Cherry Grove farm girl to be inducted to Kingsland Wall of Honor Friday

Sue Kolling
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Sue Kolling, best known for her rise through Home Federal Savings Bank, as a co-founder of the Spring Valley Area Community Foundation (SVACF) and soon as a member of the Kingsland Wall of Honor, feels awe at her journey through life that began on a farm in Cherry Grove.

Kolling recently received a call from Kingsland Superintendent Jim Hecimovich who informed her she had been selected as this year’s Kingsland Wall of Honor recipient. After that call, she decided to go to the school entryway to look at the plaques hanging on the wall, which includes Home Federal founder John Osterud, Terry Therneau, Mitch Lentz, Judge Donovan Frank, Henry Plummer, Karice Bezdicek, Ed Krueger, Wendell McKenzie, Tom Healy and Irene Warren. 

“And it was so neat to think that my name was going to be added to the wall, and even more compelling was that mine would be placed directly beneath John Osterud’s, one of my greatest mentors,” said Kolling. “How does a farm girl from Cherry Grove who grew up milking cows and doing chores and started out as a bank teller end up on that wall?”

One of six children, she grew up on a farm that was farmed by her parents, grandparents, great-grandparents, and now by her sister’s family.  She graduated from Spring Valley High School in 1969, and “unbelievable as it is, we will be having our 50th class reunion next year,” she said.

Now retired from her position at Home Federal, Kolling’s career is nothing short of notable, as anyone who ever set foot into Home Federal likely was influenced by her work.  However, she didn’t set out to be in the finance business after she graduated from high school. 

“When I graduated from high school, I planned on going into nursing, so I worked at the hospital that summer.  I decided that it was not my thing,” she said. “I applied at Home Federal in 1969 and found out that it just fit.  I started out at entry level and worked my way up to management.  I started out as a teller, then head teller, was the HR (human resources) director for years, then I was in marketing, was in renewable energy, opened three offices, helped build some…I worked on design and helped get them running.  I traveled to the branches, and my world got a lot bigger — I got to go to the Winonas and the Eagans, and I got to be part of the communities.  It all fit into the fact that I liked projects, getting them up and running, and then going on to the next project.  I’m a real ‘project’ person, always raising my hand when a new project came up so I could be a part of it.” 

Her time as a teller and head teller at the Spring Valley corporate office meant that she was privileged to work under the tutelage of Home Federal founder Osterud, as well as under bank authorities Keith Hagen and Roger Weiss.  She enjoyed their mentorship and that at Home Federal, she was allowed to graduate from one position to the next while still being in Spring Valley and available to attend her sons’ concerts and ballgames. 

“One of the accolades of Home Federal is that they have so many people who maybe started at entry level and worked their way up.  It doesn’t matter whether you’re a man or a woman.  It’s one of the eight companies in the state that has been recognized for having 25 percent of its upper management being women,” said Kolling. “When I first started, this was a male-dominated business, but now, you see an equal number of men and women in key leadership roles.”

Kolling said she learned a lot from Osterud, Hagen and Weiss. For example when Osterud started Home Federal, he stated that it “isn’t rocket science to have good customer service…it’s simply taking care of the customers and the community, being very involved in giving back to the community.  And my goal is to pay it forward, because I had a lot of good mentors and role models.  I took my role as being there to help the next generation be successful.” 

Technology has affected the banking industry so very significantly that Kolling left behind a network of banks that originated from a corporate office that functioned solely, at its founding, in ink and on paper. 

“Everything was done by hand when I started.  We did a lot of ‘busy work.’  I think technology was the biggest change,” she said. “Like any business, it’s evolving and changing, and the old adding machines gave way to the electronics.  I remember the late nights when I first started — we’d work on New Year’s Day to close out the books — and there was a lot of manual work and a lot of hours.  Technology changed the most, but the one thing that hasn’t is customer service.” 

Kolling relished meeting people and working with them to find the right financial solutions for their endeavors. 

“I’m thinking about the people I met, the people I tried to help, the relationships you build with people who started out as customers and became friends,” she said. “The challenges were how to help the new businessman or woman, how to help that couple get into their first home, how to plan retirements so that they’d have the great retirement that they financially planned for.  At the end of the day, I made friends. 

