KELLY HAGEN: That’s So Hagen — ‘I’m Happy, And I Love What I Do’

Oh. Hey.

As first blog entries go, I think we can all agree that this one is already off to a pretty tremendous start. So let’s continue that upward trajectory a little bit longer— and have me introduce myself.

My name is Kelly Hagen. I’m 37 years of age and 5-foot-11, but at my last doctor’s appointment, they accidentally wrote down 6-1, and I didn’t correct them, so officially, yeah, I could probably play in the NBA. I’d be a point guard, sure, and Steph Curry would decimate me every time my team played Golden State. I’m just saying it’s a possibility.

I worked for daily newspapers for a total of six years, five or six years ago. I was a copy editor and page designer for The Forum. After I put in a year’s time at The Forum, I moved back home to Bismarck to work for the Tribune. Again, I was a copy editor/page designer but also a columnist, and I wrote the occasional Life section feature on popular entertainment, and then I was Special Sections editor, which meant I produced special sections to the newspaper and niche publications. That lasted five years, and I bought a house, got a basset hound named Boof, met a girl, married the girl, kept the dog, sold the house, bought another house, and we had a child. Also my dog died, so that was a bummer. But here’s a picture of him, anyway. You will love it.

Boof, on my wedding day, with my wife.
Boof, on my wedding day, with my wife.

I left the newspaper game to work for the North Dakota Public Employees Association (NDPEA, for easy-saying sake), and I want to start this blog with the story of how that happened. And who made it happen. This guy.

His name is Stuart Savelkoul, and he was the executive director of NDPEA . Stuart read my column, religiously. Sounds like a terrible religion to me, but I’m not one to judge. 

Every Friday, at the Tribune, I had my humor column, 600 words or less, of blabbered nonsense about music I like or TV shows I watched, my family, my friends, local entertainment profiles or observations about fast food. I don’t know. It wasn’t incredibly structured.

Stuart and I, at a delegate assembly, not on our wedding day.
Stuart and I, at a delegate assembly, not on our wedding day.

But Stuart felt a sense of kinship with this clown he read in the newspaper each week. He recognized another young adult who saw the world through a different lens, who shared his values, who valued social justice, who was getting married, buying a first house, having children at the same time he was.

He said he was thinking about randomly sending me a Facebook friend request. Which would have been creepy, no doubt.

I had no idea who he was, though. He was executive director for the North Dakota Public Employees Association, which was the statewide union   local of the American Federation of Teachers    that represented all public employees and higher education faculty and staff in North Dakota. He also headed the effort to defeat an initiated measure to slash income and corporate tax rates in the state (I think), which he won. Handily. He was also listed in “40 Under 40” one year in Business Watch, a magazine I briefly helmed. And I put his picture on Page 1 of the newspaper once when I was copy editor, but it didn’t have that much of a memorable effect on me until a few years later when I found it and said, “Hey! Stuart!” and brought it into work to show my boss named Stuart. More on that job later.

Still. Didn’t know him. He could’ve sent me an e-mail or something.

Instead, I sent him one. On a miserable Monday, I was surfing the Job Service site, looking for an escape from a job I didn’t particularly like. You know what that feels like, right?

And I found a listing for a very, very part-time job in communications for the North Dakota Public Employees Association.

So I sent a resume and cover letter as quick as I could to their executive director, thinking only, “I like public employees. I like unions. Stuart is a goofy name. Little Stuart Rifkin probably likes to go shopping with his mother …”

I got a response back in under an hour. That was weird. He either called me or e-mailed me and asked me to call him. I can’t remember. But I know I was on the phone with this guy who was going on and on about what a fan he was and that they’d already selected candidates to interview for this very, very part-time job, and they were scheduled for that evening. But he was such a fan, he’d badgered their president to make room in their schedule that evening to fit me in for an interview. Could I make it on that short of notice?

I did. I walked into the old NDPEA office that evening and noticed that the address was 3333 Whatever Lane (not its real address), but I look for numerical signs from the universe in repeating numbers and preferred numbers. Namely, 3 and 11. So 3333 was a good sign.

I met Stuart for the first time that evening and immediately thought he looked like the Miz from WWE and MTV’s “Real World Challenge” fame. Still do. He looks like the Miz. Awesome?

Miz, on his wedding day? Not pictured, my wife.
Miz, on his wedding day? Not pictured, my wife.

