Editor's note: "Community Champions" is a weekly feature in which area residents who are advocates for the community are profiled. To recommend someone for consideration, send an email with the subject line 'Community Champions' to firstname.lastname@example.org. Please include contact information about the person and their background. Read previously published stories on columbustelegram.com.
Growing up an avid sports fan and math nut, by the time he reached his senior year of high school Neal Suess had dreams of keeping statistics for his beloved St. Louis Cardinals or Kansas City Chiefs.
But his old man, Duane, stepped in and offered his son some advice that would forever change his life.
“My dad straightened me out in a hurry,” Suess recalled, with a laugh. “He said, ‘Neal, you need to be an engineer. There are not many jobs in math.’ He knew my background in math and that I was good with science. That was a very defining moment for me - talking with my dad.”
Indeed. After that conversation with his father, Suess opted to pursue a mechanical engineering degree at Iowa State University that resulted in him decades later becoming president/CEO of Loup Power District.
“It’s hard to believe I am one of those guys. I am very humbled to be in the same position they are,” Suess said as he looked at the wall of photos in a hallway near his office that features the only five other people who served in his position before him in the company’s 86-year history.
Loup serves 21 Nebraska communities across Platte, Colfax, Boone, Nance and Madison counties with a total current population of approximately 62,300 people, according to its website. The total service area covers 2,219 square miles and consists of 794 miles of transmission and distribution lines. In addition, the district sells electric power to one wholesale customer.
“I love the variety of the job,” Suess said. “And I love the people I work with – I am nothing without those people. That’s what makes it great: We work together as a team.”
Although Loup Power District is a significant part of his life, it’s hardly what shapes him. He’s a husband, father of two, friend to many, big believer in community and a frequent golfer with a not-too-shabby swing. But his upbringing is what made him.
BOY ON THE MOVE
Suess was born in the southern Illinois community of Highland, approximately 30 miles or so east of St. Louis. But being the son of a salesman, Suess and his family moved around a lot when he was a child. They relocated to another southern Illinois town before making stops in north-central Missouri, eastern Missouri, southern Wisconsin, North Carolina and later West Des Moines in Iowa.
Suess wound up attending Valley High School in West Des Moines, where he continued to follow his love for mathematics thanks, in part, to his stats and calculus teacher. Suess decided to combine his love for sports and math for a class project one year. His objective was to use numbers to prove his theory that football teams from smaller Iowa high schools won by larger margins than their bigger counterparts.
“I got done with it and my theory was totally blown out of the water,” Suess said. “The larger schools won by a greater margin than the smaller schools. But I remember getting an A-plus on that and my teacher loved it.”
That’s really when Suess’ aspirations to work for a professional sports team keeping statistics took flight, but his father didn’t think that was the best career path.
“’You’re good, but you might be better off being an engineer,’” he said, recalling what his dad told him. “He was really right. I have had great success since then. I got my mechanical engineering degree from Iowa State, and I loved my time there.”
FINDING HIS WAY
Suess’ parents relocated to Columbus after he graduated high school, so he came and lived in the city of “Power & Progress” during the summers. His parents had a friend at the R. W. Beck Inc. office open in town at the time, and Suess managed to get a summer job working as an engineer for the design engineering company focused primarily on public and private infrastructure organizations. After graduating from Iowa State in 1984, he took a full-time job with the R.W. Beck office in Columbus.
Suess was enjoying his life in Columbus between work, his friends and family. One day his friends from work asked him to join them in a Platte Valley Playhouse production of “Meanwhile, Back on the Couch,” a three-act comedy that tells the story of how psychiatrist Victor Karleen is financially pressed between the rental of his posh office apartment and his fiancée's expensive tastes.
“His character was from the insane asylum. So I tease him he was typecasted,” joked Suess’ longtime wife, Jo. “He’s a real ham. Being in front of a stage in front of people is something he loves to do. He’s not afraid to be in front of people.”
Platte Valley Playhouse is where Neal and Jo met. She was helping out with costume design there at the time and they got to know one another when those involved with the show went out for food and drinks.
“She and I kind of hit it off right away. Jo is tall – she kind of stood out that way. So a couple of months after the first play, we kept talking,” Suess said. “Six weeks after we met, I asked her out. We had dinner over at my place. I made dinner for her.”
The meal was meatloaf and green bean casserole, she recalled.
“He is a good cook,” Jo said. “He’s the griller all summer long.”
He proposed to Jo 10 months later, and on May 2, 1987, they were married. They would later welcome two children – daughter Elizabeth and son Taylor.
FINDING THEIR HOME
In 1992, the Suess family relocated to Edmond, Oklahoma, as he got an opportunity to work for a client of R.W. Beck. A couple of years later, in 1994, they moved to Pella, Iowa, for another job opportunity he got. But before long, they decided to come back to Columbus, where Suess essentially ran the R.W office in town and provided his kids some stability in terms of where they lived.
