Marilyn Herman’s career took her full circle.
It began in Janesville, took her to Baraboo, Green Bay and then Minnesota before ending in Waupaca County, where she was raised.
Sunday, Dec. 30, was Herman’s last day as the family living educator for Waupaca County’s UW-Extension office. She retired.
“Home economics has been very good to me,” Herman said.
The Symco native and graduate of Little Wolf High School said she received a solid foundation in Manawa.
After high school, she headed to the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point.
“Originally, I was going to major in history,” she said. “Home economics was my back-up plan.”
However, Herman quickly realized history would be a hobby for her.
She graduated with a degree in home economics education and found ways to incorporate her love of history into her teaching.
Herman asked questions such as “Why are doing this?” and “How did we come to this?”
She began her career as a 4-H educator in Rock County and then went to Sauk County to be a 4-H educator.
“I thought, ‘I don’t think I could do 40 years of 4-H,'” Herman said.
She then taught a semester of home economics at Kaukauna High School.
“The curriculum was very set,” she recalled.
While Herman wanted to teach her students how to calm a crying child, she found herself having to teach them how to set a banquet table.
“So, I realized I needed to be back in Extension,” she said. “We have to teach based on what is needed in the communities. We’re supposed to bring university research to the people and then bring back to the university what we are seeing. There’s always a give and take between research and people.”
Herman said UW-Extension is the 13th campus of the university system.
After her one semester of teaching, she began working in family living in Green Bay and spent 16 years there.
“One thing I did there was we had a federal program to teach health and nutrition to limited resources families,” she said. “Then, that federal program changed from being rural to urban. It had been in about 35 counties in Wisconsin and then went to four counties.”
That meant Brown County and many other counties in the state no longer had it.
The university told Herman that if she believed the program was important, she should find money for it.
And so, she did.
“In those days, there were no computers. I had to go to UW-Milwaukee,” she said.
Through Herman’s research there, she learned 1 percent of all Food Stamp money was set aside for education. Those dollars were not being used.
In 1982, the Wisconsin Nutrition Education Program began in Green Bay.
It expanded throughout the state, and since 1983, it has been in every state in the nation, as well as in Puerto Rico and Guam, Herman said.
Herman said, “Those little seeds and challenges turned into being at the right place at the right time.”
From Green Bay, she went to Minnesota to take a position with its Extension office.
Herman worked in family living in Dakota County, a county located about 20 miles south of the Twin Cities.
During her tenure there, federal at-risk programs were piloted.
A 28-foot Winnebago RV became a one-room classroom.
They partnered with 13 agencies, offering such things as bookmobiles, tutoring and after-school programs.
It was the 1990s, and about 23 percent of the county’s 500,000 residents were new immigrants.
“It was a huge project,” Herman said. “We had about 6,500 kids per year.”
Eventually, it moved to a nentral location and is still operating today.
Herman said federal at-risk funds were used during the first five years. Now, local funds and grants cover the costs of the program.
“From there, I became the community vitality coordinator for the seven-county metro area,” she said.
Her work building connections resulted in another move.
That one was to the agricultural side, in which Herman worked in the 30 counties on the eastern side of Minnesota, helping communities start farm markets and bringing fresh food into restaurants.
Traveling 30 counties became tiring for her, and in 2002, Herman retired and started doing consulting work.
At that time, she traveled back to Wisconsin every weekend to care for her mother.
When there was a job opening in Waupaca County’s UW-Extension office for the family living educator, Herman decided to apply and came home.
Working with her colleagues Connie Abert in youth development and Greg Blonde in agriculture, they took a local request to get more fresh, local foods into schools and created the Farm to School Program,
“We got an AmeriCorps federal grant to have two half-time people,” Herman said.
The program gets fresh fruit and vegetables into schools and includes classroom instruction.
Herman has also taught a “Cooking with Kids” class for the Waupaca Family Resource Center.
She sees the roles of the Extension office as addressing the educational needs of communities and helping families raise children and living long, healthy lives.
“Then, the community takes over. It’s their project. The community takes full responsibility,” Herman said.
When Herman retired on Dec. 30, she did so just three months short of a 40-year career.
“Sometimes, you just know it’s time,” she said of her decision to retired. “I can’t go at the speed and intensity that I expect of myself.”
In her almost nine years here, she is proud of the steadily increasing enrollment in Family Living Community Programs from 6,140 attending in 2004-05 to 14,664 attending in 2012.
She is also proud of volunteers setting a 2011 record of more than 10 hours of volunteer effort for every hour of her time, the new Family Living and Wisconsin Nutrition Education Program colleagues who joined UW-Extension and the more than $2 million in grant and program dollars made available to Waupaca County UW-Extension and Health Services, community partners or the Waupaca County Association for Home and Community Education which increased outreach.
She always called herself the “community’s mom” and always looked at how she could make a difference in the lives of others.
Herman will continue to be an advocate for getting research to people.
Now, it will be as a volunteer. She will likely also continue to write grants.
“It’s important to give back to communities that helped give you a good start,” she said. “I was mentored by others and tried to mentor my new colleagues.”
Herman will continue to live in Symco and, of her career, said no two days were ever alike.
“It certainly wasn’t a boring career,” she said. “Not at all.”