Barb O’Hara, Kittson County Emergency Management Director, points to a map which details disasters in Minnesota. She reports that Kittson County had 35 disasters between 1965 and 2013, with the majority of them involving flooding along the Red River. (Enterprise Photo by Linda Andersen)
By Linda Andersen
Thirty-nine years with the same employer is an impressive accomplishment and one that Barb O’Hara (who is currently the emergency management officer and environmental services director for Kittson County) will soon be completing. Such a record certainly hints at the possession of many good qualities, including loyalty, competence, and people skills. Comments with several of Barb’s associates from the past years confirm such qualities:
“She was a very dedicated, very loyal employee for the department and county – the kind of person you had total confidence in. The accounting job at the highway department was very complicated. She did a very good job with it.” Kelly Bengtson, Kittson County Engineer
“She’s been a good part of our organization, which is the Mar-Kit Landfill board. I have nothing but good things to say about her. She’s very easy to work with (easy to talk to and easy to get a hold of) and has done a very good job.” Dale Nelson, manager, Mar-Kit Landfill
“Barb has been someone that everyone within Region 3 can count on for assistance. She has been more than a colleague; she is a friend to all who meet her. She won the AMEM Director of the Year in 2017, which was, true to Barb’s humble personality, something she believed others deserved more – anyone who has met her would disagree. She has done a lot to make Kittson County’s emergency management program strong and the next person certainly has the proper foundation to continue her legacy. She will be greatly missed within the emergency management community.” Heather Winkleblack, Regional Coordinator, Northwest Region 3, Homeland Security & Emergency Management
A 1977 graduate of Hallock High School, Barb (Lawrence) attended the University of North Dakota for one year and then the AVTI in Thief River Falls.
“I graduated from there on a Wednesday and I started here on a Friday,” O’Hara says of her beginnings of employment with the county. She was first an accounting clerk, doing payroll and inventory, plus some correspondence for Ray Joki, who was the county engineer at that time. Office practices were different in those days when there were no computers and “everything was long hand.”
When highway accountant, Duane Nordling retired, O’Hara moved into his position where she remained for 23 years.
“Kittson County went through a FEMA declaration for flooding probably two dozen times. That was my kind of ‘in’ for this job,” states O’Hara in regard to her coming to her current position. She adds that she already had experience with the paper work and financial aspect regarding the recovery process.
Since 2012 her duties as director of emergency management and environmental services have included “planning for Kittson County’s worst day” and dealing with recycling and household hazardous waste issues in addition to working with the board of the county landfill and her counterparts at Minnesota Pollution Control.
“This job is very much about team work … I’ve met a lot of people on this job for a wide variety of reasons,” she states, mentioning personnel of the fire departments, Salvation Army, ag businesses, schools, and more.
She says her favorite part of her work has been her co-workers, which included approximately 20 men and one woman during her years at the highway department and now her coworkers who hold her position in other parts of the region.
She says the “number one event” since she’s been dealing with disasters was the 2012 fire in Karlstad. She compliments the people of the county because, even though the Red Cross came immediately to set up a shelter in Hallock, no one needed the service because the people of the county were taking care of their own.
“My retirement date is May 31st,” says Barb, mentioning that her husband retired from his position at Motor Coach Industries in March. “It’s been a good run,” she says, while adding, “We have so much to look forward to.”
O’Hara and her husband have plans to travel, following the example of her parents, Sid and Dorothy Lawrence (now both 91 years of age) who have been traveling in their retirement years. The O’Haras first adventure will be a trip to Alaska in their fifth wheel camper this coming summer. Retirement will also mean more time to spend with son, David, who works as an electrician in Dickinson and daughter, Samantha, and her husband, Erik, who are stationed in Lubbock, Texas.
And, there will be one more advantage of retirement – “I can quit watching the weather channel,” says O’Hara with a smile.