“When we moved back, I said I wasn’t going to move again. I didn’t want to move my kids around,” he said.
Of course, Nebraska welcomed back the Suess family in grand fashion on that fateful January 1996 day.
“I’ll never forget the day we moved back because we got a 15-inch snow storm, it was colder than crap,” Suess said, with a laugh. “We got back here and the first night it never got over 20 below. I was thinking, ‘What are we doing back here?’”
The Suess family has called Columbus home ever since and made the most of it. Their kids went through the parochial school system, so they all got involved with Scotus Central Catholic High School in some form or another throughout the years.
Jo and Neal are both active community members in many ways. Jo serves as the development director for the Columbus Area United Way, among other things.
Suess himself is an avid golfer, spending as much time as he can playing at Elks Country Club (where they’re members).
“I’m a huge golfer,” he said.
Among his accomplishments are serving on the Columbus Area Chamber of Commerce’s Board of Directors from 2005-2012. He served as the board’s chairman from 2010-2011, and called the experience “rewarding.”
Longtime Columbus resident and friend K.C. Belitz, the chamber’s former president, worked with Suess all those years. He said Suess is someone who cares greatly for the community and that he did a wonderful job serving on the chamber board.
“He really was a great leader in that role,” Belitz said. “He’s a good spokesman, he understands the big picture. It was awesome working with Neal – he’s a committed guy to Columbus. Whatever commitments he’s going to make he’s going to fulfill those commitments to the best of his ability.”
In the mid-2000s, officials with R.W. approached Suess about relocating to Denver to be near the company's bigger office there. Not wanting to leave Columbus, the opportunity at Loup came about at the perfect time as then-Loup President/CEO Robert E. White announced his plans to retire.
“I was lucky enough to get it because there were some great candidates. I was hired Sept. 1, 2005, and Bob retired Dec. 31, 2005, so there was some overlap and I officially took over Jan. 1, 2006,” Suess said. “I had been to two or three years straight of Loup board meetings as a consultant, so nothing really changed other than the fact I was an employee. Suddenly I was leading the meetings instead of being part of them.”
WHO I AM
If you ask Suess today, he’ll tell you he wasn’t a fan of all the moving he had to do as a kid. He said it was always a challenge because he had to make new friends everywhere they went, but that ultimately it all benefited him.
“Moving around –it was difficult. It was hard when I was a kid, but then when I got into engineering, I saw it,” he said. “Engineers aren’t the best communicators –we’re often very numerical focused and stat focused on what’s going on.
“I really think by moving around it helped me a lot in my professional career because I could relate to people better than most. I had to do that because if you move around and don’t get involved with other people, you’re going to be by yourself a lot. For me, that really helped me open up a lot more. So I’m not what you would call a typical engineer.”
“One thing that defines his personality is he moved around a lot growing up. He can talk to anybody about anything,” she said. “I define him as a black or white kind of guy. When he buys in, he gives it his all.”
He and Jo are happy living in Columbus.
“It has been 23 years since we moved back,” he said. “The obvious thing about Columbus is it’s a smaller town, it’s convenient, it’s easy to get around in. I love the people in this town. I love what this town is about. This town is really about doing what has to be done and getting things done. I’ve always enjoyed that about this town.”
Their children, 30-year-old Elizabeth and 28-year-old Taylor, are doing well. Elizabeth is a maintenance coordinator for iMedia Inc. in Pennsylvania, having gotten a degree in meteorology from Iowa State (she wanted to follow in her father’s footsteps of becoming a Cyclone since she was a little kid). Taylor became an engineer like his dad. He and his wife, Dani, live in Sioux Falls, South Dakota.
Suess is undoubtedly proud of his family, though his individual success is still somewhat surreal to him. As he looked over the photos of former Loup CEOs on a recent day, he appeared to be proud. He discussed the company’s legacy and accomplishments, before noting his hope to be the longest-tenured CEO in its history. That will hopefully happen in 2025 as he has no intention of stepping away between now and then.
And in some ways, he owes it to his late father, who passed away due to a brain tumor in 1991. To this day, Suess still can recall that conversation they had many years ago.
“My dad was a great guy. Talking to a lot of people in town here, he knew everybody,” he said, noting his 86-year-old mother, Carol Bottum, now lives in Lincoln. “I would think, I would hope, he would be very proud. I would think he would say, ‘Neal you’ve really done well for yourself. You’ve got two kids who are really doing well, you’ve got a great wife.’ I think he would be very proud of me. I talk to my mom and she said he would be very proud.”
And though he never got to keep stats for a professional team, the childhood dream still became somewhat of a reality as he has for a number of years been doing the books for the Scotus Central Catholic High girls basketball squad for almost all of its home games and some road contests.
“I still get to do it,” he said, with a big smile. “I love doing that. And it keeps me involved in the community.”
Matt Lindberg is the managing editor of The Columbus Telegram. Reach him via email at email@example.com.