Call it the co-op boomerang effect.
Walk the halls of
Jo-Carroll Energy, and you’ll meet a number of staffers—including the CEO—who grew up nearby or in rural communities that mirror Elizabeth, Illinois.
The thing is, they left for places that were bigger, but not necessarily better. A little older, a little wiser, they’re once again calling rural America home. They’re proof that there are people who want to return—and will—for quality of life and good co-op jobs.
Youth Tour teen comes full circle
A smile comes to Jennifer Meyer’s face as she talks about going on Youth Tour, the state and national co-op program that takes high-schoolers to Washington, D.C., for a week every June.
“It started out with a Youth Day to Springfield (Illinois). Everybody hops on a big bus and gets to go meet our state legislators and spend the day understanding a little bit more about how cooperatives work,” Meyer recalls.
She was later selected as one of two students to go on Youth Tour, sponsored by McDonough Power Cooperative in Macomb, Illinois.
“I spent the week with 70 incredible students in D.C., peers of mine who would go on to do great things everywhere.”
For Meyer, that great thing is being vice president of member services at Jo-Carroll.
She grew up on a small hobby farm near Bushnell, Illinois, worked at a local veterinary clinic, and expected to go to vet school until, as an undergrad at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, she realized it wasn’t for her.
“When I left school, I ended up in the Chicago suburbs at a food facility where I was a quality-control manager,” Meyer says. “City life is intriguing, but it’s not for me. Being a small-town girl, I just knew that my roots were going to be somewhere rural again.”
The impetus came after a death in the family, when Meyer and her husband, who both had a desire to move to a more rural location, realized “life is going to continue to pass us by.” So they packed up, left the Chicago suburbs, and moved to Elizabeth, where they had family.
“Neither one of us had jobs here. We knew that once we got here, we would be able to look again,” Meyer says. “It wasn’t two weeks later, my sister-in-law called me up and said, ‘Jen, there’s an opening at the local co-op. You want to go apply there.’”
When the CEO at the time asked why she wanted to work for a co-op, this Youth Tour alumna was ready. She recalls telling him, “I don’t want to be a number. I want to be in a place where I can work, where I can give back, where I can really be a part of change and improving the quality of life of those around me and making a difference.”
That was in 2010. Meyer, 35, never looked back.
She loves her job and being active in the community. For others who think about coming home to rural America, Meyer tells them to “follow their heart.”
“I’m not going to push them in one direction or the other,” she says. “All I’m going to do is say there are opportunities for you here. If you aren’t ready to come home yet or aren’t ready to stay here, go out, experience what you need to, but just know that there’s always a place for you at home.”
Meyer’s co-op life came full circle when she and her husband chaperoned Illinois’s 2014 Youth Tour.
“Being able to facilitate that experience for our youth and get them excited about cooperatives is such a wonderful and rewarding experience.”
Chris Allendorf knew jail wasn’t for him—even if he’d never been convicted of a crime and was free to go at day’s end.
Allendorf disliked both being a deputy sheriff and living in suburban Chicago. He was born in Galena, Illinois, which was served by an investor-owned utility at the time but is now in Jo-Carroll’s territory.
“My dad was the county sheriff here for 20 years, and I thought I wanted to go into law enforcement, so that’s what my undergrad degree was in,” Allendorf says.
While he’s always preferred small-town life, “I kind of resigned myself to working in either Chicago or in Rockford,” he says. “While I was working in the jail, one day it occurred to me, maybe this isn’t for me.”
Allendorf, 34, enrolled in law school in 2009 but upon graduating in 2012, “it was a terrible market to be looking for a legal job.”
He was able to come home to Galena as a substitute teacher and passed the bar on the first try. Soon after, Jo-Carroll called him in to interview for the vice president of external relations and general counsel position.
“I had very little idea of what an electric co-op was at the time, but they were going to allow me to work for my predecessor in this job, someone also from Galena who I respect very much,” Allendorf says. “The opportunity to work for him for a year and a half until he retired was a big plus for me.”
Allendorf has childhood friends who would also like to come home for good.
“They want their kids to experience the same things we did growing up in a rural area,” he says. “I wish that everybody from my town and from our area that wanted to come back could, and find a job comparable to what they have now. But the reality is, you have to look long and hard to find a good job in rural areas, at least if you’re used to working in the city.”
Allendorf thinks about how fortunate he is as he enjoys his 15-minute drive to a job he loves.
“The only traffic jam is if it’s planting or harvest season and there’s farm equipment on the road,” he says.
His parents still live in Galena.
“I’m over cities,” Allendorf says. “I travel a lot. I’ve been to most of the major cities in North America and many around the world, and I still look forward to coming home.”
The biggest draw
Jo-Carroll is in Merri Sevey’s DNA.