The interview wasn’t nearly as easy as one should be for a very, very part-time job. I had to recite the history of organized labor in America from my own memory. I needed to share my theories on communications and organization. Social structures, public service, why the Minnesota Vikings always choke in the playoffs. It. Was. Rigorous. I really didn’t think I performed all that well, but understand that I didn’t really know I was going to be applying and/or interviewing for this job when I got up that morning.

I remember, at the end of the interview, though, that Stuart said something along the lines of, “No matter what the outcome of this interview, I think I’m going to send Kelly a friend request on Facebook!” And I cracked, “And I will approve it, right after you offer me the job.”

So he did. The next morning. I got the call and the offer of this very, very part-time job. And I put in my two week’s notice at my job at the newspaper, to work very, very part-time for the public workers union, and stay home with my daughter.

Also, he friended me on Facebook. And according to the terms of our negotiations the previous night, I had to approve. Awesome?

Five years later, and I’m still working for the union. Now, it’s full time. Now, I’m director of field communications. And now, the organization is North Dakota United    the product of a merger between NDPEA and the North Dakota Education Association. Our union represents K-12 teachers and education support professionals (ESPs), higher education faculty and staff, public workers, retirees and education students. I’m a unionist. I build communities, I encourage fellowship, collective action and social justice. I tell public employees’ stories. I try to affect change. I like to think I make a difference.

This, again, is Stuart’s fault.

So that brings us to today. I’m happy. I love what I do. I’m seven years married to my beautiful, sweet Annette (her real name), and we have two children — the aforementioned daughter and a son. I’m employed. More importantly, I have a job I care passionately about. I love what I do. I did not plan out this route. I didn’t chart this course. It just happened.

Today is my last day working with Stuart. He is moving to Connecticut to start his new job as staff director for AFT-Connecticut. Stuart hasn’t charted his course, either. He didn’t plan to work for a union. It just happened. He’s going where he’s supposed to be. I have to respect that because that’s how we do things. We go where we are called.

But I want to express my appreciation for Stuart, before he leaves. I thank you for always giving me the chance, to succeed or fail. You let me interview for NDPEA on very short notice, you let me blather on and on about nothing much at all, you let me try new things, write longer than I should, inject questionable references and tones into official communications. You taught me a lot. You talked a whole lot. Sometimes I listened. Sometimes I blacked out in the middle. But I think I grasped just enough to really get to know who you are. You’re a leader. You’re a visionary. You’re empathic, and other words that aren’t words. You are an advocate for the working class. You were my boss, my supervisor, and you will remain my friend. I won’t even unfriend you on Facebook. You’re welcome.

I think we all know what it feels like to lose a co-worker. They’re easy to misplace. Unless you put one of those Tile things on them, and then you can track them with your smart phone. If this blog has commenting capabilities, you should tell me about a co-worker who left you. If it doesn’t, just spend the rest of the day thinking about the story. Really intently. It’ll be good for you. A real character-building device.


One thought on “KELLY HAGEN: That’s So Hagen — ‘I’m Happy, And I Love What I Do’”

  • Helen Murphy June 30, 2016 at 8:25 pm

    I was a kindergarten and early childhood special education teacher in a public school in Crookston for 14 years. It was a small staff and the building only housed preschool and kindergarten classrooms. I was one of 4 kindergarten teachers. We were all women around the same age which meant we had many things in common and we all got along. We shared the good times and the tough times and always helped each other in and outside the classroom. I was the only one who lived in another town 70 miles away but I knew I had a place to stay if the weather turned ugly. Lincoln School felt like home until they closed it as a cost saving measure. At that time I was full time early childhood special education teacher but worked with students mainstreamed into the kindergarten rooms. The kindergarten classrooms and teachers were all moved to the building with the first and second grade classes. I was moved to the other end of town to rented space in the Tri Valley Building housing Head Start where I knew nobody and little in common with the staff. I no longer worked with Kindergarten children which was a change since I taught Kindegarten 10 years prior to coming to Crookston. It was very hard for me and I missed my coworkers-especially Vicki who was across the hall from me for 14 years. We shared ideas and helped each other learn new info-the computer and deal with problem behavior. We stayed in touch but it was hard and never the same. We are both retired now and thanks to email and texting are able to reconnect. I hope you and Stuart make an effort to stay in touch because it is worth it.


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