County produced a big crop of extension staff

Retired University of Minnesota Extension service educators, from left, Carol Ann Burtness, Diane (Treangen) Damerow, Naomi Fruechte, Phyllis (Troendle) Onstad and Janet (Albee) Beyer. ~ Jan Lee Buxengard
Retired University of Minnesota Extension service educators, from left, Carol Ann Burtness, Diane (Treangen) Damerow, Naomi Fruechte, Phyllis (Troendle) Onstad and Janet (Albee) Beyer.
~ Jan Lee Buxengard

By Jan Lee Buxengard
Special to the Caledonia Argus


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 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, are all now retired from extension work. They met on May 25 to reminisce about their careers.

Their faithful years of service include: Naomi, 28 years; Diane, 34; Carol Ann and Janet, 35 years each; and Phyllis 26 and a half 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. 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 focus their work versus being a generalist. Most recently, the structure was downsized again and placed 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, and she graduated 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. Growing up the women were actively involved in 4-H and knew each other.

Naomi Radman came to Caledonia from Randolph, Minn. in June 1962 as Houston County Extension Home Economist.


Career influences

Houston County extension agents Wayne Hanson, Francis Januschka, Naomi Radman Fruechte and Russ Krech were huge influences on choosing extension careers along with our 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 an 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.”

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. She served a total of 28 years with the extension service 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 said about being recruited and starting the job at the busiest time of the 4-H year.

Diane enjoyed a 30-year career before 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 to 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 in 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 to 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 a 4-H educator from 1974 to 2002. Then she was as a regional extension educator and program leader from 2002 to 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 their communities.


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. 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 said. “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.”

“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.”


Lasting friendships 

“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 a retiree group to reconnect with others, and it is so much fun to relive our experiences,” Carol Ann said. There will be many stories shared in the days and years to come.