Sunday, June 7, 2009

Rancher Honored as Outstanding Older Worker

Published in Prime Time, a special section of the Lincoln Journal-Star, December 2, 2008
Copyright 2008 by the Lincoln Journal-Star. Used with permission.
This is my original, unedited copy.

There’s no such thing as a typical day for J. Blaine Runner. Hard work that changes from day to day is a way of life for the 80-year-old rancher, who has lived and worked for 37 years in land well suited for cattle, but often not an easy place for the people who care for them.

Runner was named the 2008 Outstanding Older Worker for Nebraska by Experience Works, the nation’s largest provider of training and employment services for older workers. Runner’s daughter, Ruth Fleecs, nominated her father because of his many years of hard work and persistence, as well as his good stewardship practices and desire to keep learning and growing.

In September Blaine and his wife Betty attended a proclamation ceremony in Lincoln and also traveled to Washington, D.C., where they were honored at the Prime Time Awards Banquet, along with representatives from each state. Mildred Heath, a 100-year-old journalist from Overton, Nebr., was also honored at the banquet, receiving the award for America’s Oldest Worker for 2008.

The Runners live in southern Cherry County, Nebr., where Blaine, his brother Robert Runner and two ranch hands raise Angus cattle on an 18,000-acre ranch, now bordered by one of Ted Turner’s bison ranches. Blaine and Betty’s earth sheltered home is 43 miles from the nearest town (Hyannis, population 235). Mail only comes three times per week in their part of the sandhills, and if a vehicle drives down the road, someone’s either lost or coming to visit. But Runner loves being a rancher, an all-encompassing way of life where work and pleasure blend together.

“Things that a lot of people do for recreation, we do as a business,” he said. The ATVs that some people use for recreational four-wheeling are vital for getting around quickly on a ranch, while horses are invaluable for crossing water and riding over the rugged sandhills. He had a pilot’s license for 59 years and used an aircraft for quick trips to town, checking on water tanks and cattle, and searching for stray cattle. It also allowed him to range further from home and return the same day before inclement weather arrived.

“Ranch work changes from season to season,” Runner said. “In the spring it’s calving time and taking care of young cattle. In summertime it’s putting up hay, and in the fall it’s processing and selling cattle and doing extra work and repairs. In the winter it’s fighting snow and business as usual when the weather’s okay.”

Challenges come from the wild animals that share the land. Pocket gophers make mounds of sand that get into the mowers while he’s cutting hay. About a hundred mule deer graze in the cedar trees, and elk are becoming more common in western Nebraska. When dogs have a run-in with a porcupine, it sometimes results in a visit to the vet to remove the quills.

Because services are distant and more expensive, ranchers learn to be creative with mechanical work. Some do their own cesarean operations on cows, and removing personal medical sutures is common. Home schooling for early grades is increasing.

“Where we live induces a ‘do it yourself response,’” Runner explained. “The more skills a person has, the better it is for the business.”

Lifelong Nebraskans, the Runners moved to Cherry County in 1971, after spending nine years in Hooker County and 30 years before that near North Platte. Blaine Runner comes from a long line of pioneers. His ancestors were some of the first settlers in Kentucky after the Revolutionary War. His grandparents came to Nebraska in the 1880s as homesteaders, and his parents lived in Canada for one year before returning to Nebraska.

Good stewardship of the land is important to Runner, who has written articles about conservation practices and grassland management. He has maintained a policy of allowing employees to accumulate ownership of cattle, which has been a boost to them economically. He enjoys reading in his spare time and is always seeking to grow and learn more about the world around him.

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