The kid who grew up on the Clear Lake farm that his family has owned for 150 years never considered raising crops for a living. But it was on that 350-acre farm that Brian Bensen began planting the seeds that would one day help shape Sherburne County.
Sherburne County's administrator since 1998 and recently honored by the Minnesota Association of County Administrators with this year's Joe Ries Excellence in Management Award, Bensen, 62, once considered careers as a lawyer, a teacher and in international relations with the State Department. And when he eventually came to work for Sherburne County in 1978, concentrating on environmental health issues, he thought the job with his home county would last a little more than a year.
"I kept moving into new areas," Bensen said. "People seemed to like what I was doing."
They liked it so much that he stopped moving. Few current county administrators in Minnesota can come close to his longevity. And while Sherburne County has certainly changed since Bensen first took over as administrator -- more than tripling its population from 28,000 to approximately 90,000 -- Bensen has been a constant.
"He's great," said Luci Botzek, the county's deputy administrator. "Nobody works harder."
And few administrators could be steadier. He's worked nearly 35 years in the county in which he was raised. He has been married 40 years to the girl who caught his attention in grade school.
But the great-grandson of Haven Township's first town board chairman also has had an eye for the changing times.
He didn't grow up riding on mass transit, but Bensen immediately recognized the "long-term benefit" the Northstar commuter rail line from Minneapolis to Big Lake could provide for Sherburne County's development. He would love to see the Northstar used not only as a way to take commuters into Minneapolis but also as a reverse route to bring commuters into St. Cloud.
He is conscious of the infrastructure that can bring and retain business in Sherburne County. But Bensen also is sensitive to the delicate balance of a county that clings to its rural image even while it has been one of the state's two fastest-growing counties in the 1980s and '90s, along with Scott County.
Through it all, he has tried to remain focused.
"It's so easy to drop into details and have a day consumed by small things," he said. "Part of my job is to keep the County Board focused on making decisions on big-picture things. It's easy to fall into the trap of seeing so many details and possibilities that you miss everything."
As a youngster, the big picture Bensen dreamed about had little to do with administration.
His family leased its farmland to neighbors. His parents were teachers in St. Cloud, not farmers. Brian's father taught Brian his senior year. But his father also stepped away from teaching for a while to work for Brian's grandfather's plumbing and heating company. He eventually went back to teaching, but the lessons of being able to work with your hands and your brain were not lost on young Brian.
A good student, Bensen earned a scholarship to the University of Nebraska while Jan, his future bride, went to Macalester. She's now a financial planner in St. Cloud.
Bensen earned a teaching degree at Nebraska and considered going to law school -- until he spent a few days shadowing lawyers in St. Cloud and decided "this wasn't for me."
For three years, he worked as a substitute teacher and tutored at-risk students -- kids who had difficulty with juvenile authorities or came from families in crisis.
"It took a lot of energy," he recalled. "After three years, I felt burned out."
He came to the county, expecting whatever job he found to be little more than transitional. But in dealing with environmental-health issues and projects like septic systems in rural areas or cleaning up open dumps, Bensen was able to "get out in the country, keep moving in new areas.
"I liked it," he said.
He served as the county's planning director for 15 years while raising a family of three children, now grown. When he needed a break from it all, he'd retreat into his woodworking shop, where he restores old furniture or "builds stuff." He also reads a lot.
He's not sure what to read into the award he received Dec. 4 from the county administrators' association. It is, arguably, the highest honor a Minnesota county administrator can receive from his peers. Joe Ries was Scott County's first administrator and one of the association's founders.
"I had no idea I was receiving this until I heard my name called," Bensen said. "For me, this came out of nowhere."
But then it settled easily into the steady hands of someone who has always been there.
Paul Levy • 612-673-4419