Gengler reflects on 38 years with U of M Extension
WORTHINGTON -- As a Steele County 4-H'er, Colleen Gengler was always lured by the county fair displays that offered free USDA publications on subjects related to the home, but it wasn't until she was midway through her college education at the University of Minnesota that she decided upon a career in home economics.
Her first stint following her 1973 graduation was in Cottonwood County, where she was hired as a home economist for the county's U of M Extension office. Back then, the university typically supplied three educators in each county in southwest Minnesota -- one in agriculture, one in 4-H and one in home economics.
Early on in her career, Gengler went back to those USDA brochures she'd saved from her childhood to help educate families about everything from nutrition to home care and parenting.
"At the time, we didn't have the Internet," she said. "We were a source of a lot of different kinds of information that people just did not have access to."
Gengler forged relationships with a public health professional and a school psychologist while in Cottonwood County and developed a program to educate parents. Looking back, Gengler said they were networking long before the word was part of everyday vocabulary. Parenting classes were somewhat of a new concept in the 1970s, she added.
Gengler spent four and a half years in Cottonwood County before transitioning to Nobles County.
While her title was still as a home economist, she furthered her interest in parent and family education through her work with approximately 60 different women's groups -- nearly 800 women -- in the county. Gengler spent much of her time developing programming and bringing in speakers to educate the women on a wide variety of home and family living topics.
"I taught lessons or invited co-workers from other counties to speak," she said. "We researched or wrote our own materials."
Gengler worked with local agencies such as the mental health center and community college to develop the educational series for women.
"We addressed topics that are probably addressed through different means today," she said, adding that programs often pertained to health or nutrition topics. "We had quite a following."
In 1988, Gengler left Nobles County to take a job closer to her rural Slayton home, where her husband Don is a partner with his brothers in a dairy operation. She transitioned into a part-time role with Murray County Extension, working three days per week in youth development until eventually moving into a supervisory role.
During her 14 years in Murray County, Gengler continued her efforts in parent and family education, forging ties with educators in neighboring counties and across the state. Together, they established three positive parenting programs statewide, which ultimately prepared Gengler for her transition in late 2003 to regional Extension Educator in Family Relations.
Since the Extension Regional Center opened in Worthington in January 2004, Gengler has divided her time among a variety of family-based programs, including ConnectU, which provides research-based education to people through professional development courses at the Southwest Research and Outreach Center; and led programs on early brain development, fetal alcohol spectrum disorder and autism. She also helped teach Parents Forever programming and provided professional development to people who work with families of teens.
In 38 years with Extension, Gengler has witnessed many changes in parenting and family living, but one thing hasn't changed.
"It's still important for parents to be talking and communicating with their kids," Gengler said.
"Back when I started, home study groups were a captive audience, and we had to find a way to keep reaching them," she added.
Now, Extension's role is to work with partners -- other agencies that can access the university-based research and reach more people with the information that's available.
"It's just been such a privilege to work with people, connect and get to know them," said Gengler of her career. "That's why we are here in Extension.
Gengler will officially retire on Jan. 3, but she has a number of projects she wants to finish before then.
In retirement, she's looking forward to spending more time at home, traveling to California in March to visit one of their children, and perhaps taking courses to become a master gardener.
Gengler and her husband have two daughters; Kim works in public relations in San Francisco, Calif., while Darielle works in human resources and lives in the Twin Cities.