Seventeen years ago, an Extension worker, reeling from a personal tragedy, started a new life in Craighead County, Arkansas. Today, the debt owed to those who extended a hand of friendship has been paid back many times over.

Branon Thiesse has come a long way since that late afternoon in 1991, when his routine life suddenly swerved out of control, leaving him with a heavy heart and a difficult challenge as a parent.What defined his life was not so much the tragedy, however, as what happened after.

Thiesse, then an Extension agent in Phillips County, had just played the part of Santa Clause at a chemical company function in Arkansas, and from there traveled to referee a basketball game at a private school in the state. Upon arriving, Thiesse realized that he had left his refereeing shoes at home. He called his wife, Vickie, and asked her to bring the shoes. Vickie loaded up the couple’s three month old daughter, Megan, and dropped the shoes off at the gymnasium.

That was the last time Thiesse spoke to his wife.

“On the way back, she had an automobile accident and was killed,” Thiesse said. “My daughter was in the car with her, but was unhurt. I was 34 years old, had a three-month old daughter to care for. It was hard, but I knew that I had to go on, because she deserved to have somebody take care of her.”

For a couple of years, Thiesse juggled being a single parent raising a young daughter and an Extension career, while continuing to work part time as a referee. In 1994, he was transferred to Craighead County, as Extension agent for the county. “It was one of the best things that ever happened to me,” said Thiesse. “Everybody up here welcomed me into the community. It made a big difference, because I didn’t know anybody.”

Thiesse remarried in 1994. His family included his new wife Susan’s 18 year old son, “who looked after my daughter like she is his blood sister. You’re lucky to find someone who will love another person’s child like they were related. I count my blessings every day.”

Like many in the Extension service, Thiesse has become a vital cog in his local agricultural community, both professionally and socially. Recently, Thiesse was named Extension staff chair for Craighead County, which puts him in charge of the county office.

While Extension agents don’t have to deal with the same risks as farmers, many are working similar hours due to dwindling resources.

“Our federal money has pretty much been flat lined for years, and now they’re starting to talk about cutting a little bit of that,” Thiesse said. “That could trickle down, and we could lose some agents.”

Many in Extension are hunkering down to make sure the latter doesn’t happen. “We may forego raises three or four years in a row just so we don’t have to let people go,” Thiesse said. “Nobody likes to not get a raise, but we’re willing to accept that so that somebody won’t have to lose a job.

“We couldn’t ask any more from our county. They are behind us and help us put on our programs. We also have real good leadership in Little Rock and they are frugal with how they spend the money.”

Time management is crucial for Extension personnel these days. Many are asked to cover more acres or more counties. “I’m not as good at time management as I would like to be, but I’m learning,” said Thiesse, who has a number of row crop responsibilities. “It’s like trying to be in two or three places at the same time. It puts a strain on your family, but they understand that during the growing season, they’re going to see less of me. We get phone calls at night and on the weekend, but they don’t mind because they understand that’s my job. A farmer may say he’s sorry for having to call on the weekend. But I tell them that I want them to call.”

Thiesse’s efforts are appreciated by farmers and consultants in the area.

“The Extension Service out here is one of the best,” said Lake City farmer Mike Hook, when asked about Thiesse. “If you call them to come look at something, they come. I have to hand it to them. They’re good at what they do.”

“Branon is a very respected person throughout our region,” said Eddie Dunigan, a northeast Arkansas crop consultant. “He always gives a very quick response and will usually be on his way to meet you while you are on the phone with him. Branon is instant friends with any new person he contacts.”

The respect is mutual. “It takes a special person to want to be a farmer,” Thiesse said. “There are long hours. I can’t imagine the stress level they have to deal with. They have no telling how many hundreds of thousands of dollars tied up in on crop. I worry about making a car payment, which is a drop in the bucket compared to what farmers have to deal with.”

Thiesse continues to work part time as a basketball referee, something he does “to stay in touch with the game and with young people. At one time, Chuck Wilson and I were the only two sports officials in the entire Extension organization. Many of the kids I see on the basketball court, their dads farm or have some connection to farming.”

While Thiesse still referees, “physically I can see referring coming to an end too. I’m 54 years old and the kids I referee are 17 and 18 years old. The game is a lot different than it used to be.”

There is still the occasional course correction in life for Thiesse and his wife. The latest was Thiesse’s daughter moving out of the house into an apartment. Thiesse and Susan are by themselves for the first time since they were married.

One thing is for certain. The move to Craighead County was just the right tonic for a young man needing friendship and a new start in life. “I love it up here,” Thiesse said. “ It’s a great place to live, and I’ve made a lot of really good friends.”