Minnesota Prairie Roots

Writing and photography by Audrey Kletscher Helbling

Minnesotan elected to national FFA office October 24, 2011

MY NIECE HILLARY KLETSCHER e-mailed me with exciting news from the Future Farmers of America national convention. Not news about her personally, but about Minnesota.

For the first time in 26 years, a Minnesota FFA Association member has been elected to office in the National FFA Organization. Jason Troendle, a May 2010 graduate of St. Charles High School and current Bethel University student, was elected secretary at the just-concluded national convention in Indianapolis.

And get this—this past Minnesota FFA president and now the current national secretary, is not even from a farm.

The 1973 - 1974 Wabasso High School FFA chapter consisted of mostly male students. I am among the few females featured in this yearbook photo. I'm seated in the second row, third girl on the right.

Current Minnesota FFA President Hillary Kletscher of Vesta.

When I was a member of the Wabasso High School FFA Chapter in southwestern Minnesota in the early 1970s, I think all of us were farm kids. I was, in fact, the first female to join the WHS chapter back when the organization was mostly male dominated. Things have changed in the past 30 – 40 years. And that’s a good thing.

You don’t need to be from the farm or planning a career in agriculture to be involved in this ag-focused organization. The new national secretary is majoring in economics and environmental studies.

My niece grew up on a farm, although family has not farmed the land but rented it out for the past several years. Hillary’s not planning to become a farmer either. She’s studying biological systems engineering at Iowa State University.

According to the Minnesota FFA website, “FFA makes a positive difference in the lives of young people by developing their potential for premier leadership, personal growth, and career success!”

I’ve seen firsthand how Hillary has benefited from FFA membership. She’s risen through the organization from WHS chapter president and then a regional officer to become Minnesota’s current state FFA president, a position she will hold until next May. She’s a well-spoken, driven, talented, successful 18-year-old.

Currently Hillary’s juggling her college studies with her FFA responsibilities. Last week she attended the national FFA convention as a Minnesota delegate. She’s also traveled throughout Minnesota, speaking, leading workshops, meeting with high school students and doing more than I could possibly list here.

She’s gone to Washington D.C. and, in January, will travel to China for a leadership conference.

Can you imagine Hillary’s resume and networking by the time she completes her term as Minnesota FFA president and upon her graduation from college in several years?

Can you imagine Jason’s resume and networking by the time he completes college and his term as national FFA secretary next October?

But certainly, beyond those individual benefits are the benefits to agriculture through the positive voices, work, commitment and leadership of these young people, our future.

WERE YOU/ARE YOU a FFA member? How did you benefit from membership? Tell me about your involvement.

You can also connect with current and past FFA members and others interested in agriculture through FFA Connect! Click here for more information.

© Text copyright 2011 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

Hillary Kletscher photo by Matt Addington Photography


Reflecting on graduation speeches by three generations of Minnesota women May 27, 2011

Wabasso High School, where my niece will give a speech tonight as class valedictorian. My mom and I also graduated from WHS, although the building looks much different than when we graduated in 1951 and 1974.

Arlene Bode Kletscher's 1951 graduation portrait.

SIXTY YEARS AGO 18-year-old Arlene Bode stepped onto the stage at Wabasso High School and gave a commencement speech, “Our Part in the Fight Against Communism.”

While that seems an unlikely, unsuitable, topic for an address by the class valedictorian, my mom says you need to remember the time period in which she wrote and gave that speech.

This was 1951, at the height of the Cold War, the era of bomb shelters and fear of the Soviet Union.

My mom espoused patriotism, encouraging her southwestern Minnesota classmates “to be patriotic and vote…so we can keep our freedom,” she recalls. She has a copy of that speech tucked inside her WHS diploma.

She found the speech recently when pulling out her diploma to show her granddaughter, Hillary Kletscher, who graduates tonight, also from Wabasso High.

Hillary, like her 79-year-old grandmother, is the class valedictorian and will speak at commencement. When I texted Hillary early Thursday afternoon, she hadn’t yet titled her speech. But, she said, the “main subject is change and how it’s good but we have to hold onto what we learn from the past.”

I won’t be there to hear my niece’s address. But I intend to ask her for a copy, just like I plan to get a copy of my mom’s speech, which I’ve never seen. These are parts of our family history, words reflecting the time periods in which they were written, words of hope and wisdom and patriotism (at least in my mom’s case).

Hillary will step onto the WHS stage tonight and speak on change, yet remembering the past.

