Of all the leadership positions she has held, Arlene Wessel says motherhood was the most fulfilling.
"I loved being a mom; even on the bad days. For me, raising children was one of the greatest responsibilities God gave me," says Wessel of raising her four children, Laurie, Sandra, Bruce and Katherine with her husband, Irving on the family's Beadle County crop and livestock farm.
About the time her youngest started school, Wessel received some advice from Irving that empowered her, and in turn, benefited many of South Dakota's agricultural organizations.
"My husband came in from doing chores one day and said, 'Sweetheart, sit down. I want to talk to you. Now that the kids are in school, you will never be content staying here on the farm all day doing farm work. I think you need to get involved,'" recalls Wessel, of the discussion with Irving that led her, a content, rather shy, farmwife and mother, to become an advocate for South Dakota's agricultural industry.
Taking Irving's advice to heart, Wessel became actively involved in Beadle County Farm Bureau, holding the offices of Secretary and President and becoming the first woman elected to serve on the South Dakota Farm Bureau Board of Directors. She represented S.D. Farm Bureau on the South Dakota Beef Industry Council, serving a term as President of the S.D. Beef Industry Council. She was a member of Republican Women, holding various leadership positions on the local and state level, as well as serving on the Huron Chamber of Commerce-Government Relations Committee. She is a member of the American Legion Auxiliary in Alpena and is an active member of the Riverview United Methodist Church in Huron.
Wessel is a recipient of the Lusk Award for Community Leadership in Agriculture and the S.D. Farm Bureau Woman of Achievement award.
"I don't think when he said 'get involved,' he intended me to get so involved!"
Driven by conviction and a love for the land and its people, Wessel, a farm girl of the Depression, on more than one occasion took her convictions public preparing testimony and lobbying to defend private property rights and other agricultural issues. "I believe you have to have courage of your convictions," she says.
As president of the Beef Industry Council, Wessel worked to help designate Beef Checkoff funds for projects at South Dakota State University that supported agriculture students, including the Beef Bowl. "I wanted to provide as much support to the state's agriculture university as possible, because if we want to let the world know that U.S. beef is the best in the world, we need to have young people who want to return to the business of agriculture."
When Wessel spoke out for agriculture issues, she was able to call upon her clear understanding of the challenges and successes she and Irving experienced on their own farm. Together they built their farm from 480 acres to 3,000. They both intended to pass it on to their son, Bruce, but that was not to be. Cancer took Bruce at the young age of 36 and later, his son and their grandson Matthew died in a tragic accident at only 18.
Through the tough times, the couple leaned on each other and their faith. They will celebrate 65 years of marriage this December.
At first, speaking out was not comfortable for Wessel who describes herself in those early years as a 'scared rabbit.' "My husband had confidence in me and that spilled over to me. I also think the more I got out and became involved, the more confidence I gained. I also credit Mike Held, who was the State Director of Farm Bureau, for having faith in me - that gave me confidence as well," says Wessel, who was nominated by her graduating class of 1948 to give the speech at their 50-year Huron High School reunion.
She adds that preparation helped calm her nerves. "For me, I found preparation is the secret. If I knew what I was going to talk about, it helped me get through any apprehension I may have had."
By Lura Roti for SDSU Colleges of Agriculture & Biological Sciences and Education & Human Sciences