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Summer jobs: What Fargo-Moorhead well-known personalities say first jobs taught them

West Fargo Park District summer workers celebrate with youth players in this undated photo. West Fargo Park District photo1 / 4
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the majority of teens in the '70s and '80s held summer jobs, hitting its high point in 1988 when 70 percent of teens worked during the summer. But by the summer of 2014, only about 35 percent of Americans aged 16 to 19 were working. Stock image2 / 4
Forum sports reporter Jeff Kolpack enjoyed working as a baseball coach when he was a teenager. Special to Forum News Service3 / 4
KVRR-TV anchor TJ Nelson worked in radio as a teenager. Special to Forum News Service4 / 4

FARGO — If you were born anywhere between 1946 and 1981, there's a pretty good chance you held down a summer job as a teenager. Whether it was lifeguarding, flipping burgers or working at an ice cream parlor, a summer job was almost a rite of passage for many Baby Boomers and Gen Xers.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the majority of teens in the '70s and '80s held summer jobs, hitting its high point in 1988 when 70 percent of teens worked during the summer. But by the summer of 2014, only about 35 percent of Americans aged 16 to 19 were working.

What's up? Are we raising a generation of bums?

Hardly. In fact, it might be just the opposite. A study by the BLS says many students today are filling their time with other activities they (and their parents) think are potentially more advantageous to their future — everything from participating in sports camps to earn athletic scholarships, to taking summer school for college credit or academic scholarships to volunteer work, all of which looks good on college and job applications. With college tuition on the rise, the BLS says parents see minimum wage jobs as little help with future college costs.

But summer jobs are about more than a paycheck.

We asked a few well-known people in Fargo-Moorhead to tell us about the summer jobs they held as teens. We were shocked to hear what some of these people did to earn a few dollars — from digging graves to detasseling corn.

The work was hard — sometimes back-breaking and bug-slapping — but most say those summer jobs helped them, directly or indirectly, on their eventual career path.

Kerstin Kealy

Now: WDAY-TV anchor

Then: Corn detasseler

"A big group of kids would meet in a park before the sun came up. We'd get in buses and be driven to the corn fields that needed detasseling. They didn't want any "fraternizing" in the fields so they'd put the boys on one end of the field and the girls on the other. You'd each be assigned a row, then go from stalk to stalk, pull out the tassel from the top and throw it on the ground as you walk toward each other.

As you walk through the rows, the corn would scratch or cut your arms. In the morning, you'd see pheasants, snakes, mice and other animals you'd come up upon that I'm pretty sure took years off my life because of my mini heart attacks. And then there were the bugs and grasshoppers that I never got used to.

I think it built character and taught me the power of a good attitude and positive outlook even on the days that weren't the easiest. It taught me the importance of hard work, that any job worth doing is worth doing well, how to work with a variety of people — and finally, sometimes you just have to tough it out. It also showed me that I didn't want to detassel corn for a career so I needed to work hard and go to college."

Kevin Wallevand

Now: WDAY-TV news reporter

Then: Jack of many trades

"My first summer job was mowing lawns and baling hay. But if cows got out, you chased them for free.

At night, I fried burgers at my great-grandma's cafe. I was maybe 10 and survived the dreaded "blood sausage night." As an early teen, I moved up to senior gas pump attendant and chief tire changer at my dad's gas station. It was the best education ever — only $1 a day — but I got room and board.

In high school, I walked sunflower fields near Battle Lake, pulling out volunteer corn while dodging clouds of smelly smoke — later to discover that was not fog but "marijuana clouds" from fellow corn stalk pullers who were on break. After a morning of field work, it was back to the gas station, and then to the golf course at night to wash dishes. My pre-television career was topped off with a meter-reading gig with the Rural Electric Association. I had to drive to area farms, dodging ferocious dogs to read numbers off a meter. This paid for college!"

Andrea Larson

Now: KVLY-TV Anchor

Then: ASCS employee

"My favorite summer job was at the Agricultural Stabilization and Conservation Service in Devils Lake. It was run through the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

I worked there a couple summers during college. We converted aerial photography into farm and wetland maps, and we confirmed acreage. I worked with a fun team and it taught me how to prioritize and work with a team and under a supervisor.

Larson's advice to young seekers: Some people make the mistake of submitting a job application or resume and waiting to get a call back. I encourage young people looking for a job to be persistent in following up with applications. This shows initiative and that you really want the job. I remember following up with my director at ASCS numerous times before learning I got the job."