Audrey Kletscher Helbling, 1974 WHS graduate.

That my mom kept her speech through six decades impresses me. I say that specifically because I have no idea where to find the speech I gave at my graduation from Wabasso High School in 1974. It’s packed in a box somewhere in a closet in my home, but I possess neither the time nor energy to dig it out.

I remember only that, as class salutatorian, my farewell address included a poem. What poem and by whom, I do not recall.

In 2006, my daughter Miranda graduated as valedictorian of Faribault High School and gave a commencement speech. Given that occurred only five years ago, I should remember the content. I don’t. I recall only that she held up a test tube to make a point.

I am also making a point here. Thankfully much has changed in the 60 years since my mom spoke on “Our Part in the Fight Against Communism.” While the world today remains in turmoil, at least the intense fear, felt by the Class of 1951 during the Cold War, no longer exists.

We have also moved beyond the turbulent 60s and 70s, a time of rebellion, anti-establishment, and anti-war sentiments and discontent over the Vietnam War experienced by my class, the Class of 1974.

By 2006, when my second daughter graduated, we as a nation were beginning to recover from 9/11, yet we lived in an increasingly security-focused society.

Today my niece graduates in a day of continuing economic uncertainty, when young people are struggling to find jobs and when Baby Boomers like myself worry about our jobs and retirement.

Yet, through it all—the Cold War, Vietnam, September 11 and a challenging economy—we remain four strong women living in a free country where we, individually, spoke freely, representing the classes of 1951, 1974, 2006 and 2011.

© Copyright 2011 Audrey Kletscher Helbling


Meet the new Minnesota FFA president May 5, 2011

I AM PROUD, so, so proud, of my niece Hillary Kletscher of Vesta.

On Tuesday, she was named the 2011-2012 Minnesota Future Farmers of America president. (Click here to see the announcement.)

That selection speaks volumes to Hillary’s leadership skills, character and commitment to a stellar organization. She is among 9,100 FFA members from 175 Minnesota chapters. Her home chapter is my alma mater, Wabasso High School in Redwood County on the southwestern Minnesota prairie.

Nearly 40 years ago I became the first girl to join the WHS FFA, blazing the way in a previously male-dominated organization.

The 1973 - 1974 Wabasso High School FFA chapter consists of mostly male students. I am among the few females featured in this yearbook photo. I'm seated in the second row, third girl on the right.

For that reason I am particularly, personally, pleased that my niece now holds the highest office in Minnesota’s FFA.

It is an accomplishment that will open many doors for this WHS senior who has been serving as the Region V FFA president and as her chapter’s president. Hillary is a leader.

But it takes more than strong leadership skills to garner the top FFA spot in the state. Hillary and the other 15 candidates for state offices (selected by a nominating committee of their peers and adults) were evaluated in the areas of communication, team player, knowledge, organization, character, passion for success, influence and critical thinking.

Whew, simply reading that list posted on the Minnesota FFA website makes me realize that this is a daunting process that includes a written application, interviews, a written test, round robin issues conversations and more.

My niece, I am certain, can handle the responsibilities that will come with her new position.

Hillary is also an academically-gifted student and will graduate in a few weeks at the top of her class, 60 years after her paternal grandmother, Arlene (Bode) Kletscher, also graduated as the WHS valedictorian.

(I graduated in 1974 as the WHS salutatorian and my own daughter, Miranda, graduated as the Faribault High School valedictorian in 2006.)

Wabasso High School's winning T-shirt design, front and back.But back to Hillary. Her list of accomplishments in FFA, if I knew all of them, would be lengthy. She’s excelled in soil competition. And last year a T-shirt she designed won the National FFA T-shirt Contest. The winning slogan: “Who needs a license…When you can drive a tractor!”

I never came close to doing what Hillary has done in FFA. I won the Chapter Farmer Scholarship Award, and that’s about all I remember other than my first-female member status.

Hillary will have a busy year ahead of her as she juggles her freshman year of college at Iowa State University and trips back to Minnesota to carry out her FFA presidential duties. But if anyone can handle the stress, the pressure, the demands, it is my strong, determined niece.

She will continue to live the FFA motto:

Learning to Do

Doing to Learn

Earning To live

Living to Serve

© Text copyright 2011 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

T-shirt graphic courtesy of Hillary Kletscher

Hillary Kletscher photo by Matt Addington Photography and courtesy of Hillary Kletscher