Some friends have suggested that Michael and Dana Rethwisch become “snow birds,” living in Nebraska during the warm months and then the temperate climate of southern California the rest of the year.
That probably wouldn’t go over to well with the University of Nebraska Extension, Rethwisch’s employer the past decade or the University of California Cooperative Extension in Blythe, California, the place to which the Rethwisches are returning.
Rethwisch, a native of Wayne, said he and Dana had moved back to Nebraska for mostly family reasons. They were attracted to the quality of the schools and they wanted their kids to grow up around their cousins and other family members.
The move back to Blythe, even to the family’s former house there, means that the next month or so will be spent unpacking while Rethwisch gets back to his old office and begins the work of research and consulting with area producers about crops, weeds and insects that thrive in the California heat.
He still has to catch up on some writing in regard to his Nebraska research on growth enhancements and other crop issues. Here on the Great Plains, he said it was rewarding to identify some insects locally that previously had not been spotted. He wasn’t complaining that the Japanese beetle hasn’t been spotted in Butler County, nor the emerald ash borer, but for both “it’s just a matter of time,” he said.
Now, however, 80 miles north of the Mexico border, Rethwisch will be working in the year-round agriculture of Southern California. He’ll be addressing aphids and white flies and the insects that carry viruses that lead to problems for melons and other crops. Because of the Nebraska winter weather, such insects don’t cause as many problems here.
About that winter weather. Rethwisch said it became clear last winter that living in the northern climate wasn’t an option, thanks to what happened Oct. 1, 2015 on the David City Golf Course.
On that day, Rethwisch basically dropped dead of a massive heart attack while he watched his daughter’s cross country meet. The attack happened just after he had returned to town from Joe Hruska’s farm 11 miles away, where he most certainly wouldn’t have had received aid in time.
Instead, he collapsed a block from the hospital with a doctor nearby and critical rescue gear a short dash away.
“This wasn’t about me,” he said, talking about the incident a couple months later, and mentioning all the people who helped him. “I was just laying there.”
Just a half hour earlier, Hruska had urged Rethwisch to call it a day and go to his daughter’s meet. Rethwisch wasn’t budging until Hruska insisted.
“I wanted to finish off the plots. We had work to do. I’m a professional, I want to get my work done,” Rethwisch explained in late 2015. “It was almost to the point of an argument."
Rethwisch slowly got back to health so that he could work, but he had sustained some heart damage.
On Monday, he said that the experience taught him a few things.
“We just take the ability to drive as a given,” he said, describing the several months when he couldn’t because of the risk of another attack. “I needed people to get me places.”
He said most people probably take their health for granted, and now he has to think about pacing himself.
“Every day is a blessing,” he said. “Right now I shouldn’t be here.”
A year after the attack, cold fall weather crept in and it became clear that Rethwisch couldn’t tolerate the cold.
“I’d have gloves on with the heater going in the car and three fingers with no blood in them. It scared me enough to realize we couldn’t stay here,” he said.
Between the heart damage, medication and the cold weather, he said his body was pulling blood from the extremities “to keep things warm.”
Now 58, Rethwisch said he’s accepting the fact that he can’t work like he did in the first 20 years of his career.
“I do know I get tired a lot quicker than I used to,” he said.
While he researched crops, weeds and insects in Butler County, his influence on people has probably been deeper. His approach to teaching has helped dozens of young 4-Hers to excel in scientific competitions. Over the years, The Banner-Press could expect to get an article from Rethwisch about Butler County 4-Hers’ success at the Nebraska State Fair. In the identification of trees, weeds and insects, area 4-Hers have put together a record that will be tough to match.
The county produced 31 state champion plant identification teams in the past decade, and there have been 29 from the other 92 counties.
The latest example was from Wyatt Moravec, a sophomore at Aquinas. He competed with the Nebraska 4-H horticulture team in nationals in Indianapolis. He and three other Nebraskans captured this year’s national title with Rethwisch as their coach.
Moravec realized he should work with Rethwisch while he could.
“I heard Mr. Rethwisch was leaving,” Wyatt said recently. “He’s probably the best coach in America.”
On more than one occasion, Rethwisch said the medals were good for the young competitors, but it was more important to see them achieve and grow their interest in science and education.
Outside of Extension, Rethwisch has been active as the chairman of the Butler County Tourism Committee, helping to organize how the funds from the county’s lodging tax are utilized to improve the climate for tourism in the county.
On Oct. 30, friends and colleagues filed into an open house at the Butler County Event Center to say goodbye and talk about experiences.
Area Extension educators were on hand to wish the Rethwisch success as they head back to California.
“We were humbled and honored by all the people who came to see us,” Rethwisch said. “There were farmers who left the field for a couple hours to come in. That was very nice on their part.”