Thursday, July 22, 2010

Rod Nilsestuen

Bad news has a way of traveling quickly, so when I heard the news last night that Agriculture Secretary Rod Nilsestuen had died in a tragic drowning accident, I was absolutely devastated. This was a man for whom I worked, for whom I had fought for, and whom I would have followed to the end of the earth. And for those of you who know me, you know I'm not much of a follower.

Rod Nilsestuen was a leader, a mentor and a friend. But most of all, he let me call him "dude."

I worked for Rod at the Wisconsin Department of Agriculture from 2003-2007. Those were the years when we were fighting to keep dairy farms in business, twisting arms to get agricultural organizations to work together, and convincing cheesemakers that the days of profitable commodity cheesemaking were all but over and specialty cheese production was the future.

My job was a communications specialist and spokesperson for the dairy industry, and I would often travel with Rod, writing talking points, prepping for events and arranging media interviews. I have a bad habit of calling people "dude" and Rod was no exception. I never meant it as a sign of insubordination, but rather as a term of affection, which was fine, except the one time I slipped and called him "dude" in public.

We were at the media launch of the first "Buy Local, Buy Wisconsin" campaign at the first Buy Local Conference, and had set up a swanky event with a spread of local foods. All the big wigs were there, doing their usual dog and pony show of taking credit for stuff they had nothing to do with.

Unlike the big wigs who were spewing three-second soundbites to get their name in the paper, Rod was working the room, quietly talking one-on-one with local movers and shakers to ask for their support behind the local food movement. I was busy trying to get Rod media interviews, which is somewhat difficult when your boss doesn't want the limelight, but instead wants to get stuff done.

I had tag-teamed with a couple legislative aides, who were busily getting their legislators in front of one camera after another. I tried to get a television news station to interview Rod as well, but the reporter told me they were out of time and had to leave. Arghh. Rod was busy talking with a local leader, so I just leaned over his shoulder and said: "Not having much luck getting you an interview, dude, but I'm trying."

I'll never forget what happened next. I turned around and there was a legislator, who had overheard what I said to Rod. She proceeded to give me the biggest tongue lashing of my life (and this is really saying something for a former farm girl who got regular butt-chewings by a father who for some reason could not understand why his daughter could not disc end rows without wiping out a fence). The legislator ended her speech by informing me that if I worked for her, I would no longer have a job. I remember her walking away quickly, hearing the click-click-click of her high heels.

I was absolutely mortified and sick to my stomach. I stammered an apology to her back and turned around to apologize to Rod, but he was gone, having moved on.

That was a long afternoon. I was terrified that I had embarrassed the agency for which I worked, and had disrespected the most respected man in the building. At the end of the day, I stopped at Rod's office. He was busy at his computer, as usual, with his back toward the door. I mumbled some sort of apology, afraid of what he was going to say. And this is what happened:

Rod swiveled around in his chair, flashed me a smile, and said "Don't worry about it. Keep on doing what you're doing, kiddo. We've got bigger fish to fry." And that was it. End of story.

After that, I tried not to call him "dude" as much around the office, but because I am who I am, naturally slipped up once in awhile. In public, however, I always addressed him as "Secretary." And when I did, he would give me a smirk and and his eyes would twinkle. I can imagine he was thinking: don't worry so much, kiddo, we've got bigger fish to fry.

I can imagine that's probably what Rod is thinking right now. Never one to seek out the spotlight, he would probably wince at the many glowing eulogies that will be written - each and every one of them very much deserved and heartfelt. Rod had a way of making everyone who worked for him feel like they were part of the team, fighting the good fight. So, now, that's what we all need to do. Keep on keeping on, dude. Remember Rod with a smile and do all the good you can, in all the ways you can. We've got more fish to fry.