I find it funny how society gets so hung up about education and titles. Often, the people who have the most impact and are the most important to your organization or business are the first people you see when you walk through the door. Those of us who have been in charge would like to think that we are the keeper of the power and that we are the ones making the most impact on those affected by what we do. I learned early on that is simply not the case.
This past week, one of the most important people in the life of my work as an Extension agent (for those of you who don’t know, I was the Extension agent in Pottawatomie County for over 15 years) retired after a long and impactful career. Della Sass dedicated her career and life’s work to the people of Pottawatomie County and was one of the best friends and confidants I have ever had. No one outworked Della, but more importantly, no one ever out-cared Della.
The people and kids of Pottawatomie County were Della’s life work — I know that because I am one of Della’s people and kids. She started as the secretary in my home county while I was a 4-H’er and that made me one of her kids. I know I didn’t appreciate her work enough as a 4-H’er and I would suspect I was not alone in taking it for granted. That all changed in one summer.
I was lucky enough to be selected as a summer Extension intern, and I was even luckier to be placed in my own home county. I am sure I was the lucky one, because the entire staff was there for most of my 4-H years. I was the snot-nosed, wet-behind-the-ears kid who came home and thought he was important. The truth be known, I was scared and very intimidated.
That summer, I had a lot of people looking out for me and providing me guidance, and one of those people was Della. She made sure I was in the right place, at the right time and with the information I needed (little did I know that she was just training me for later down the road).
One thing Della told me that summer stuck in my head and I never forgot it. The first day on the job, she told me that I would know whether I was a success if they had the going away party the day before I left or the day after. By the way, Della and the rest of the office took me out for lunch the day before I left, something that was not lost on me.
I survived my internship, in no small part because of the guidance, help and, most importantly, the support I got from Della. After I graduated college, I went on to my first Extension job, Della and I kept in contact and I am sure she watched over me from afar. Three and a half years into my Extension career, I had the opportunity to move back to my home county. That was when I truly began to appreciate Della, her work ethic, dedication to the job and love of people.
There was not a person who had ever come through the office that Della did not know or remember.
What was more impressive was the pride she took in the 4-H’ers and knowing where they were and what they were up to. No doubt, if you went through the 4-H program in Pottawatomie County, you were one of Della’s kids.
On a personal note, I am not sure I could have done the job without her and I am sure I did not want to do it without her. I often told her that we would retire on the same day. Well, that was before I got the farming bug and bailed out on her. I often joked with her and said our relationship was much like Radar and Colonel Blake. Often, I was clueless, and she would have everything I needed ready without me knowing I needed it.
Della was a friend, a supporter and often one of my biggest cheerleaders. My kids grew up with Della as one of the members of our family. She kept a close eye on them and many times, she was one of the first people to learn about their successes. If only she had a dollar for every letter of recommendation she wrote for my kids.
If anyone ever deserved to kick back, let their hair down and enjoy retirement, it is my friend and often savior Della Sass. She is a living example of the kind of impact one can have if they truly love their job.
The true measure of success for a career is not measured in titles and salary, it is the difference one makes in the lives of the people around them. Thank you, my friend, for the difference you made in mine.
Glenn Brunkow is a fifth-generation farmer in the Northern Flint Hills of Pottawatomie County in Kansas. He was a county Extension agent for 19 years before returning to farm and ranch full time. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.