“And everybody has a story.  I got to hear about the businesses, learn how they got their start, whether they were a big business or a small business.  I worked with everyone, from the very small to the very large businesses.  It was fun to hear how they started, how they grew, that some started with nothing and grew to big enterprises.  All of them have a story…they love to tell it and I loved to hear it.” 

Furthermore, she got to help her own family, beginning with the youngest, learn how to save.  Her nieces and nephews would come in with their piggy banks, and they “didn’t understand why they had to give their piggy banks to Aunt Susie, but I got to weigh their money for them,” said Kolling.

The final 15 years of her career were spent at the new corporate office in Rochester, where she continued her mission to pay it forward through the work of opening new branches of Home Federal.  She appreciated getting to meet a lot of “great people” in a city that she used to think “was a big town, but it isn’t,” she noted.

“I’ve had a great career – I can talk to anybody because I’ve been exposed to so many kinds of businesses and learned a little about a lot of different businesses, and learned a lot from the customers about their businesses.  I was also on the Home Federal board for 12 years and on the HMN board as well,” said Kolling.

And as long as she was raising her hand to participate in the next project, she decided to do so when the Southern Minnesota Initiative Foundation (SMIF) made itself available to assist small towns here with starting their own community foundations.  That made her a founding member and president of SVACF, now a well-known community organization that sponsors events and activities throughout the Spring Valley-Wykoff area. 

“The generation before us worked hard to make a strong community, and we have a great community.  They worked together to make it better.  When someone asked me why I wanted to be part of the foundation, I said, ‘Why not me?’  Or, ‘Why not you?’” 

She retired from that role shortly before she finished her last bank project, and at the time, said, “I’m excited about where the new board on the foundation is going.  They all have such talent and bring new ideas.  It’s different not being involved in it.”

Kolling had few plans for her retirement upon its beginning in May 2017, except enjoying her grandchildren, traveling, visiting her parents more often, and not being anywhere in particular at any specified time.  She lost her father in January, but said it was nice to spend more time with him.  Her mother still lives at the Evergreens apartments adjacent to the care center, and she likes to visit her as well as travel every chance she gets. 

She related that she had chosen to retire in May so that she had time to explore before the snow flew, to find new endeavors and to learn more about how she could benefit her community, because she still lives how Osterud taught her to live. 

“John hired me, and he was one of the best mentors I had.  He showed me how to live a good life, how to live for the community and how to be a good corporate citizen,” she noted. “I was just a farm girl from Cherry Grove who didn’t set out to conquer the world — just to try to make it a better place.  Everybody can do something to make it a better place because they’re given talents and skills.  It’s the small acts of kindness that are so sorely needed right now.”

Kolling also encouraged support for the local school district, both in spirit and financially.  She said she knows the value of a strong school since she had a strong education. Things do change, she added, but not really. 

“Everybody wants the same for their children — a strong school and community.  It’s important for our community to do what’s right for the students.  We need to make sure they have a good, strong school and that our focus is on what’s best for students in kindergarten through 12th grade, because they will pay us back in spades.  They can go out and get their education, but some want to come back here and raise their families and send their students to school here.  Whether their education be a four-year degree or the trades, they gain skills and come back home,” she said. “I’m so excited that my sons, Aaron and Matt, decided to live here and have their business here.  I was given skills in banking and in the foundation.  Everybody has a skill, a talent that they can use to make a positive difference and pay it forward.” 

There’s more for Kolling even after she’s recognized as Kingsland’s 2018 Wall of Honor honoree.  There are more projects ahead, she explained.

“At some point, I can do more.  You don’t find it — it finds you.  I still volunteer with the Southern Minnesota Initiative Foundation and love that that organization keeps me connected to a big area of 20 counties, not just Spring Valley…we work collaboratively with our neighbors.  At some point, there’s more out there, and I can do more,” said Kolling.

The Kingsland Wall of Honor ceremony is slated for Friday, Nov. 9, at 7 p.m. in the Kingsland Café at Kingsland High School.  The public is welcome to attend the ceremony.

“I am blessed to be selected for this honor, humbled,” said Kolling. “I’m amazed that there’s so many people in our community who give so much, but that’s what makes it a community.”