Monti Community Ed duo recalls program’s rich history

It has been a big year for Monticello’s Community Education program.
Within one year of the program’s 40th anniversary, both Duane Gates (program director) and Candy Benoit (assistant director) have announced their retirements, Benoit at the end of 2012 and Gates at the end of this month.
With Gates leading the program since its inception in 1972 and Benoit joining soon after, in 1976, this means a significant changing of the guards for a program unaccustomed to leadership changes.
Community education got its start in Monticello after resident Nancy Cassano led the charge to implement a program to better utilize the school facilities and extend educational, cultural and recreational opportunities to the entire community.
Gates received his undergraduate degree in education and began eyeing a career in community education at an opportune time for this field, since the idea of community ed was just starting to take off in Minnesota. After taking notice of a program in Flint, Mich., Minnesota schools became one of the first to implement community education, and the Monticello district began their program the second year this idea was introduced to the state, when they received a $5,000 grant in 1972 to hire a community education director and start a program. “It turns out, they hired the best choice possible and we were very fortunate to have him for all these years,” Cassano said.
“And when Candy came on board it was just the perfect match. We’ve had one of the most outstanding community ed programs in the state.”
Those familiar with the program credit Gates and Benoit for its success, along with their team members in the community ed office and the advisory council. Gates took his education in community education all the way through the doctorate level.
Benoit’s education in recreation and community service and a minor in aquatics added up to a complementary working relationship between the two.
Benoit focused on the aquatics program, general recreation and chemical health and wellness programs; Gates took one early childhood family education (ECFE), adult basic education (ABE) and general community ed programming.
Together with their advisory council, Benoit and Gates brainstormed ideas, looked at cultural trends and took ideas from whoever was willing to share them in order to create a well-rounded program that could fit a community worth of different interests.
“I’ve always been impressed by how well they involve the community,” Cassano said. “When people have an idea, [Duane and Candy] work really hard to make sure it happens.”

Impact Beyond Monticello

Sheldon Johnson, who was Monticello’s superintendent from 1973-1997, said Gates and Benoit didn’t just pioneer the Monticello community ed program –  they helped numerous other cities and towns get their own programs off the ground as well.
“Duane and Candy were at the forefront of that,” he said. “We put a first rate community ed program together before many schools had even started. Because of that we had a constant inflow of people calling or coming to visit our community ed department and asking them how they do it.”
Because of this, he said their legacy in community education goes past Monticello into the entire state and upper Midwest area.
“I think the key to any new department within a school system is to have a good leadership team, and Candy and Duane provided that,” he said. “I always enjoyed working with them as a team. Together we all put our shoulder to the wheel of community ed and built a quality program, and they were at the forefront of that as the leaders for all these years.”
Gates said the community education program often served as an incubator of sorts for new ideas, such as dance, soccer or lacrosse program in years past, when there was no private studios or clubs to offer these opportunities.
As the private sector or clubs step in, the community ed program can step out if the need is filled.
In other instances, they work to complement what other clubs are offering to ensure opportunities for all who want them.
“I liked the flexibility of the job, and the variety,” he said. “And the opportunity to serve the community. It has been a wonderful career in that way to work with all the youth groups, organizations and all the individuals who want to use the facilities.”
“My wife and I raised our family in the community, we participated in the programs, and it was a great job to be involved with everyone in the community,” Gates added. “Everyone has been fantastic to work with and I’d just like to thank the community for their support the past 40 years because they made it happen. Without their participation, it would have ceased to exist.”
For Benoit, her favorite memories come from times where their team pitched in together to get the job done, even under less-than-ideal circumstances and even if the task at hand wasn’t always in the job description.
She said with community ed, you never had the same day twice.
“The people were the memories that made it so fun,” Benoit added. “I worked with a really great crew … we didn’t have a lot of turnover because we enjoyed working together, and we could complement each other. [Gates] always had your back and I love that about Duane. We just got along really well.”

The Future

The community education department will begin functioning under new leadership July 1, when new hire Jeremiah Mack will take the head spot.
While Gates won’t be at the helm anymore, he isn’t bowing out of community ed completely just yet.
He will be working on a part-time basis for adult basic education’s consortium, which encompassed 16 school districts, including Monticello, and three jails. With children scattered everywhere from South Korea to Seattle to Boston, Gates said he and his wife will be busy traveling as well.
Benoit will also seek part-time employment of some kind now that she’s had awhile to settle into retirement and do some traveling, though she will first celebrate her daughter’s wedding and travel to Alaska. Benoit will also continue to serve on the local hospital board.
Monticello Community Education has scheduled a special open house Wednesday, July 10, from 4 p.m. to 7 p.m. at the Best Western Chelsea Inn & Suites in Monticello to honor the program and its accomplishments.
Gates said the open house is open to the community, and all are welcome to attend.

Freelancer Meghan Gutzwiller covers education and the Monticello School District.