Nan Herman walked into the women’s prison in Shakopee looking for a part-time job. Little did she know that she would rise through the ranks and become a mentor over the next 20 years to the women and the staff who oversaw them.

“She could find good in every situation and every person,” said her daughter Stacia Ikpe of West Caldwell, N.J. “She didn’t see the people in prison as horrible people committing crimes but women who made some bad choices in difficult situations.” Herman, 81, of Chanhassen, died from cancer on March 24.

For those who worked alongside her, the small town farm girl who made a career in corrections had a calming presence. She became captain of security in 1993 — the first woman in the state to serve in that position.

She led with compassion and wit, said Joyce Cassidy, a friend and former prison colleague.

Newer correctional officers sometimes had trepidation when they oversaw the inmates who were sent to segregation because of a prison infraction. “Nan would say, ‘They don’t grow horns overnight,’ ” Cassidy recalled. “They’re just people, and they’ll be your neighbors some day, so treat them like humans.”

Herman took time to know the inmates — where they came from and the story that got them there, said Barb Hilleren, another former colleague and friend. She was slow to judge and quick to help, Hilleren added.

“Nan believed we could turn their lives around,” she said.

The key was to treat each woman with respect and compassion, Hilleren said. There was no need to make them suffer. Being in prison was punishment enough, and Herman would remind her colleagues: “ ‘We’re leaving at the end of the day, and they’re not,’ ” Hilleren recalled.

She loved her job so much that she often said she felt guilty taking pay for it, Cassidy said.

Herman, the youngest of five children, grew up on a farm in southern Minnesota near Wells.

“Nan enjoyed life wherever she went,” said her sister, Mary Schmid of Chanhassen. “I was a goody-two-shoes. I never had the fun that she did. She didn’t do anything illegal,” Schmid said, laughing. “But she pushed boundaries.”

After high school, Herman attended college but left after a year to work and eventually marry and raise a family, her sister said.

To earn a little money, Ikpe remembers her mom became a recipe tester for Betty Crocker. “That’s hilarious because she was the world’s worst cook,” she said.

Herman was 39 when she decided to go back to college and got a paralegal degree from Winona State University.

“It was important to her that women have a career,” Schmid said. “It was like an insurance policy for women in case they ended up being on their own. She also wanted to feel fulfilled.”

While she was there, Herman embraced college and joined the golf team. Why not, she figured. She was a golfer and everyone had four years of eligibility, said her son, Doyle Herman of St. Louis Park. She continued playing golf until chemotherapy took its toll two years ago. “She golfed five days a week,” her son said. “She was a golfing machine.”

She was competitive and always played to win whether it was golfing, cards or table tennis. “Back in college I would play racquetball with her, and she could beat me. She never gave you any quarter.”

She was witty, opinionated and adventurous. She ziplined in Costa Rica, went rafting in the Grand Canyon and continued to experience the world alongside her children and grandchildren.

A celebration of Herman’s life will be held at a later date with an open bar, as she requested, her son said. Besides her sister and two children, she is survived by two granddaughters.