation Z is coming of age, and they’re finding their places in the workforce. The latest newcomer locally is Emma Severns, a 22-year-old taking the reins as the new University of Minnesota Extension educator for Nicollet and Sibley counties.

Like most out of college, Severns wasn’t certain where she’d find her first career-type job. While the Extension educator post is a prominent one for a younger person, she has the background to fit in.

“It came as a little bit of a surprise, but I thought with my experiences, my background, my education that this really did fit my passions and interests, so I thought it was a really great opportunity,” she said.

Severns, who has two bachelor’s degrees in animal science and agricultural communication from the University of Minnesota, got her foot in the door with Extension after college, working in Blue Earth County 4-H and then as a natural resource intern for St. Louis County.

“I got to make a lot of connections with a lot of people within the organization,” she said. “I really worked hard to do some extra things in my position that I think impressed some people.”

She eventually was pointed toward an interim position for Nicollet County, not too far from the hobby farm in Good Thunder, where she grew up and where her parents, Brian and Kathy, still live. Until the pandemic calms down, Severns will stay with her parents on the farm and commute to her office in St. Peter.

“I think it helps, too, that I’m local,” she said of the new job. “I know the community, the agricultural side of things in this area, so that helps.”

Southern Minnesota Extension Regional Director Bonnie Christiansen, who had a hand in hiring Severns, first on an interim basis and then full-time, said the team was impressed with what she brought to the table.

“She had experience with Extension in the past, and she was acting as the interim Extension educator as we filled the position, and we were really happy with the skills that she would bring to the job,” Christiansen said.

She added, “These days, we are hiring younger people in this position, so it’s not that out of the ordinary.”

Severns brings an energy job that can be felt in conversations. She is excited for the work and hopeful of making an impact in the agricultural community and beyond.

“What I usually tell people is that, in my position, I provide university resources to the local community about agriculture. I also work with local farmers, getting them to resources and answering those questions. I also answer the questions of the local community — gardening, weeds, spraying, whatever questions they might have. I also plan and execute educational programs …,” Severns said.

She believes in what Extension does.

“Some people maybe don’t’ think that Extension is so important these days, because there are others that people can go to, but the information we provide is unbiased, it’s university-research backed, and it’s a free resource for anyone,” she said. “Anyone that lives in Nicollet County, whether in town or in the country, can use it. We just have a really great, knowledgeable team of people that can give a lot of information. We provide this unbiased information that helps them succeed.”

While Severns grew up nearby, she still has plenty to learn about the local landscape. She’s well aware of the heavy crop and swine production in the area, as well as the thriving master gardener program in Nicollet County. But she still needs to get to know individual farms and people, and she’s working on that out of the gate.

“I already reached out to some people that have been in this position in the past and other colleagues from the area, and they’ve given me more people to reach out to,” she said. “So that’s what I’m working on now, is reaching out to more people, and going out and visiting farms and getting to know their farms.”

Severns has been involved in agriculture her entire life, whether raising or showing animals through 4-H, learning production in FFA, selling chickens to earn money in high school, or getting a full education in the field at college. Now, she’s taking what she’s learned (and will continue to learn) and sharing it with a local audience.

“There are endless opportunities in this job, and I like educating people about agriculture and livestock, and I like helping people get an education that helps them succeed,” she said. “That is what I really enjoy.”

Nicollet County hires consulting firm to head search for new leader

Nicollet County will utilize David Drown Associates, a consulting firm based in Minneapolis, to hire a new permanent county administrator and possibly a human resources director, too.

The positions became open after former County Administrator Ryan Krosch and Human Resources Director Jamie Haefner parted ways with the county in early April. Both signed separation agreements, but there was no explanation in a public setting as to why the duo was departing.

After discussion April 13, the Board of Commissioners chose to move ahead with Property Services Director Mandy Landkammer in the interim county administrator role until a permanent replacement is found. In the Human Resources Department, assistant Whitney Krebs is now handling the workload on her own.

As the April 27 meeting, the board chose to move ahead with the David Drown team on the county administrator hire process, feeling that itself and staff don’t have the necessary skill set and/or time to lead the process themselves. The cost for DDA’s services is $21,000.

The firm has extensive experience in administrator searches and is currently leading the search in Le Sueur County, among others. It proposed a five-month hire timeline with candidate recruitment starting in May, candidate screening in June, video interviews and finalists selected in July, final interviews in August and a hire in August. The chosen candidate would then be asked to begin work as the new county administrator in September.

“DDA HR uses a proven, comprehensive process ensuring clients can identify the best candidate for their organization and community,” the company’s proposal to Nicollet County said.

The Board of Commissioners has not yet decided how to hire its new Human Resources Director, but interim County Administrator Landkammer said that it might have some extra urgency, as there are two full-time positions in the Department that require filling, and Krebs is currently working alone. Commissioner Jack Kolars said the board should be looking to identify a process for a new director hire as soon as possible.

“We have to remember that two of the three people that worked in that department in the past years are not there anymore,” Kolars said. “It would seem to me that it would be good for us to consider action of appointing an individual internally as the interim … and then hire a consulting firm to help move us forward.”

DDA has offered to undertake the HR director hiring process as well, offering a reduced rate of $13,000 instead of $15,000. Commissioner Marie Dranttel said the Personnel Committee could discuss the matter at its April 29 meeting and bring a recommended process back to the board at a special meeting next week.