50th Youth Congress
Students, Alumni Mark Co-ops’ Education Milestone
Seven years ago on a hot July morning, New Lisbon High School senior-to-be Janelle Woggon and 24 other students from across Oakdale Electric Cooperative’s service territory piled into vehicles and made the 150-mile trip to the University of Wisconsin–River Falls campus. She didn’t know any of the other students and admitted to being apprehensive about the electric co-ops’ Youth Leadership Congress, which that year drew 139 teens from across the state.
“I didn’t have a clue how cooperatives worked, and to be honest, I was a little reluctant to attend the conference,” she says. “Little did I know that in those three short days the knowledge I acquired and the friends I made would have such a lasting impact on my life.”
Since then graduating from UW–La Crosse in multiple communications disciplines, Janelle last fall became Oakdale Electric’s communications and public relations specialist, putting to practical use many of the lessons learned during those three days in 2006. She cites the team-building exercises, workshops involving co-op case studies, and presentations on cooperative history, organization, and principles as Youth Congress offerings that helped ground her in the way co-ops operate.
Those types of classes, plus presentations designed to identify and bring out leadership skills among teens, have been at the conference’s core since it was first scheduled under the name “Youth Seminar” in June 1964. Initiated by the Public Relations Department of Wisconsin Electric Cooperative (WEC, now Wisconsin Electric Cooperative Association), the youth program was prompted by action at a statewide annual meeting earlier that year where co-op delegates resolved to “devote our interested attention and concern to...encouraging a lasting dedication to the principles of cooperation among these potential future owners of our systems.”
Twenty-one electric co-ops answered the call to sponsor students to that first conference, including Chippewa Valley Electric, which sent three boys. One of them, recommended to the co-op by the agriculture teacher at Holcombe High School, was Roger Paulsen.
Roger attended a program that included presentations by national co-op leaders, U.S. Department of Agriculture spokespersons, and university and elected officials. In all, 93 students took part, and Dr. Richard Delorit, dean of the university’s School of Agriculture, called it “one of the finest programs ever held on this campus.”
After high school, Roger went on to graduate from the state university system with a business administration degree, and he relates: “I have recently retired from a career that involved cooperatives for 33 of my working years. I would like to think that the Youth Leadership Congress had something to do with my years as a cooperative manager, financial supervisor, credit manager, and environmental specialist.”
The summer “seminar” became the Youth Leadership Congress in 1966, the year Clarence “Butch” Boettcher attended as an Osseo High School sophomore sponsored by Eau Claire Electric Co-op. Butch was familiar with co-ops, as his father served on various cooperative boards including the electric co-op’s. “But being an only child and a rural kid, I didn’t have a lot of social outlets. We were all a little bashful and nervous,” he says, noting it was the first time he’d been to a college campus.
“I remember how much fun it was getting to know other people. When we started talking to one another, we discovered we were from similar backgrounds and had the same feelings,” says Butch, who got comfortable enough to put his name in as a nominee for the statewide Youth Board, a group first elected at that 1966 conference. The board was to help WEC and the university plan and run the next year’s program. He won the election.
One of Butch’s fellow board members, an upperclassman sponsored by Clark Electric named David Wittek, was so impressed by River Falls that he went on to enroll there after high school to study agricultural education. Following the same path two years behind Richard, Butch also earned ag education degrees at River Falls and, like the pal he met at the ’66 Youth Congress, went on to teach at the high school level before both became outreach education instructors at Chippewa Valley Technical College. “We were colleagues at CVTC for 27 or 28 years,” says Butch.
Both are now retired from teaching, though Butch recently celebrated 30 years as a director of Eau Claire Energy Co-op. He now chairs that board and is also a 16-year member of the Dairyland Power Cooperative board, which he chaired for five years.
“Encouraging our young people to become involved with co-ops is one of the most important things we as directors can do,” he asserts.
Another alumnus of that ’66 Youth Board, Annette (Marshall) Sebranek, sponsored by Richland Electric, fondly remembers writing a play and acting in the talent contest that would become a feature of the Youth Congress for many years. “I was always theatrical; I remember portraying an old lady in our play,” she recalls. “It was a fun group of people.”
Annette, who attended nursing school after high school and worked for a time at the Mendota Mental Health Hospital, would later put her theater skills to use directing plays and heading up the high school drama department while also owning and operating a day care center. Now retired from her 35 years in the day care business, Annette and her husband live in Ames, Iowa.
Annette’s nephew, Billy Marshall, also sponsored by Richland Electric, concluded his one-year term on the statewide Youth Board last year. Her sister Maureen is a former Miss Wisconsin Rural Electrification and keynoted the 1972 Youth Congress evening banquet.
At the 1967 program—Annette’s and Butch’s second year in attendance—was Dave Weiland, another shy country kid, sponsored by Trempealeau Electric. “I wasn’t a social person; I didn’t want to dance,” he says. “I was probably too shy to go, but our neighbor, LaVern Kleinsmith, who was on the co-op board, encouraged me.”
The co-op lessons stuck, as Dave would be hired by Dairyland Power Co-op in 1973. He apprenticed in La Crosse and from 1977 until his retirement this past April he was a substation electrician operating out of Dairyland’s Elk Mound facility. He now lives—on electric co-op lines, he points out—in New Mexico.
With even more years than Dave in electric co-op service, Jeanne (Wrolstad) Opperman was hired as a receptionist in 1971 right after high school graduation by Central Wisconsin Electric Co-op. She’s now assistant to the CEO.
Jeanne says she wanted to back out of going to the 1970 Youth Congress after a friend dropped out, but her boyfriend—who she would eventually marry and who had actually attended the 1964 seminar—“intimidated me into going.” She was one of 12 students sponsored by her co-op and had been persuaded to apply by her school guidance counselor.
“I didn’t know anybody else, and I was very, very shy. It forced me to reach out.” Even though she lived on co-op lines, she says she really didn’t know anything about co-ops, but the Youth Congress remedied that. “It was a wonderful event,” she says, and it got her foot in the door for a career spanning 42 years...and counting.
With one year less than Jeanne working for electric co-ops, but similarly hired soon after his 1972 high school graduation, Martin “Marty” Hillert came to the 1971 Youth Congress with considerable co-op background information, gained from serving on the Clark Electric Co-op junior board of directors during the previous year. Of the Youth Congress, Marty observes: “The program itself gave me a much broader perspective of the electric cooperative business in Wisconsin and the nation.”
It was a focus that he’d come to experience in the years after being hired by Clark Electric as a management trainee. After 13 years at the co-op, moving up to the job of office manager, Marty left Wisconsin for a manager’s position with a Minnesota electric co-op. He returned to Wisconsin in 1996 to manage the state’s largest electric distribution co-op, Adams–Columbia Electric. He’s also served terms as this region’s representative on the board of the National Rural Utilities Finance Corporation, a primary source for electric co-ops’ capital needs.
“The Youth Congress is probably where I began to think about the possibility of being involved in a cooperative business,” Marty says.
Later this month, UW–River Falls for the 50th time will open its facilities to scores of teens brought there by Wisconsin’s cooperatively owned electric utilities. The three days of seminars and sociability should again help impress on young minds what sets cooperatives apart in the business world. The experience just might change their lives.—Perry Baird