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Leading with a ‘sunshine’ approach

Head of ATCC Foundation preparing for college’s 50th anniversary celebration Although she has reached an age when many have traded a day on the job for a recliner and remote, Kathy Pfeffer-Nohre prefers working, she thrives on the daily interaction with people. For the past 15 years “work” has been at Alexandria Technical and Community College (ATCC) where she currently carries the title of Executive Director of Advancement and Foundation. There she guides the effort of the foundation to raise money for scholarships and business support for various ATCC programs. But the path to her current position in Alexandria had many curves and twists, most of which probably better prepared her for her current position than anything else ever could have. Her enthusiasm for her work is never in doubt to anyone who meets her. Pfeffer-Nohre grew up in Bertha where her family ran a small grocery store. That was in the days when small towns like Bertha had grocery stores, in fact Pfeffer-Nohre points out that in those days Bertha had no fewer than five stores selling groceries. To survive in that kind of market one had to develop an edge and her family’s edge was service and friendliness. The store was named Sunshine Grocery and it promoted itself as the store “where they greet you with a smile.” She pulled her time in the store with the rest of the family and from second grade on also had her own paper route. One of her brothers had one half of the town, she had the other. “There was a catch back in those days, girls couldn’t have paper routes,” she said. Her solution was to have a brother’s name on the paperwork and she did the delivery. That worked through eighth grade after which her brother graduated and was no longer available to meet with the district supervisor when he came to town. She had to quit. “My dad always said that I needed to be in sales,” she said. “I thought if I got out of the grocery store I was never going to sell anything again. One of her fondest memories of the grocery business was the banana price war in Bertha. Over a period of time bananas became a price leader with merchants lowering the price to create the best image. Finally it got down to two stores and a pound of bananas were free to people who purchased $5 worth of groceries. “We worked very hard but we played very hard,” she said. “If there was a parade within 50 miles we were there. Mom would get up early on Sunday while we were delivering papers and fry the chicken for the picnic lunch we would have at a parade.” After high school graduation she went to St. Cloud State College and eventually graduated from Moorhead State College with a teaching degree. Her first teaching job was in Herman where she taught history, girl’s physical education and speech. After three years there she taught for four years at Augsburg College. At that time schools were balancing out their athletic activities to conform with Federal Title IX so she taught several co-ed sports classes. And, in one of her first of many “small world” experiences, she had two student assistants, one named Rick Ekstrand, (Ekstrand, from Lowry, went on to become president of Rural Cellular Corporation, a national firm later bought out by Verizon) and the other Gary Severson (Severson went on to become a prominent attorney in Alexandria.) Then she came to Alexandria with her husband, Ron Pfeffer. He had been offered a job but she could not apply for open teaching positions because, at the time, only one member of a married couple could be a teacher in the system. She did teach swimming at the district pool. Undaunted she and another woman started The Body Shop, an exercise facility and spa for women that was well ahead of its time for the fitness clubs we see today. She was involved in that for four years. Building on that success, she decided to pursue real estate sales with Coldwell Banker. “At that time I was a single mom and I needed to make that work well,” she said. After building a successful business in Alexandria, she moved to the Twin Cities and continued selling real estate there. Only to return to Alexandria once more where she commuted to Elbow Lake and sold cars for Elbow Lake Ford. She still remembers the day she sold two pickups the same day! When people meet Pfeffer-Nohre they tend to remember her. This tendency provided her next opportunity; a friend of a friend talked her into going back to the Twin Cities to become a “head hunter” in the medical field. But, fate again brought her back to Alexandria only to embark on a job hunting mission. As she loves interacting with people, she started there and asked if anyone knew of any available jobs. She was told that Frank Starke, president of ATCC at the time, was looking for someone but the person didn’t know exactly what kind of a job it was. “I went to see him and told him ‘I don’t know what you are looking for but I am the person for the job,’” she said. Starke didn’t tell her what he was looking for but sent her out to see five prominent Alexandrians to have a conversation with them. And, she said, that was about all the guidance he gave her. “Since I didn’t know what I was supposed to find out or ask I’d asked them how things were going in their businesses, stuff like that,” she said. “What I didn’t know is that it was a setup.” The setup was that Starke was looking for a foundation director and wanted to know how people would see and relate to a person, in this case Pfeffer-Nohre. The five reported positively about their conversations and she got the job. The foundation Pfeffer-Nohre guides has at its core a mission to raise funds for programs and scholarships at the technical college. Under her watch the Foundation has blossomed into the “flagship Foundation of two year colleges in MNSCU.” MNSCU marvels at the Foundation’s many relationships and successful annual luncheon, now in its tenth year, to connect and tell their story. “There’s nobody in this area whose life isn’t affected by the college,” Pfeffer-Nohre said proudly. “We have 5,000 alumni within a 50-mile radius. Overall it has over 200 employees and a $20 million budget that is an important part of the community’s economy.” She’s not office-bound and enjoys being out in the community having “conversations” with people about the importance of ATCC and encouraging their support of the institution. “At one time you could attend a technical college for free,” said Pfeffer-Nohre. “Now tuition is approaching $150 per credit. There is a great need out there.” This year their scholarship program awarded over 700 scholarships. In its 50 years, ATCC has grown to a facility that serves over 4,000 students at any given time. About 2,500 of those attend classes on campus, others attend classes as part of enhanced education through area high schools and others attend classes on line. Her big job lately has been working on the celebration for the 50th birthday of ATCC scheduled for April 15 and 16. With over 26,000 graduates and countless former staff and faculty, the weekend is designed to bring together the community with all the groups who have made ATCC’s progress possible. She hopes many people will come out to mark the occasion and the impact ATCC has had on the region and with so many individual lives. While Pfeffer-Nohre loves her work, she is considering slowing down a little. But she doesn’t have any really firm plans yet and is not considering severing her connections with ATCC. One thought is to spend a little more time with the grandchildren, of which there are now eight. Son Peter and wife Leigh and Mike and wife Heather live in Alexandria where Peter and Mike are chiropractors. Daughter Kristi and husband Steve Nathe live in the Twin Cities, she teaches in Woodbury. The thread than runs through all of Pfeffer-Nohre’s life is relating with people, which is something she never plans to quit. She appreciates that the world really is a small place and she plans to remain visible as long as she can get out and about. “I love being with people,” she said. “I can’t imagine being home doing nothing.”

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