The Office Break Room and Unsung Heroes
Our Centennial has us looking back at the impact that Cooperative Extension staff has had on citizens and communities around Wisconsin, and it is important to also remember the impact we have had on each other. This great story from 4-H Youth Development Professor Emerita Kathi Vos explores the important relationships formed inside the office and the ways that an energizing workplace can make our work feel so much easier.
“My first job in Wisconsin Cooperative Extension was in Manitowoc County. It was 1976 and I was young 4-H Youth Agent full of enthusiasm and energy. Our office was at 1701 Michigan Avenue and was a converted old “Normal” or “Teachers College” building. Many of the large classrooms had been converted into window-less offices. Being the new kid on the block, my office was free of distractions, and of course, windows. However, the work and/or break room had three windows and faced a large, tree-filled, grassy yard. Here is where I really learned about teamwork.
The mimeo machine sat in the corner of the break room and you didn’t want to get too near it, for the blue ink was hard to clean off your clothes. But the smell of the ink, I will never forget. It smelled good to me, for I knew that that my super secretary, Ruth Aeibischer, who literally cranked out the 4-H newsletter, was sharing information about 4-H Camp TaPaWingo, the Manitowoc County Fair and most importantly leadership and training opportunities. To me, it was the smell of parents and kids working together “to make the best better”.
Back in those days, we had an office chair, Jim Hansen, who believed in teamwork and encouraged all County Extension Agents and office staff to stop what they were doing at 10:00 a.m. and take a real coffee break together. The secretaries were close enough to their desks, so they would rotate standing by the door and listening for the phones. The best breaks were the ones where someone had stopped at the local bakery and brought in a fresh box of kneecaps or kolaches (a local Bohemian pastry.) And if there was a birthday, it was your turn to bring in the treats. Lots of collegiality and conversation ensued, along with a hearty round of “Happy Birthday to You!” I am forever grateful for the Community Resource Development Agent, John Bucholtz, who took me aside and used the 4-H Plat Book to illustrate who was related to whom, and where the key stakeholders lived in the county. This was the place were alliances were formed and ideas hatched and where natural mentoring occurred.
Fast forward to 2008 and the State 4-H office in Madison, Wisconsin. This too was a revamped building. It used to be a girls dorm in the 1970’s and had been constantly remodeled and updated, for it now served as a UW-Extension Conference Center and hotel, with just one wing devoted to State Specialist offices. Looking back on my last few years at the State 4-H office, I recall that we also had a work and/or break room, but nobody ever seemed to take a break. Once upon a time, there had been a coffee pot, but that was long ago abandoned, as people like me dashed into a nearby coffee shop and grabbed a cup of Skim Chai Latte on the way to work. Yes, people would bring in treats, but you dropped it off in the work room, then put a sign on the table encouraging people to eat, as they waited in line to use the copy machine. My favorite contribution was lemon blueberry scones from Sunroom Café (which also became the short cut to my office when I entered on State Street and took the back door out through the alley to Langdon Street). This was a great way to warm up on those chilly winter walks from my parking lot to the office.
However, in 2008, the last fall that I worked at The Lowell Center, my Program Assistant Tom Carpenter accidentally created a new teambuilding event. It began when Tom convinced the Lowell custodial staff to store what was left of two three gallon tubs of Babcock Ice Cream in the basement freezer, after the October National Dairy Conference. So for about a month, around 2:30 p.m., Tom would stroll down the halls inviting everyone to stop what they were doing, and scoop up a dish of ice cream. Our State 4-H Youth Development Director at the time, Greg Hutchins, was even known to make trips to our building to meet with staff during this short-lived tradition. To me, these ice cream breaks reminded me that like Jerry Apps’ book, The People Came First and that the most important part of my job at the State 4-H Office was to encourage teamwork and camaraderie so we could do our best to support county 4-H Youth Development staff and volunteers, who ultimately created a community of young people who are learning leadership, citizenship and life skills. It is often the people behind the scenes who are the fabric that keeps programs like 4-H going and growing. Hats off to the unsung heroes of Extension — the program support staff, who work long and hard to make us all look good and keep the programs rolling. And a special thank you goes out to Ruth Aebisher, the Manitowoc County Program Assistant, who trained me well, and is still serving as the Manitowoc County Program Assistant after 43 years. Hats off to Ruth for being the glue that has held the Manitowoc County 4-H program together during transitions of over 18 4-H Youth Development staff in Manitowoc County. Just imagine doing over 516 monthly 4-H newsletters!
So during this special Centennial year, let’s start new tradition called the ice cream float break. Just bring in some of that great Wisconsin ice cream and celebrate our teamwork with a Centennial float. Thanks to a partnership with Point Brewery, it is possible to order a case of our very own Cooperative Extension Centennial Root Beer! Contact Kristine Gruening, gift shop and tour manager at Point Brewery, for more details on ordering and purchasing Centennial Root Beer (firstname.lastname@example.org or (715) 344-9310). “