Her great-grandfather was a founding member and director of the co-op. She grew up in Elizabeth on Jo-Carroll lines. She never left the area—and never would.
“I love it here.”
Sevey, 45, is Jo-Carroll’s vice president of human resources, one of many hats she wears.
“My family is very, very, very hometown oriented. I’m very into public service,” says Sevey, who is president of the Elizabeth Chamber of Commerce and earlier spent eight years on the local school board. Her brother is mayor of Elizabeth, and her father is on the county board.
She can remember a time when there were more businesses in the area and more things to do.
“And then there was an economic downturn. A lot of my friends and family that graduated from school about the same time went off to college and never came back,” Sevey says. “To those of us that stayed here, it was really important for us to get those people to come back.”
Elizabeth’s economic development committee—on which Sevey serves—has been working with Jo-Carroll and others, and Sevey says they’re “starting to see a huge turnaround.”
“We’d lost our grocery store, and Jo-Carroll and the village and the townspeople helped us get Dollar General to come in,” she says. It means Elizabeth once again has a place to buy milk and bread.
Like Sevey, you don’t have to sell Chuck Woods on the co-op business model or the rural lifestyle.
Growing up on the outskirts of Quincy, Illinois, Woods “had an awareness of co-ops from a very young age,” including Adams Electric Cooperative in Camp Point, Illinois, which serves the area.
Later, Woods became the chief financial officer of an agriculture co-op in Woodstock, Illinois, a city about 55 miles northwest of Chicago whose claim to fame is that much of the Bill Murray film Groundhog Day was shot there.
Being a fan of what he calls the “down to earth lifestyle” made it easy for Woods, 53, to come to Jo-Carroll to be CFO. The biggest draw, he says, is being “part of an organization that cares about the community, cares about its employees, and provides a service back to the community.”
“Yes, it’s a business and has to run like a business, but it’s a business that actually is very community oriented and focused and really takes good care of the employees,” Woods says.
But as a CFO, couldn’t he be getting a bigger paycheck in a bigger place?
“You’re right, I can make a lot more money in San Francisco—and I can spend a lot more money in San Francisco or Chicago,” Woods says. “But being part of something that actually makes a difference—has a positive impact on the community and has a positive impact for our employees in this community—that’s very satisfying.”
Dave and Pat Casper were biding their time on the farm.
Their son Mike lived some 900 miles away in suburban Washington, D.C., working for NRECA in its Business and Technology Strategies group. Yet the Caspers always hoped he’d come home to Galena, Illinois.
“I was real happy for him; he had a great job,” Dave says. But “we never got to see the grandkids. We got to see Mike maybe twice a year.”
So Dave was keeping his eye on what he considered an even greater job for his son: CEO of Jo-Carroll Energy.
“I thought, ‘This would be a great job,’” he recalls.
A diligent reader of both the statewide magazine, Illinois Country Living, and the local newspaper, Dave found the article he’d been waiting for: Jo-Carroll’s CEO was heading to another co-op.
“I got on the phone and called Mike,” he says. “It looked like it was made to be.”
Mike wasn’t so sure.
“I had heard that his position was filled internally, and I really didn’t give it any thought,” Mike says. “We had been established for four years in Virginia. I didn’t want to upset the apple cart with my family, my wife and my one son who just started high school.”
But he told his dad he’d look into it and made a couple of calls.
“I remember Jo-Carroll Energy as a pretty small distribution co-op. They supplied our farm and my grandparents’ farm with electricity. But then I found out about the acquisition of Alliant Energy territory, and with that acquisition came a natural gas distribution system,” Mike says. Jo-Carroll also operates Sand Prairie broadband. These factors piqued his interest.
“When I found out what a technologically advanced and diversified cooperative Jo-Carroll was, it really excited me.”
Video: Bringing Knowledge Home to the Heartland
‘This is where I should be’
Born just across the border in Hazel Green, Wisconsin, at the hospital where his grandmother worked, Mike, 51, acknowledges there was a time when “I couldn’t wait to get off the farm” to see what else there was in the world.
His first job out of college was in Chicago, where he spent 11 years before moving to Kenosha, Wisconsin, the hometown of his wife, Katey. There he worked for a company developing renewable energy projects and working directly with farms.
“That was the first moment in my life where I was like, ‘This is where I should be,’” Mike recalls. While he enjoyed Chicago, in Wisconsin he found himself “working with people that I felt more comfortable with, closer to my roots. I could talk about alfalfa and corn prices and what the price of milk is.”
From Kenosha, Mike went to NRECA, and while Northern Virginia is hardly rural, “it reminded me a lot of this northwestern Illinois area, mostly with the rolling hills and the watershed, especially with the Chesapeake Bay. So I felt more at home even though I was in a larger metropolitan area.
