WILMONT - Rita Vaske knows full well that, at any time, she’s probably far from the most popular person in Wilmont.
That comes with the territory, she believes, of being city clerk/treasurer for the Nobles County community. Still, she enjoys the opportunity to help residents with a variety of needs and shape positive change for many.
“Being the only one in the office, you hear every issue and deal with every issue,” Vaske said earlier this month during an interview in her office. “The mayor and the council members may be the ones in charge, but I’m the one people come to - and yes, some of the time you’re hated for doing your job. But I do love being able to help everybody in town.”
Vaske grew up in Milbank, S.D. with three other siblings and graduated from high school there. She then attended Dakota State College (now Dakota State University) in Madison, S.D. and earned an associate’s degree in accounting.
“My first job was as an accountant for AAA Travel in Sioux Falls with their airline accounting system,” she recalled. “Then I went to Midland National Life Insurance (also in Sioux Falls), and I was a stock and bond clerk.”
In 1988, Vaske married her first husband and came to Wilmont. She worked at United Prairie Bank - located across the street from the community’s municipal building - for a few years, and then “completely changed gears” and was employed as a paraprofessional in the Fulda school district.
“The kids were little and I wanted something where I could be home in the summer,” said Vaske, who with her husband raised four children. “Then, this job came open.”
Vaske started working as Wilmont’s city clerk/treasurer on Jan. 1, 1998.
“It was an opportunity to get back into the accounting aspect and to work in a small town where I knew a lot of the people anyhow,” she said.
While Vaske had a strong accounting background coming into her new position with the city, there was plenty that was brand new to her.
“Between the city code and ordinances as well as the legal stuff … it’s the whole gamut and just a wide variety of things,” she explained.
“There's clerks’ training we have for four days every year that keeps you on top of what's important and everything, but back when I started, the maintenance person at that time had just started a few months before - but before that had been a council person and mayor,” Vaske remembered. “He was a godsend to me, and knew a lot of things and helped me understand the city stuff.”
Vaske said she also considers herself fortunate to have that individual, Paul Grant, once again serving Wilmont as its mayor today following his election this past November. She’ll interact regularly with him and council members to solve problems.
“The council that we have now, two of them work and the other three are retired,” she described. “Some of them will stop in periodically and we’ll talk about anything going on needing addressing … but there’s just two of us that work here - myself and the maintenance guy - and if something comes up, we converse and try to handle it.
“Obviously we can't make major decisions without council, but when the residents come in you try to solve their issues. I heard from another clerk - a good friend of mine, Dawn (Huisman) from Ellsworth - that we are the ones in town all day and hear everything and see everything, and that we may not be the ones in charge, but we’re the ones people come to.
“And yes,” Vaske added with a laugh “some of the time you’re hated for doing your job.”
As a 30-plus-year resident of Wilmont, Vaske has seen her share of changes in the community. She notes that while the city has many older residents, a number of younger families have moved into Wilmont in recent years.
One change she laments has to do with the loss of the Wilmont Cardinals, the town’s amateur baseball team, which stopped competing a few years back as retention of players grew more difficult.
“It was hard on the town to lose that,” Vaske said. “Since then, the grandstand that sat there - it was the original - for safety reasons, we had to take it down. We had an architectural engineer look at it, and he said you’d basically have to tear it down and build it back up. It was hard for people to see that torn down.
“There’s been a lot of talk, and right now the latest is we just want to maintain the field so some small little league teams can play there. I know there is a school that has a shortage of fields ... and we want to leave it as a ballfield as long as we can.”
The Wilmont Liquor Store - as well as Saloon No. 7 , which took over that space - are both entities of the past. The town cafe, which was also home to a four-lane bowling alley, had closed in 2014, but the facility was purchased in 2016 by Matt Morse and Rachel Vliem of Crystal and is now Wilmont Recreation LLC.
“They’ve gotten the lanes going again and serve pizza and beer,” Vaske said. “Every other weekend was their plan to come down here.”
Also on Wilmont’s main street is the “wonderful” Wilmont Hardware, owned and operated by Deb and Duane Vaske, as well as United Prairie Bank and United Prairie Insurance, PSI Powerwashers, Joens Woodworking, Mike Slater Construction (“There’s numerous construction guys that live in town,” Vaske said), Al’s Plumbing & Heating, the post office and the New Vision Co-op elevator.
There’s been a recent change in the downtown landscape following the Wilmont Oil Co. fire last August.
“I’m the one that called the Larsons (owners Dustin and Jeffrey) to tell them about the fire,” Vaske remembered. “That has been tough on the town. It’s just about the convenience of having gas here, not just for the city equipment but for people’s lawnmowers, people filling their vehicles as they go out of town. We don’t know what they’re (the Larsons) going to do next.”
In the summer, Vaske said, there has been a group of volunteers that have coordinated a small T-ball program at the local Hilltop Park in partnership with the booster club and local businesses.
“Last summer there were numerous kids in that, and it was fun to go watch. So many parents stepped up to give the kids something to do.”
Vaske married her second husband, Chuck Vaske, on Aug. 8, 2015. They live one block from her work.
And work has been a place where she has gotten plenty done.
“I am very much a people person - I like to help people and I’ve always been a fixer,” Vaske explained. “There’s many hats to wear. … For example, there was one time when there was a little kid walking down the street by himself and … I went out and took him back to his mom. The accounting aspect is pretty much the same, but people always come in for different things.”
One notable problem Vaske helped solve came about when the community’s well casing sustained a crack.
“We were fortunate enough to get a 100 percent grant through U.S.D.A. Rural Development to put in rural water and new water meters into every house,” she said. “Switching to rural water made a real difference in the quality of water we’re able to provide to residents. Without the grant, it would have cost residents $360,000 … so that was huge. There are a lot of hoops that you have to jump through (to get government funding), and then other times some things just happen to fall in your lap.”
An example of that, described Vaske, is the receipt of $10,000 through a Nobles Cooperative Electric program that gave the fire department financial help to purchase a used fire truck - a significant upgrade from the previous vehicle. Getting the funds was, she said, a matter of being “in the right place at the right time and talking to the right people.”
Additionally, Vaske is in charge of renting out the community center in Wilmont for different gatherings. She’s also involved in a booster club that sponsors youth swimming, defraying the cost for kids to be bused to the Worthington Area YMCA and other youth activities. She’s involved at Our Lady of Good Counsel, Wilmont’s Catholic church, as well.
Vaske and her husband, who’s retired, also are frequent travelers to the Black Hills of South Dakota.
“My husband has loved that area forever and we were fortunate enough to find a little place there that we can get away to,” she said. “We try to go there at least once a month, just depending on the workload here. My husband and I also do a lot of crafting. … We create home decor items.”
While Vaske can certainly imagine spending more time in the Black Hills someday, she’s still proud to call Wilmont home.
“It has been very good, and I love helping the people in town,” she said. “It doesn’t matter if I’m here or away and get three phone calls - I do my best for this community.”