SALEM — Just when Terry Rieckman thought he was out, they dragged him back in.

After nearly four decades of teaching students about the finer points of agriculture and the agriculture industry, the longtime teacher and FFA advisor at McCook Central High School in Salem had expected to take his well-earned retirement this year.

But fate had other plans.

“This is my 38th year,” Rieckman told the Mitchell Republic in a recent interview. “I retired in May, and then when they started school again in August, they didn’t have a teacher yet. I didn’t even teach the first week of this school year, but they made me an offer and I said I could do this.”

There is more than one reason why Rieckman decided to return. He knew the students in the active agriculture program at McCook Central needed a leader, and he remains well-suited for the job. The job itself was one he had grown to love over his years in front of the classroom. And after having the National FFA Convention switched to a virtual format last year, the chance to return to the live version of the event in Indianapolis was icing on the cake.

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“When that whole COVID-19 thing hit and we couldn’t do anything that spring and they canceled the state convention, I said there’s no way I’m going out without being able to do anything,” Rieckman said.

After a hiatus last year due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the National FFA convention is back this year in Indianapolis starting on Wednesday. (Matt Gade / Mitchell Republic)
After a hiatus last year due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the National FFA convention is back this year in Indianapolis starting on Wednesday. (Matt Gade / Mitchell Republic)

It appears to be a good thing he decided to return. This year, at the 94th National FFA Convention and Expo, to be held Oct. 27 through Oct. 30, Rieckman will be recognized with a VIP Citation, which honors individuals who have dedicated 20 years of service to FFA and agricultural education on a national level. It’s an honor extended to just a handful of individuals a year.

“There are 11 getting it this year, and I can only think of two other teachers who have gotten it,” Rieckman said. “Usually it goes to college professors or industry leaders who have been on the foundation board. It’s based on work that you’ve done with the national FFA over a period of 20 years.”

He’s put in work at the national level for years. He has judged proficiency awards at the national level, as well as judged Star Awards. He also spent three years on the FFA Foundation Board. The recipients of the citation hail from around the country, but even with thousands of people involved, Rieckman has managed to interact with nearly every aspect of the national organization.

“I think out of the 11, I know six or seven of them that I’ve worked with,” he said.

It’s a nice honor, Rieckman acknowledges, but when it comes to attention, he would like the focus to stay on his students.

“I would prefer the kids get the spotlight,” he said.

After a hiatus last year due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the National FFA convention is back this year in Indianapolis starting on Wednesday. (Matt Gade / Mitchell Republic)
After a hiatus last year due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the National FFA convention is back this year in Indianapolis starting on Wednesday. (Matt Gade / Mitchell Republic)

Grace DiGiovanni, a senior at McCook Central who is involved with FFA, said humility is one of Rieckman’s signature characteristics. He personable, she said, but when it comes to sharing the frame with his students, he insists that it is their show, not his.

“He doesn’t like to be in pictures,” DiGiovanni said with a laugh.

The McCook Central chapter of FFA has 40 students scheduled to make the journey to the national convention in Indianapolis this week. They will have six teams competing, along with three individuals who are finalists in the agriscience division.

The convention is a great chance to interact with FFA chapters around the country, to network with new friends and old colleagues and to receive feedback on the work the chapter has done over the course of the past year, Rieckman said.

“It’s an accumulation of everything you’ve done for the whole year. All your chapter activities, all of your preparation. You take your activities from the year, things the kids have worked on, like community service projects,” he said. “That’s probably the most important thing for the chapter. The other stuff is fun, but the things we can do for service learning projects? That’s the big thing.”

Over the years, Rieckman has given his students perspective on modern agriculture and its techniques. And those students have changed over the course of nearly 40 years. Once almost an expectation, fewer students today live on a farm than used to. He had a recent class where not one student grew up on a farm.

McCook Central FFA Adviser Terry Rieckman talks about the upcoming National FFA convention in Indianapolis starting on Wednesday. (Matt Gade / Mitchell Republic)
McCook Central FFA Adviser Terry Rieckman talks about the upcoming National FFA convention in Indianapolis starting on Wednesday. (Matt Gade / Mitchell Republic)

He was reminded of that on another trip to the national FFA convention. A stop along the way for a tour at a dairy farm saw dozens of his students mesmerized by a calf being born in a birthing barn. He wasn’t sure what the appeal was until he realized that practically none of his students had seen the event before.

“I had 45 kids and they all were sitting in this birthing barn watching. I thought what’s the big deal, it’s just a calf being born,” Rieckman recalled. “There were only four students that had ever seen a calf born in their lives. And we live in Salem, South Dakota,” he said.

Still, even those without a farming background find skills they can use. And some even move on to work in the agriculture industry. Among the class that featured no farm-raised students, Rieckman named a few that went on to work in ag teaching, seed corn dealing or precision agriculture.

DiGiovanni actually transferred to McCook Central for the ag program, even though she won’t necessarily be going into an ag-related field after college.

“I actually moved here for him,” said DiGiovanni, who also serves as the secretary of the FFA chapter. “I came from Bridgewater-Emery, so I moved here and the opportunities were amazing. Right away, he put me in ag sales at the national level and I learned that in two months. And we got gold at the national level.”

She is hoping to attend Baylor University or Creighton University next year to get a degree in biochemistry.

Rieckman, 66, said being back after the briefest of retirements has been a good experience. He said he feels less pressure on the job having returned to help out his old chapter and district, and he figures he could teach another year following this one, although he would like to take advantage of retirement.

He enjoys spending time camping at Pickstown, and he said his wife would like to do more traveling. He likes to fish, but claims he is a fair-weather fisherman. He prefers no rain and warm temperatures, and if the conditions don’t meet his requirements, he doesn’t go.

But until then, he said he’ll relish the chance to again work with his students, to mingle and network with his fellow agriculture teachers and FFA advisors at events and conventions and continue the tradition that remains strong at McCook Central High School.

And the success that follows him and his students is a nice experience, too.

“We’ve had a lot of success the last three or four years, and it’s fun when you’re kicking butt. It’s like being (former Mitchell High School basketball coach) Gary Munsen when you’re coaching basketball,” Rieckman said.