Forty-two years in the same place gives one ample opportunity to accumulate a lot of stuff.
As such, whoever takes over John Wilson’s office in the courthouse may find that the office looks a lot bigger than it did last week.
Wilson spent the last few days of his long tenure as a University of Nebraska Extension Educator cleaning out his office. That meant finding a way to pack up the dozens of awards and certificates he’s received over the years. It’s also meant pitching out reams of research material he thought he might one day use but never did, he told a reporter last week.
He said, only half jokingly, that he was finding things he hadn’t seen in decades.
“If somebody could make a filing system that destroyed any record you hadn’t touched in five years, that guy could make a fortune off of me,” Wilson said with his signature quick humor.
But things can pile up after more than four decades in the same place.
The accumulating started back in the late 70s when he was fresh out of college.
Wilson went off to college knowing that his family’s farm near Central City could not possibly support another family and his father wasn’t retiring.
“There wasn’t much opportunity for me, or my brother, to come back home and farm,” he said.
But as a farm kid, he’d been able to interact with county agents and remembered thinking that the work they did was interesting. He got involved with administrative work at the 4-H office in his native Merrick County and at the Lancaster County Extension office while in college.
Then, prior to his graduation from UNL, he went through a series of on-campus interviews so college officials could find out if he was “Extension material.” After meeting their approval, he ventured into the job market. He said local fair boards make the final decision when it comes to hiring. He was interning in Butler County when he and a more experienced county agent—as they were known then—both applied for an opening in Burt County. Ron Puls had just resigned to take a job in the private sector and Burt County needed somebody to take his place.
“Dodge County had an opening at the same time,” Wilson recalled. “I figured Burt County would hire the other guy and I could work in Fremont under somebody else and then get my own county.
“But the fair board fouled that up and hired me.”
He hasn’t been anywhere else. Wilson said he stayed for a lot of reasons. He cited the great colleagues and staff he’s worked with, volunteerism at the fair and the opportunities to pursue things that interested him as things that kept him here.
He said his office colleagues have been the best anyone could ask for. Mary Loftis has been on the staff for 41 years, Sharon Wimer 32 years and Carroll Welte has 31 years. “I don’t know how I could have ended up in a better situation,” he said.
One of his favorite stories involves his first Burt County Fair. He said that where he came from the county agent was expected to do everything when it came to the fair.
“They meant everything. The county agent was supposed to be the first one at the fairgrounds in the morning and the last one to leave at night,” he said.
Upon his arrival here, he was naturally curious about the expectations of him held by Burt County, so he called a meeting to find them out.
“Gene Hansen told me to just make sure the coffee pot was on before the shows started and everything else would take care of itself,” he said. “It has ever since.”
Wilson said when he started, Extension staff had to have a wide range of knowledge.
“We were generalists then,” he said. “Now everyone has a focus area.”
He said the knowledge base of the people the Extension office serves also has increased over time. For example, ag consulting has become much more prevalent. Although nearly every ag supplier can rely on a fleet of consultants, Wilson said the difference provided by Extension is its unbiased, research-based information.
He said he’s been fortunate to help conduct some of that research.
He might be best known for his work with soybeans cyst nematodes which were identified in Burt County in 1987. He said nobody raised soybeans in the area where he grew up, so he had a lot to learn on the subject after he arrived here. Because of that, he became very interested in SCN research, becoming something of an international authority on the pests. In fact, he recently returned from Winnipeg, Manitoba, after making a presentation to Canadian farmers on the subject.
Wilson went to UNL with the intention of becoming a ranger at a national park. Like many college students, he wound up changing his major, eventually earning his bachelor’s and master’s degrees in agronomy.
He said that although not everyone is cut out for a four-year college, “everyone should continue their education somewhere. It gives you a chance to find out what interests you.”
In his view, the worst job position possible is to be stuck in a job you hate without the prospects, or skills, to do anything else.
That was never his issue. He told a packed house at his retirement celebration Dec. 30 that he could not have landed in a better situation.
Wilson said he was supposed to devote 80 percent of his work time to crops and fill in the other 20 percent with the other areas Extension Educators address, including livestock, environmental concerns and one of his favorite jobs—working with youth. Wilson said because he was so familiar with the work, he was able to reallocate some of his time. But he cautioned county residents that the next person to take his spot may not be so fortunate and he urged people to be patient with the new hire while they find their way.
In his view, an Extesnion Educator will have to be involved with youth programs to be successful here, but the degree of involvement may be different.
“They won’t do it the way I did it,” he said. “It’s not because they’re not interested, it’s because they’re not supposed to.”
He said he’ll do his best to stay out of the next person’s way, but will still be available if called upon.
“I’ll always answer the phone,” he said, “but I won’t make the first call.”
He also has a few appointments still on the books as he phases out his long career.
He’s giving a program on Tekamah’s pollinator garden at the Nebraska Turf Conference this week. Later this summer he’s giving a program on pollinators at an area Girl Scout camp to help out staff at the bee lab at the university. he also wants to complete the university’s Master gardener program and take advantage of the campus parking pass that comes with the emeritus status recently granted him by the Extension program.
“It’s hard to believe it’s been that long,” he said of his 42 years in Burt County.
But he has a career’s worth of memories, friendships and accomplishments to take with him into the next chapter of his life.