TJ Nelson

Now: KVRR-TV anchor

Then: Radio DJ

"From the time I was 15 until 18, I worked at KZZJ AM 1450 radio in Rugby, North Dakota. I was hired to be a disc jockey and would spin the latest country hits, broadcast the weather forecast and ag markets and provide a little humor in the evenings. I worked part-time during the school year, but in the summer it was all radio, all the time. I was even in charge of scheduling my fellow brood of young broadcasters (my best friends who were also in high school), and I helped the station co-owner pick the records to air. (I still regret hearing Clint Black for the first time and saying he'd never amount to anything. Sorry, Clint!) It was the best summer job a kid could ask for in my opinion."

John Wheeler

Now: WDAY-TV meteorologist

Then: Grave digger

"We dug them by hand, with a spade and shovel. Two guys — one would spade out a layer and rest while the other threw out the loose dirt and leveled the bottom. About eight rounds of this would get us a grave with smooth sides and a smooth, level bottom. For cement work, we would pour foundations for new grave markers and underneath old monuments in the older part of the cemetery. This involved picking up five to 13 ton stones with a winch, building a form, hand-mixing cement, filling the form with rocks and cement, smoothing the cement and doing sod work."

Tom Davies

Now: Retired judge

Then: Grand Forks Herald paperboy

"My first summer job was as a paperboy for the Grand Forks Herald. I had a Sunday route, and it didn't last too long."

He told his parents a female customer greeted him at the door in risque clothing. Davies' mom told his father to accompany Tom to the woman's house.

"Dad drove me to the address I provided. He stopped the car, looked at the house and asked if that was the one. I assured him it was. His response was something like "Dammit, you're not delivering papers to that house again." He hadn't gone to the door but obviously knew who the lady was.

When we got home, Dad went into the kitchen with Mom, and I heard a lot of yelling but no one ever told me what it was about. Years later I was told about this lady from my dad but I can assure you, my mm wasn't within earshot. My dad said he knew the lady's reputation but not personally ... and we all know our parents would never lie."

Jeff Kolpack

Now: Forum sports reporter and columnist

Then: Youth baseball supervisor

"My most memorable summer job in college was as a youth baseball supervisor for the Fargo Park Board. It was particularly dry that summer, with virtually very little to no rainouts for the kids. That was great for them — but the college kid in me was doing the rain dance on occasion, with no success.

My lasting impression, however, was of the dedicated workers like Greg Grooters who interacted so well with the kids. I learned a lot in those couple of months, especially on how to treat people of all ages. At night, I umpired Babe Ruth baseball games in Fargo, a job where I learned the meaning of "a thick skin" — something that would serve me well in the world of sports reporting for many years to come."

Read about a few more first jobs at inforum.com.

Summer 2018: Apply here

One of the most popular places for teens to work is with local parks and recreation departments. Approximately 750 spring and summertime workers will be hired by the Fargo, Moorhead and West Fargo parks and recreation departments. Jobs range from maintenance work to selling concessions to coaching.

"We have a little something for everyone," says Fargo Parks Executive Director Joel Vettel. "We're always going to be looking for more good people."

In Moorhead, recreation program supervisor Melissa Discher says she's actually having to turn away some really great applicants because they have so many people coming back.

"I think of it as the highest compliment we can get that we have a really high level of returning staff," she says. "It's nice to know they enjoy their work."

The departments can hire teenagers as young as 14 in limited roles, but most of their employees are 15 and older.

Many times the jobs are the result of a natural evolution.

"They start as kids in some of these programs and then grow up to become coaches," says Katie Ettish of West Fargo Parks and Rec. "These are great first jobs. You learn a little responsibility and the hours usually work really well."

Vettel agrees.

"We love being the first job for people to kick off their employment career," he says.

Picking rocks and other summer nuggets

The most common job among the people we interviewed?

Rock picking — where kids pick up rocks in farm fields that could damage crops and equipment. Katie Ettish of the West Fargo Park Department spent long summer days picking rocks and so did Vettel and Wallevand.

Other times, first summer jobs foreshadowed future careers. Along with TJ Nelson's role as a radio DJ, Forum editor Matt Von Pinnon's first job was a paperboy for The Forum. However, WDAY-TV Sportscaster Dom Izzo future career aspirations may have hindered his first job. He was fired from Wendy's because he started doing play-by-play with the restaurant's microphone.

Tracy Briggs

Tracy Briggs is a former TV anchor/radio host currently working as a features writer and video host for Forum Communications.

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