School board member does it all

Published 8:12 am Thursday, December 30, 2010

Austin School Board Chairperson Dick Lees has a long history of helping kids. He currently works as a probation officer for juveniles with Mower County Correctional Services. - Trey Mewes/

Dick Lees has helped people for so many years, he can’t keep track of how long he’s been in various local organizations and groups. He never seems to rest on his laurels, preferring to keep active and help people.

Born and raised in Austin, he’s on his fourth term as an Austin Public School board member, and before that he spent more than 35 years teaching science here. When he retired (he thinks around 1992), he spent another five years as an adjunct instructor at Riverland Community College. He’s worked at Mower County Correctional Services helping juveniles complete their sentences since 1994 and despite possible staff reductions, he’s still not done.

“I just thought it’d be interesting,” Lees said of his decision to become a probation officer. “I had worked with kids all my life basically. I thought that it sounded intriguing.”

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It wasn’t by chance Lees became a teacher. His mother had been a teacher as well, and he was convinced in high school by an instructor to pursue a career in education.

Lees taught in Ellendale for two years before moving to Austin, where he spent more than 30 years teaching seventh and eighth grade science, high school biology and anatomy. Lees also coached a variety of sports, from football and basketball to golf and baseball during his time in the district. He wasn’t done teaching even after he retired around 1992, spending another five years as an adjunct instructor at Riverland Community College.

“I liked the hands on aspect, the lab work,” Lees said. “I just thought that it was more interesting to me.”

Part of his time at Riverland was spent teaching classes that were broadcast to students in outlying towns, in an early version of the digitized lessons Riverland puts on for students around Mower County.

“I would have students in class and then I would also talk to students in outlying towns at the same time,” Lees said.

Looking back on his days as a science teacher, Lees is amazed at how much science class has changed from the time he taught. Students can now conduct experiments with digital devices that leave a significantly lower margin of error than a class 20 years ago.

“It’s amazing. (Teaching science) has advanced tremendously from the time I retired until now,” Lees said.

Nowadays, Lees works with struggling and troubled youth at Mower County Correctional Services. His job is to match teens and young adults convicted of crimes with programs around the county so they can complete the sentences they’ve been given.

“It was fun to talk to them and see how some progressed and, of course, others did not,” Lees said. “Some of them did (succeed), of course never often enough. You’d like to see them all succeed.”

His Austin roots have helped him, as he sometimes works with the children of people he used to have in class. Since he knows of the families of the kids he works with, it helps him figure out how best to deal with the cases he’s assigned.

“I knew some of the situations they were brought up with, so I knew the whole picture,” Lees said.

There’s been talk about cutting correctional services staff for years, and Lee is no stranger to such talks. Ever since the city and county had troubles with state aid, rumors go around this time of year about which jobs are getting cut and when. Lees has managed to hold on thus far, and odds are he’ll continue working through 2011. Preliminary budget reports call for reducing a staff position after an employee retires in the spring, and the county simply won’t fill the job. Lees seems unaffected by the talk, however, preferring to concentrate on helping the kids he meets stay out of his office.

“Time will tell,” Lees said. “You hope they would not show up again.”