Coordinating life: Riley goes to D.C. and back
SLAYTON — When Murray County Community Relations Coordinator Christy Riley undertook the task of planning the 150th anniversary of the county, she was at a little bit of a disadvantage. After all, at her previous job, she had so many other resources at her fingertips — such as calling on the U.S. military for help.
Christy Surprenant Riley grew up in Slayton, graduating from Slayton High School in 1989. Her parents raised Shires, the world's largest breed of draft horses, on a farm right outside of town. Shortly after graduation she went to Washington, D.C., to visit her older sister, who was a staff assistant to Slayton-native Rep. Vin Weber.
"He was a friend of the family," Riley said. "My sister was promoted, and I was offered the position of staff assistant."
Riley had seriously considered going into law enforcement — a field she had great respect for — and figured she could take the position and learn more about the laws the officers enforced.
"And then I got sucked in and stayed until 2005," she said.
At the Capitol, she was Weber's first line of defense with the people, opening mail, answering phone calls and handling constituent services. She also gave tours of the Capitol.
When Weber retired, Riley went to work for Newt Gingrich along with some of Weber's other staff members — they became known as the "Minnesota Mafia" by the movers and shakers around Capitol Hill. Gingrich had a dream to become Speaker of the House, which he achieved in 1995. When that happened, Riley's job changed dramatically. Gingrich's staff went from nine to 42 members, and Riley became the director of administration.
She was in charge of the page program, handled protocol for heads of state and was suddenly attending joint meetings and helping to plan State of the Union addresses and presidential inaugurations.
"I was picking the paper the invitations would be printed on and greeting heads of state and the president," Riley said. "Things became very interesting."
She was still giving tours of the Capitol, but now it was for people with VIP status — Tom Hanks, Nicholas Cage, Tom Selleck, Antonio Banderas and Meg Ryan, just to name a few.
"Garth Brooks was actually kind of shy," Riley recalled. "A session was going on, so I asked him if he wanted to go in and meet a few people and he was very hesitant. He is such a gentleman, and the thought of interrupting them made him nervous."
When Bill Clinton was president, Gingrich's job as speaker included a lot of diplomatic appointments. Riley helped make arrangements to receive foreign heads of state at the Capitol and also traveled overseas with Gingrich, handling protocol.
"It involved a lot of details, down to what color paper you wrapped gifts in, because in some places the color is very important," she explained.
When Gingrich retired in 1999, Riley worked for the next speaker, Rep. Denny Hastert of Illinois. While working for the speakers, Riley traveled with Gingrich to Australia, Japan, New Zealand, Africa and all over Europe.
In 2004, while participating in the 60th anniversary of the Normandy invasion, word came about the death of former President Ronald Reagan. Riley received a call from Nancy Reagan's chief of staff, and immediately headed home to start working on the funeral.
"The plan was pretty much in place, but we had to put the finishing touches on it," she said. "I didn't sleep for four or five days. There was just so much going on."
It was around that time that Riley started thinking about making some major life changes. Working long hours and burning both ends of the candle, she was ready to leave Washington, D.C., and the fast-paced life that went with it. She took a leave of absence and headed to the Twin Cities to spend some time working on the 2004 Bush-Cheney campaign.
"I fell in love with Minnesota all over again," Riley said.
She made the decision to return to Washington and put her house on the market.
"I felt like I had done everything I could have dreamt of doing, and I didn't want to raise a family there," she said. "I was ready to go."
When she received an offer on the house within 24 hours, she decided that was God's way of saying she had made the right decision.
She headed back to Slayton and moved back into her parents' house in 2005. Riley took a year off to unwind and decompress, spending time camping and working with the horses.
"I thought about moving to Sioux Falls or the Cities, but then I met Mike," she recalled, speaking of her husband.
Riley took the position as the community relations coordinator in 2006. The job had virtually been created to handle the upcoming 150th anniversary of Murray County. Riley, with help from others around the county, planned the celebrations.
"It was kind of tough, because I didn't have my usual resources," she laughed. "I had to make new contacts."
Riley got many community members involved, and the event was a huge success. What many people didn't know was that she was planning her wedding at the same time.
"We got married in 2007, a month after the 150th celebration," she said with a chuckle. "It was just one more event to plan."
Because she was the first and only community relations coordinator in Murray County, her job has changed and evolved over the past six years.
"I help with communication between cities and get tourism opportunities out there, trying to promote what's going on in our communities and working with the press," Riley said. "I try to promote the big events, and do a lot of work with the Murray County Fair."
Comparing her life to a book, she said her D.C. chapter is now complete and another chapter in progress.
"I went back for a month this January — took a vacation and worked on a couple of projects for some former colleagues," Riley said. "I realized all over that is not the life I want anymore. Watching everyone run around, keep long hours, not being home with their families for supper. That is not a pace I want anymore."
On the side, Riley goes to local schools, usually classes about government, and talks to students about how Congress works, sharing some of her own experiences.
"I tell them it is OK to go off and do big things, but to always remember where they came from," she said.
One thing she likes to stress when talking to students is work ethic, and how far that got her while in Washington and back in southwest Minnesota.
"I really learned a lot of people skills while working for Congress," she said. "That was my biggest on-the-job education."
Riley also keeps occupied with her own Shire horses. Even when she was in Washington, she kept some horses at her parents' farm. After her marriage to Mike, the couple moved out to old Boote Fish Farm in rural Brewster, which they renamed Foggy Meadows Farm. She is still raising and selling horses, but has since narrowed her herd down to four — enough for a couple of good teams. One of the mares is pregnant, with the foal due in June.
"I really love the Shire breed. They are just gentle giants," she said. "We want to have a couple of good teams around just for fun."
The foal will weigh more than 100 pounds when it is born, and close to 2,000 pounds when full grown.
"We bottle-fed one last summer, and now he is a big baby," she admitted. "I'm not sure he knows he's not a human."
Boote Fish Farm was in its heyday in the 1970s, with six ponds used to raise trout and walleye. By the time it was purchased by the Rileys, there was a fence around 25 acres and the farm was an eyesore.
"We saw the potential and have been working on it ever since," she said. "Most of the ponds were brought back to their natural landscaping."
Riley is not ready to close the book on her current chapter in life, but has recently made plans that may change her life's story. She and her husband recently filed paperwork to start the process of adopting a child.