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Human services director ends four decade career

When the next warm wind blows in from the south, Paul Sailer won’t be sitting in the human services building, overseeing the agency of 65 employees. He’ll be at his idyllic farmstead north of Wadena, waiting for the bluebirds to return.

“I’ll be out in my apple orchard, pruning and listening, because they’re old friends and they are coming back now,” Sailer said.

The 66-year-old retired Monday after more than four decades of public service. During his final hours as human services director, Sailer took a break from packing up his office to reflect on his career and look forward to an active retirement. 

“I hope I’ve handled the job with integrity and in a respectful way,” he said.

Sailer was raised at his parent’s resort on Rose Lake in Otter Tail County. After graduating from Moorhead State University, he enlisted in the Army and flew helicopters during a one-year deployment to Vietnam.

When he returned to the country, Sailer took advantage of the Emergency Employment Act for Veterans. He received two job offers, a shoreland management position for $600 a month and a social worker job for $700 a month.

“I didn’t know what a social worker did,” Sailer said. But he took the more lucrative offer - “I haven’t regretted it” - and spent five years working for Otter Tail County.

In 1976, he moved to Wadena County to work as a social services supervisor. Twelve years later, he became human services director.

Over the past 42 years, Sailer has witnessed the transformation and expansion of the human services field.

As federal and state program increased in size, the department has doubled in size since he took over as director in 1988. Instead of being housed in large institutions, those with mental illnesses and developmental disabilities are now integrated in communities. Child support and protection services are now handled by professional specialists. Wadena County has added a public transit system, Friendly Rider, which became a part of the highway department on Tuesday.

“It’s all really changed,” Sailer said.

On Friday, dozens of friends, family members and colleagues dropped by the human services building for Sailer’s retirement party. Attendees included current and former county commissioners and Paul Sundberg, who served as director from 1963-73.

In a farewell address, Sailer compared the human services department to the Vergas baseball team he played on years ago.

Teamwork is key, he said. “None of us can do this job alone.”

He used the “dipsy doodle,” a type of pitch that had an unpredictable trajectory, as a metaphor for the financial crisis the department faced in the late-2000s, during which salaries were frozen, but jobs and services were protected.

“In this business, every once in a while you get a dipsy doodle …” Sailer said. “That’s when you find out what kind of character you have.”

Earlier at the event, a few human services employees performed a skit that playfully lampooned Sailer’s leadership. Sporting a foam gray mustache, supervisor Mike Willie impersonated Sailer.

After the performance, Willie wished Sailer well. “The happiest people are those who do the most for others,” said Willie, quoting Booker T. Washington. “I think that’s why you always have a smile on your face.”

As she served cake Friday, Kathy Hall, who works in the child support unit, said Sailer has been a great director.

“He trusts you to get your work done,” Hall said. “He’s not a micromanager.”

Sheriff Mike Carr called Sailer “kind of a legend in the field.”

“He’s pretty well known in this region and throughout the state for what he’s done for human services,” Carr said.

Char West, a former Wadena County auditor/treasurer, said Sailer will be remembered as a brilliant man and a calming force in county government.

Danielle Sailer, Paul’s granddaughter, said she doubts he’s going to slow down in retirement. “He likes to keep himself busy. My guess is he’ll start writing another book.” 

Sailer is a man of many hobbies.

In 2011, he published “The Oranges are Sweet,” a critically-acclaimed book about Major Don M. Beerbower, Minnesota’s leading flying ace during World War II.

“I like to write about courage and duty,” Sailer said.

In addition to writing, he’ll tend to his pine tree farm and apple orchard.

Most importantly, he said, he’ll be able to spend more time with his tight-knit family, especially his wife, Lois Sailer.

Lois said she’ll be glad to have Paul around more often. “I just hope he leaves the management skills out of my kitchen.”