Tannehill retires after 28 years with Extension on Kenai Peninsula
Alaska was love at first sight for Linda Tannehill, 4-H and Home, Health and Family Development agent in Soldotna. She came up in the summer of 1992 on vacation and returned for a second look the following February because she wanted to see how the winter compared with those back home in Kansas.
It just so happened that it was 40 above on the Kenai Peninsula and minus 4 in Kansas. During that visit, she applied for a job with the University of Alaska Fairbanks Cooperative Extension Service and went on a retreat with the local Extension staff. Her first impression?
“Those women were so fun,” she said. “Of course, there’s all this beauty, but what good is beauty if the people aren't kind and fun, and my first impression of Alaska were the Extension homemakers, as they were called then. They were just a fun bunch.”
Tannehill started working at the Cooperative Extension office that fall and now, 28 years later, has decided to retire. It wasn't an easy decision, she said, noting that she’s planning to stay on the Kenai Peninsula and staying involved with some of the projects she’s worked with over the years.
“It comes down to the people,” she said. “That’s what I’ll miss the most.”
She earned a bachelor’s degree in Extension at Kansas State University and said one of the things that has always stayed with her is a quote that one of her professors had on the board, “People don’t care how much you know until they know how much they care.”
Tannehill said the professor wanted to instill in them that “we’re not hotshots; people want to know that we do care about their problem, the challenges they’re having to encounter.”
She notes three major accomplishments over her career on the Kenai: getting legislation passed to allow service dogs in public spaces; helping develop the Alaska Strong Women program; and organizing an emergency preparedness program.
Tannehill has always loved dogs. When she started working on the Kenai, one of the 4-H programs for which she was responsible involved raising service dogs. She jumped right in with her first service dog trainee, a black Labrador retriever named Dixie.
She discovered that they didn't have access to a lot of places to train the dogs.
“They needed to be able to get into these public spaces, because you can’t take a dog from a kennel and expect them to do well in public,” she said. “So we tackled the legislative process,” and in 1998, public access for service animals was approved.
Since then, the schools have taken over the program, but it’s still a good way for kids to learn about responsibility and public speaking, she said. Tannehill later was asked to train standard poodles, a breed she fell in love with. Her current dog, Halo, is a standard poodle who keeps Tannehill very busy and active.
The Strong Women project started with a conversation she overheard at a national convention in Dallas about research Miriam Nelson at Tufts University had done on the effects of strength training for middle-aged and older women. She published a book called “Strong Women Stay Young.” Tannehill and her colleagues were interested in using the book for a health curriculum, so she called Nelson and suggested that if the research was put into a curriculum, Extension was an ideal way to get the message out.
“That’s what Extension does, that’s what we do, and it was just a wonderful partnership,” Tannehill said. She attended a training session at Tufts University in Boston in 2003 and brought the program back to Alaska, where it’s still active. It has spread to venues such as senior centers, and men also are benefiting from the curriculum, she said.
According to Tannehill, her third-biggest impact has been with emergency preparedness. Growing up in Kansas, Tannehill was well aware of natural hazards such as tornadoes.
“I get up here and there are all of these disasters that can happen, and none of them are tornadoes,” she said. She told an official at the Kenai Peninsula Borough Emergency Management Office that she was a new Extension agent from Kansas and she felt people in the community were in denial about disasters such as earthquakes, avalanches and tsunamis.
“He goes, ‘I have a job for you,’” she said. “I went to the first local emergency planning committee and I was the only person there without a gun or badge because they were all first responders. It took me awhile to realize that they’re good at what they do, but they are not good at public outreach and public education about preparedness.”
Tannehill said a light bulb went off. “Oh, that’s my job,” she said. “That is my job, so I started teaching classes.”
Nationally, she worked with the development of an Extension disaster network and brought the message back that disaster preparedness affects every part of Extension, such as food safety, child development and agriculture. One of the last projects she has been working on is a series of fact sheets about mental and behavioral health for Extension people who are responding to disasters.
A bonus project Tannehill mentioned was working out how to safely preserve walrus meat, at the request of a person living in Dillingham. She, Extension food science specialist Kristy Long and a couple of others traveled to Kodiak. They divided into teams to test various preservation methods.
What she remembers most about it, however, was how frustrating it was to assemble the mechanism used to preserve food in metal cans. That led to a side project in which Tannehill helped write a publication explaining how to assemble it because the directions that came with the sealer were so hard to follow.
Just the other day, Tannehill said she got a call from someone having problems assembling a can sealer. She brought a copy of the publication with her and showed it to the woman.
“She was just in heaven,” Tannehill said. “And, I’m retiring soon, and I’m thinking ‘Did I make a difference?’ and it’s seeing how happy she was. It comes down to the individuals that we serve. And that made my heart sing, because maybe I have made a difference.”