A farmer's gift -- Chergosky donates $4 million farm to 4-H, three endowments memorialize Andrea Reusch
LAKEFIELD — A rural Lakefield cattle farmer who fell in love with a 4-H Extension educator, dreamed of marrying her and endured an unimaginable ache when her life was cut far too short has now given the ultimate gift in her honor.
Curt Chergosky met Andrea Ruesch for the first time in 2000, when he was working at the beef stand at the Cottonwood County Fair and the 4-H secretary introduced him to the county’s new 4-H coordinator.
Five years passed before he’d have a chance to talk to her again — this time in Jackson County, where she’d taken a new position as their 4-H coordinator. And three years after that, in the fall of 2008, the two started dating.
Curt was 13 years Andrea’s senior. He’d never married and lived on a farm south of Lakefield where he grew crops, raised 200 laying hens and had a cow-calf operation. He lives there now in one house; his 94-year-old uncle lives in the other.
Andrea fit right in on the farm with her love of livestock and the land. Often, when Curt was working late doing custom silage chopping, he’d come home to find all of the chores done. Andrea made sure the cattle were fed and the eggs were picked.
“Andrea always said she was an egg pimp,” Curt said, smiling at the memory.
On May 22, 2009, after travelling to Spirit Lake, Iowa, to pick out wedding rings, Curt proposed. They’d planned to get married the following March.
But on one of the darkest days of the winter season — Dec. 20, 2009 — Andrea lost her life to a sudden pulmonary embolism. She was just 37 years old.
With the memorial funds that flooded in following her death, Curt and Andrea’s parents, Leonard and Marge Ruesch of Worthington, created two endowments — a scholarship program for 4-H’ers in nine counties: Chippewa, Cottonwood, Jackson, Martin, Murray, Nobles, Pipestone, Rock and Watonwan; and an endowment for use in the Jackson County 4-H program.
Then, four years after the couple was to be married, Curt Chergosky stood before attendees at the Minnesota 4-H Foundation banquet this past March and pledged his 400-acre farm to the organization that boasts nearly 65,000 youth members from across the state. The gift will ensure the two established endowments continue, and that a third — geared toward a statewide program for 4-H agricultural sciences — be created.
It’s the least he can do for the kids who follow in Andrea’s own 4-H footprints. Andrea grew up in the Lorain Livewires club in Nobles County, and she touched the lives of countless youths through her work as a 4-H Summer Intern in college and then as a 4-H County Coordinator and Extension educator in 4-H and Youth Development.
“The way she worked with the kids, she made them all feel special,” said Curt. “She never had a harsh word for anybody.”
After they began dating, Andrea encouraged Curt to join in 4-H activities. He recalls one time when he joined her and the Jackson County 4-H Ambassadors for an evening of bowling in Fairmont. Andrea and Curt were the chaperones.
“That was fun,” he said. “They were giving her grief … Andrea wasn’t a bowler.”
Curt said Andrea just had a knack with kids. She could remember the names of children she may have met only once, and her bubbly personality drew them to her.
Now, the endowments in her honor will spread her passion for 4-H farther than she could have imagined.
Since 2010, the Andrea Ruesch Regional 4-H Scholarship has awarded 35 $1,000 scholarships to high school graduates pursuing a post-secondary education. The second endowment, to Jackson County 4-H, can be used for everything from 4-H programming to putting up new buildings on the fairgrounds or sponsoring the entertainment during the Jackson County Fair, Chergosky said.
Both endowments have been fed over the years by a Farm Fresh Silent Auction during the Jackson and Cottonwood county fairs. The auctions include a variety of beef, pork and chicken products as well as eggs and homemade ice cream, with all proceeds going into the scholarship program. Last year, Chergosky said, $13,000 was raised.
The third, and newest endowment, will fund 4-H ag and science curricula.
Cara Miller, executive director of the Minnesota 4-H Foundation, said the endowment may be used for livestock ethics trainings required for all 4-H’ers who exhibit livestock at the fair.
Additionally, there will be new and emerging programs like the Science of Agriculture Challenge, which is developed similarly to the Lego Robotics program. Participants from across the state will form teams, select an agricultural issue and try to solve a problem. The first challenge is planned for the summer of 2015, Miller said.
“They’ll come together here on (the University of Minnesota Twin Cities) campus, share what they’ve learned … interact with professors on campus and visit with ag industry,” she said, adding that the program will be focused on getting urban youths to join with rural youth on the initiative.
“There’s probably things that we’re not even aware of yet that this endowment may do,” Miller said. “Agriculture is still a main focus of 4-H and we still value it greatly. It’s one of the few programs we hadn’t had an endowment for yet, so we really wanted to establish this endowment to support that long-term traditional program of 4-H.
“Curt’s gift was a significant gift to that,” she added.
Chergosky said his decision to donate his 400-acre farm to Minnesota 4-H came after a farming neighbor passed away. He’d done no estate planning, hadn’t made out a will, and the farm and property was sold.
“I didn’t want that to happen,” he said of his farm in Jackson County’s Hunter Township.
With his gift, Chergosky will continue to farm the land until he decides to retire. At that point, a couple of young men who work with him will take over on a contract for deed. Their land payments will be made directly to the Minnesota 4-H Foundation.
“This way I’m putting it in the hands of people that will care for it,” he said of the land that has been farmed by his family for three generations. “It’s also helping kids in Jackson County.”
“From my perspective, this type of gift shows that 4-H really is a worthy organization where people can make significant gifts of this sort,” said Miller, adding that Chergosky’s estimated $4 million farm is one of the largest gifts that has come to Minnesota 4-H in its history.
It’s impact will extend for generations — in perpetuity, Miller said.
“I think it will really please Curt to know that that money, given in Andrea’s name — people will be remembering both of them for a really long time,” she added.
The 4-H program is geared to youths ages 5 to 19 and teaches leadership, citizenship and a wide variety of project areas, from agriculture to wildlife management and creative arts to computer science.
Miller said studies show 80 percent of what children learn comes from out-of-school time, and 4-H is one of the largest out-of-school programs.
Chergosky’s gift will “really have an impact on those programs and increase the quality and availability of such programs,” she added.
The Minnesota 4-H Foundation accepts gifts like Chergosky’s to establish scholarships or programs within 4-H. For more information on leaving a legacy to 4-H, contact Miller at firstname.lastname@example.org or (612) 624-8132.
Daily Globe Reporter Julie Buntjer may be reached at 376-7330.