John and Laurie celebrated their 40th wedding anniversary this year, with the past 36 years spent in Stewartville where they moved with their infant son, Myatt, in 1982. Fresh out of college, John took a position as a civil engineer for Yaggy Associates, Inc. working on projects including streets, storm and waste water systems, municipal water mains and land surveying. In 1988, the Helmers moved just out of Stewartville city limits to an acreage, eager to re-plant their rural roots and have their horses in their own backyard.
Retirement and Decision to Run
This past May, John decided to take early retirement and to file for office to devote himself to a new way to serve his fellow citizens in Olmsted County. He believes that as a county commissioner, representing district 4, he can make further improvements in services and facilitate a new way of governing that is more responsive to the people’s needs and wants. John has a long history of public service, most recently including United Way Co-chair, the Adopt-a-Highway cleanup program, and volunteer for maintenance on the Superior Hiking Trail. Perhaps retirement will present more opportunities for John’s hobbies of horseback riding, brainstorming with the entrepreneurial club, wilderness camping, traveling to learn how other cities and cultures “problem solve,” and attending all his wife, Laurie’s, performances on area theatre and music stages.
Early Rural Roots
John grew up on a family dairy farm in northern Iowa with his parents, two brothers and two sisters. He graduated mid-year from Osage High School and enrolled in pre-engineering at NIACC in Mason City. There he met Laurie, the English major and musician, who had grown up on a beef cattle farm in eastern Iowa. After both received their associate degrees, they married and transferred to Iowa State University. On campus, John served as president of the student chapter of the American Society of Civil Engineers and completed ground school for small aircraft. In 1981, he earned a B.S. in civil engineering with a minor in land surveying.
Professional and Volunteer Experiences
John earned his Minnesota professional engineering license while working for Olmsted County as the landfill engineer when the Olmsted Waste-to-Energy Facility was brand new. He then took advantage of opportunities to broaden his experience in project management with consulting firms in the Twin Cities and Albert Lea; however, he and Laurie decided to keep their treasured home and Myatt’s roots in southeast Minnesota. John commuted to/from Stewartville to be able to coach youth soccer, mentor in both the MathCounts and Young Astronauts Program for middle school, help lead young scouts in BSA Troop 56 (and later proudly attend Myatt’s Eagle Scout ceremony), and serve on several committees at church and for his professional engineering society, being elected to multiple offices for both organizations. John was the campaign chair and co-chair for the Olmsted County Employees United Way Campaign for many years. He currently serves on the United Way’s Campaign Cabinet as liaison to the growing retiree population.
John’s next career expansion was starting a business providing solid waste management services that included international projects. Changes in legislation limited market expansion in that field, which led to a decision to return to his “first love” of municipal engineering. He accepted the position as chief engineer with Construction Management Services in Rochester, designing and overseeing projects for many towns in southeast Minnesota.
In 1996, when the long-time Civil Engineering Technology instructor at RCC called to say he was retiring and asked John to come to teach at the newly combined RCTC, John obtained his teaching license and began a 7-year adventure as head of the program. Under John’s guidance, enrollment went from 6 students to over 35 students which, in turn, meant he recruited and supervised a team of adjunct professors. He enjoyed the challenge of fostering students’ growth as they transitioned from freshman to graduates.
While teaching at the college, John faced his life’s biggest challenge of supporting his son during a long struggle to recover every aspect of human functioning after Myatt incurred a severe traumatic brain injury at the age of 17. As a result, John and Laurie were active for many years as volunteers for the Minnesota Brain Injury Association, teaching other affected families coping strategies. They also gave presentations on how students with disabilities could pursue higher educational opportunities, inspired by Myatt’s graduation from Augsburg College in 2006 with a BA in Native American Studies.
Project Manager and Public Administrator
After being laid off from the college during the 2003 state budget woes, John got a call to return to Olmsted County that launched a 15-year association. His first assignment was to oversee the construction of the new Unit 3 expansion project at the waste-to-energy facility. After managing the $86.5 million dollar project, John next became the solid waste manager for the county. When the Director of Public Works retired, the county reorganized and created a new Environmental Resources Department. John was promoted to the position of department director to oversee 69 employees and a $21 million annual budget. Added responsibilities in water resources management included the operation of the Southeastern Minnesota Water Analysis Laboratory and implementation of the county’s water management plan. John also became project manager for the Lake Zumbro Restoration Project for the Olmsted-Wabasha Joint Powers Board, bringing the project to bid this summer.
A new chapter in John’s life is just starting to be written, and with the support of the great people in Olmsted County’s District 4, the chapter will turn into a book.
Copyright 2018 by the John Helmers Campaign Fund