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Zylstra reflects on 14 years on Nobles County Board

After 14 years of service to the residents of the county, Commissioner Marv Zylstra will wrap up his tenure at the end of the year.

WORTHINGTON — He was a stickler for Robert’s Rules of Order, occasionally showed up for meetings in his work boots and stood by his convictions — even when he was the minority voice on the Nobles County Board of Commissioners.

After 14 years of service to the residents of the county, Commissioner Marv Zylstra will wrap up his tenure at the end of the year. It wasn’t quite how he’d wanted to go out, losing the election in November after garnering enough support in the primary to make it a two-person race.

Zylstra said it was his support for a new Nobles County Library that lost him the race, but if he had it to do over again, he’d still stand by the library issue.

With the longest tenure on the board, Zylstra had been a part of discussions for a new library in Worthington for more than a decade. In fact, it was a year after he took office — in 2003 — that commissioners said it would be best to serve the community with a new library. Studies were done, property searches were made and the board was one vote away from bonding at the end of 2012. However, with three commissioners leaving the board that December, the decision was made to let the new board act on the bonding proposal.

At that January meeting, Zylstra made a motion to support a $13 million bond to fund not only a new library, but the often-talked-about addition to the county shop at Adrian and the addition to the garage at Prairie Justice Center. Zylstra’s motion died for lack of a second.

Four years later, and with new District 1 Commissioner Justin Ahlers filling Zylstra’s seat, the board is now expected to act on a Capital Improvement Plan bond early in 2017. Both the Adrian shop project and the garage addition are included in the bonding project, but a new library is absent from the list.

“We did the library study; we know the need is out there,” Zylstra said. “It’s going to improve the quality of life.”

The failure to build a new library, he says, is his greatest disappointment.

Supporter of education

Zylstra’s support for a library stems from his own education. A graduate of Worthington High School, he attended then-Worthington Community College for a year before joining the local 452nd Army Reserve unit.

In October 1970, in the midst of war in Vietnam, Zylstra left southwest Minnesota for basic training at Fort Campbell, Ky., followed by Advanced Individual Training at Fort Lee, Va.

As a reservist, he went through the same training as soldiers in the Army, but when his training was completed, he was sent back home to Minnesota in late March 1971. Most of the men he trained with were shipped to Vietnam.

In the fall of 1971, Zylstra re-enrolled at Worthington Community College to finish out his two-year degree. As he wrapped up his schooling, a farm came up for sale near his parents and he went into farming full-time.

When the 1980s farm crisis struck, Zylstra opted to go back to school, this time enrolling in the Cooperative Academic program offered through Southwest Minnesota State University in Marshall. His strong involvement in 4-H and FFA as a teen led him to a career with the University of Minnesota Extension Service, working first as a 4-H Extension Educator and then moving into Agriculture Extension work.

He was providing the information to farmers that his own father had relied on since the 1930s — on topics ranging from drilling seed to livestock nutrition.

In 2002, the Extension program in Minnesota went through a significant reorganization. Agriculture Educators were the hardest hit, Zylstra said.

“They felt farmers had access to information and didn’t need Extension in the field,” he shared. As the last ag educator hired, he was the first to lose his job.

“Going back to being an educator and working with Extension, a library is a resource to those folks that don’t have the means and the access to those technologies,” Zylstra said. “It’s more than just a book, it’s a resource and media center.”

Public servant

Just as Zylstra’s job was ending in Extension, someone suggested he run for a seat on the Nobles County Board. Mike Piel was in the District 1 seat at the time, and Zylstra defeated him in the November 2002 election.

“I didn’t run with any real set agenda,” Zylstra said, adding that there weren’t any major issues before the board at that time. Prairie Justice Center had just opened earlier that year.

“I told myself I was probably going to do 12 (years), but I did 14,” he said. “I wanted to run at least one more term.”

Zylstra said working as a department head while with Extension in Cottonwood County helped him prepare for the role.

“I had a good relationship with commissioners there,” he said. “I felt I had a real good handle on budgets and how county government works.”

Zylstra’s tenure on the board wasn’t without its struggles. There reached a point when employee morale hit new lows that the board of commissioners knew something needed to be done.

“You know you need to make a change, but sometimes it’s difficult to make a change,” he said. “We did make a change in our administration, and Vijay Sethi took us through a nice transition period. Four years ago, we were able to hire the current administrator.

“Not that the county is perfect in any way, but we implemented the Excellence in Performance award ... we started the Employee Wellness Program,” he added.

Within District 1, Zylstra said he’s proud of the work he did with communities. He attended as many Round Lake and Brewster council meetings as he could, and would attend township meetings as well. He worked with commissioners over the years to get Zeh Avenue turned over to the county state aid highway at Brewster, and sought help from Worthington Regional Economic Development Corp. when Farley’s & Sathers moved from Round Lake and left a vacant warehouse and office complex. That complex is now owned by AGCO Jackson.

Yet unfinished is the project in Reading to establish centralized sewer.

“I’ve always tried to keep focus on the mission statement of the county,” Zylstra said, putting priority on the quality of life for its residents.

Looking forward

Once Zylstra gets through his last official duty as a Nobles County Commissioner — an open house celebration from 2 to 4 p.m. Wednesday in the Farmer’s Room in the lower level of the Nobles County Government Center (the public is invited) — he plans to keep his options open.

“I’ve told myself that I’m going to sit back for a few months,” he said. “I’ve been approached about sitting on some commissions. There are some doors that are opening. There’s a crack there, and I’m looking at opportunities.”

Meanwhile, he still has chores to do on the farm, where he has a farrow-to-finish hog operation, in addition to row crop farming. Zylstra also plans to become more involved in his church again at American Reformed in Worthington; and to get back on stage and devote more time to one of his favorite hobbies — theater. He’s already preparing for his role in an interactive dinner theater production in late February at the Elks in Worthington.

Zylstra doesn’t want to look forward without looking back, though, and recognizing those who have helped shape his years in Nobles County government.

“I just really want to give a huge amount of thanks and recognize commissioners (Claire) Gerber, (Norm) Gallagher, (Diane) Thier, (Vern) Leistico, (Eugene) Foth and (David) Benson,” Zylstra said. “Four of them were on when I first came on. They were kind of my mentors.

“And I want to thank the current board — Demuth, Metz, Widboom and Linssen. It’s been great working with them. I worked with three administrators: Mel Ruppert, Vijay Sethi and Tom Johnson. All have their strengths, all have their weaknesses.

“I owe a huge thanks to the administrative staff: Cathy Roos, Jane Janssen and Sue Luing. They were a tremendous help,” he added. “Last, but not least, county employees. We’ve had, at times, struggles, but that’s changed. The environment and the climate is very positive. We have a lot of employee recognition programs going. Employees have smiles on their face.

“I hope going forward that things work out. I was only one voice on the board — that’s why you have five commissioners,” Zylstra said. “I had a good run.”

Julie Buntjer

Julie Buntjer joined the Globe newsroom in December 2003, after working more than nine years for weekly newspapers. A native of Worthington, she has a bachelor's degree in agriculture journalism. Find more of her stories of farm life, family and various other tidbits at The Farm Bleat

(507) 376-7330
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