Tom Wenzel prepares to retire after 20 years

His bucket list is short, but he has lots of plans

By Tina SnellStaff Writer

Morrison County Commissioner Tom Wenzel will be stepping down after 20 years on the Board of Morrison County Commissioners. His fifth term ends Monday, Jan. 7, 2013. The following day, Kevin Maurer will be sworn in as District 1’s representative.

“I am going to miss the people I work with,” said Wenzel. “Morrison County has the finest and most dedicated employees anywhere. They are appreciated by the public, a fact I both see and hear about.”

Joy, left, and Tom Wenzel are looking forward to doing some traveling beginning in 2013, when Tom retires after 20 years as the District 1 Morrison County commissioner.

Wenzel said that when people come to the courthouse they are coming to pay for a permit or to purchase a license. They are there to visit Social Services or pay their taxes.

“Wherever they are going, they need a smile and they get it from our professional staff,” he said.

Wenzel became a commissioner in 1993. He and his best friend, Dale Nelson, were both on the ticket for the seat representing District 1.

“We were in each in the other’s wedding,” said Wenzel. “We remained friends, even though I won the election.”

Wenzel, born in 1934, was the third child of 12, born to Toney and Anna Wenzel. He grew up on a dairy and pig farm south of Randall and lives on the property still.

“I attended District 35 School and graduated from the Little Falls High School in 1952,” he said. “I was in the Army from 1953-1955, stationed in France. When I returned home, I worked road construction and drove heavy equipment until 1973.”

In 1972, while on the job, a co-worker told Wenzel about his cousin, Joy (Stelzig) Brecht, a widow. When Wenzel finally met her, it was love at first sight. They were married the same year.

“Joy had four children, Blaine, Cathy, Steve and Danny,” said Wenzel. “Together, we had two more, Amy and Mary.”

The Wenzels now have 13 grandchildren.

For the first 20 years after they married, Wenzel farmed full-time. Now 78, he rents most of his acreage out but continues to plant approximately two acres of sweet corn each year, his specialty.

For eight of those years, he was a Darling Township officer.

Wenzel decided to run for county commissioner to help people with land-use and road issues. He also wanted to help those who could not help themselves.

“Since I worked road construction for so long, I wanted to be part of road improvements in Morrison County,” he said. “There are approximately 728 miles of county roads in Morrison County and now, all but about 44 are paved, up from the 148 when I started.”

In his 20 years on the Board, Wenzel has seen a few changes.

“I’ve seen the customer service culture in the courthouse improve,” he said. “I used to see long lines in several departments, but no longer. A lot of that has to do with technology.

Other changes include the rise in the cost of doing business.

“Employees are doing more with less. Retirees are not being replaced. This is due in part to state funds decreasing. The money is just not there anymore,” he said. “But, I feel it will turn around, just not sure when. It was tough in the 1930s and 1940s, and it came around. It will again.”

Looking back on his 20 years, Wenzel said he is proud of changing the county into an administrative form of government.

“Before, each department head met with each commissioner to get things done. Now we have an administrator who meets with the department heads and then reports to the County Board,” Wenzel said. “Tim Houle was our first administrator. His first day on the job was Sept. 11, 2001.”

Another accomplishment Wenzel remembers is combining the auditor and treasurer’s office in 2009, saving the county money.

“We have cross-trained many of our employees in the courthouse to help streamline the system,” said Wenzel. “While the commissioners don’t always agree with each other, we work together. We discuss the issues and compromise, ending with the best solution.”

One of the attributes Wenzel feels he brought to the table was his ability to work well with the other commissioners and all the department heads.

Other changes Wenzel was part of were the creation of a state-of-the-art landfill.

“When I first come on to the Board, we had to deal with the landfill. I remember covering and closing the unlined areas at the site. The new landfill was lined and collected all the water going through the garbage so it could be treated,” he said. “We have come a long way in just cleaning up the ground water from the old site.”

Wenzel assisted in remodeling the courthouse basement which added meeting rooms and offices and redoing the attorney’s offices. He was also part of the expansion of the jail and the implementation of the Soo Line Trail and the 911 address system in the county.

Staying out of debt was important to Wenzel. The Board set aside money each year to built a new Public Works Department facility and a shop in Randall, all without bonding.

During his 20 years, Wenzel found time to sit on many committees and boards. A few include the Camp Ripley Citizens Advisory Board, which he may continue, the Morrison County Health Advisory Board and the Mississippi River Headwaters Board, which ensures the river stays clean from Lake Itasca to south of Little Falls.

Houle, who is now the administrator in Crow Wing County, said of Wenzel, “Tom was a tireless advocate for his constituents, first and foremost. No call was too small for him to follow up on and the staff knew that if it was serious for the constituent, it would be serious for Tom. And, if it was serious to Tom, it better be serious to us.

“As tenacious as he is, he is also one of the kindest gentlemen I know. Even when he thought I had done something wrong, which did happen more often than I would care to admit, Tom would come into my office, shut the door and tell me what he wanted me to do differently. When he walked out the door, there was never another mention of it. We had a great working relationship that developed into a deep mutual respect. Tom is one of a kind; they just don’t come much better than him.  Morrison County has been lucky to have him,” Houle said.

When his retirement begins, Wenzel has put traveling on the top of his list of the things to do.

“I want to jump on the Amtrak and see the country. I want to go back to France,” he said. “I also plan on planting more flowers and apple trees. And, I need to landscape around the new addition we put on the house this summer.”

Other plans include adding a possible rain garden to his property.

To Maurer Wenzel said, “Congratulations. Kevin is a hard working, honest and dedicated person. He will do an excellent job.”

Wenzel Trivia

Q. What would surprise others about yourself?

A. I collect international dolls.

Q. Who was the biggest influence on your life?

A. My parents who taught me to be hard working, to have strong family values and to always be honest.

Q. Do you have any regrets in life?

A. No

Q. What is your best memory?

A. It was the first time I saw Joy. She was standing on her front steps.

Q. What was the worst job you ever had?

A. In 1950, when I was 16, I worked in a West Fargo packing plant during the summer loading dried, bagged sheep manure into a box car. Even though I was making $1 an hour, I was glad to get back to school.

Q. What will you miss the most when you retire? The least?

A. I will miss working with my constituents and with the other commissioners. I will also miss attending the lake association meetings. I won’t miss having to say “No” to people.

Q. Do you have ‘bucket list?’

A. I want to read all the books I’ve purchased over the years and never got to.

Q. What are you reading now?

A. Two books. One is John Kriesel’s “Still Standing” and the other is Paul Sailer’s “The Oranges are Sweet.” Both are on military experiences.

Q. What advice do you want to pass on to Kevin Maurer?

A. Make sure to return all phone calls and e-mails.