“More importantly, I was able to work with distribution co-ops,” Mike says. “I was back talking to directors. Most of our directors are farmers, so we were talking the same language.”
Still, that phone call from his dad got him thinking. He had to run the idea past Katey and their two sons, Carson, a high school senior at the time, and Pierce, who was just beginning high school.
“Had it been a different opportunity somewhere else, it might have been a more difficult decision,” Katey says. “But because we knew this area, it made the decision much easier.”
That said, she knew that it could be difficult for Pierce, 15 at the time, because it’s tough enough making friends in high school without also being the new kid in town.
Pierce, however, was fine with the idea.
“I wasn’t against it because I’d lived in the Midwest before, and it was not a new thing to me,” he says. “Also, I’d moved many times before, so moving has become a known thing.”
Katey enjoys being just a three-hour drive from her parents, who still live in Kenosha.
She’s taken up golf, “something Mike has been trying to get me to do for 20 years.”
“It wasn’t all easy, but ...” says Katey, her voice trailing off before Pierce adds, “It gets better.”
“That’s exactly right,” his mom agrees.
Mike says the folks in and around hometown Galena welcomed him back graciously. He acknowledges that’s at least in part because of the great respect the community has for his parents. Casper Bluff, a beautiful 100-acre spot outside of town, was part of Dave and Pat’s farmland until they transferred it to the Jo Daviess Conservation Foundation in 2007. It’s steeped in Native American history going back some 1,300 years.
And Mike knows that being from the area eliminated the learning curve that others who’d never lived there would have faced.
“That trust was already there for me, so I could begin focusing on what was most important to the cooperative,” he says.
The young and the not-so-young
Some of Mike’s priorities include expanding fiber broadband through the co-op’s Sand Prairie brand. He calls high-speed internet “key to the success of rural America.” And it goes hand in hand with another priority: economic development.
Mike remembers a time when downtown Galena was down on its luck. Today it attracts visitors from Chicago and beyond with its many shops and restaurants and events like Oktoberfest.
Next is to help facilitate growth in Elizabeth and other communities Jo-Carroll serves. Elizabeth was Sand Prairie’s first fiber community, “and they are proud of it,” he says.
“They’re bringing a pharmacy, which follows a medical clinic. And with fiber they’re able to provide improved service to their residents, which are our members.”
Photo Gallery: Galena and Elizabeth, Illinois
Just down the street is a new fueling station that filled a void which forced even Jo-Carroll’s vehicles to go elsewhere. The co-op received a zero-interest rural economic development loan from the U.S. Department of Agriculture that it passed along to help the station’s owner get started. Mike envisions a day when it sells more than regular, premium, and diesel.
“Wouldn’t it be great to have electric vehicle charging as well? The 20 minutes that people are waiting there to charge up, we could have a small innovation center where they could come and have fiber Wi-Fi access while they’re waiting.”
Better communities, he believes, will not only benefit current residents but will also help bring back folks like him who left decades ago.
“Everybody talks about getting the young people to come back,” he says, acknowledging that’s important. “But talk to me about the importance of getting the not-so-young people to come back.
“You need to have some people like myself who left and were exposed to a lot of different communities and people,” he says. “You learn from everything you do, and to be able to bring that back and apply it to help grow the community that you grew up in, I think there’s a huge value to that.”
And while the big city may attract many rural youngsters, as it once did for Mike, son Pierce isn’t all that keen on what he experienced.
“I don’t know if I would really want to go back to D.C.,” he says. “We’ll see what job opportunities there are. I would definitely not mind living in a place like this. It’s very nice. Good community, good people.”
Optimism for the future
What makes Mike Casper’s day?
“Talking with different people. Running into people at Piggly Wiggly. Going to the East Dubuque car show on Thursday night. Walking down the street and seeing people I hadn’t seen for a long time and just talking. It’s not necessarily about energy. It’s about cars and old times. It’s about going to economic development meetings and talking about how we can improve our communities. Those are the things that make my day.”
One familiar face is Stan Hohnstadt, who taught industrial arts at Galena High School, where Mike graduated in 1985.
“There are students that stand out, and Mike is one of the four or five that I had in Galena that I knew he was going to go someplace, and I knew he was going to do big things because he just had that drive,” Hohnstadt says. “He was one of those that did it for the learning, not for the grade, and that’s not something that you’d see all the time.”
Mike’s mom, Pat, never really expected her son to be home for good. Having lived in the area her entire life, she realizes “sometimes you have to go where the job is.”
“When they left for Virginia, I just thought I’ll be making a lot of flights out there,” she says.
Did she ever envision being able to say, “My son, the co-op CEO”?
“Probably not,” Pat says, laughing. “I knew he’d go far, but that’s a little farther than I figured he’d ever have the opportunity to go.