Andy Long reached out to me on Facebook in 2018 after launching his non-profit, Cultivate Rural Leaders. From there, we engaged in a dialogue about our collective small town efforts. Andy is the Executive Director of the McCook Economic Development Corporation (McCook, Nebraska – population 7,500) and Founder of Cultivate Rural Leaders. I’m excited to share his stories, mission, and perspective to remind us of what it takes to keep our small towns thriving into the next generation.
Where did you grow up? Andy grew up in Grant, Nebraska, population 1,200 where his dad was a third generation funeral director. When Andy went to his grandparents house, that meant going to the funeral home. Eventually, Andy’s dad took over and he lived in the funeral home. To Andy and his cousins, playing hide and seek in the dark in the funeral home was normal. The other kids in town couldn’t say the same.
What has been your geographic journey from the time you left your small town? After high school, Andy attended college at the University of Nebraska, Lincoln. His first job was teaching high school social studies and coaching basketball in Big Springs, NE (pop. 400) and Cozad, NE (pop. 4,000). From there, he took a job with the Gallup Polls in Lincoln, NE (pop. 200,000). After Andy and his wife had their first child, they moved closer to home in Sterling, CO (pop. 12,000) where he was the director of admissions and traveled the state of Colorado recruiting for Northeastern Junior College. After five years in Sterling, Andy was hired as the Vice President of McCook Community College in McCook, NE (pop. 7,500). After working for the college for five years, Andy took the job as the local economic development director and started his own nonprofit, Cultivate Rural Leaders, which provides community leadership education.
How has your small town upbringing allowed you to be successful in your professional life? Andy played three sports, was active in speech and drama, FHA (Future Homemakers of America), student council, and whatever other activity he could find. He credits the determination required to play three sports, creating and presenting projects for FHA, and delivering speeches with only an hour to prepare as keys to his success today.
When did you have your first “We’re not in Kansas anymore, Toto” moment? Visiting big cities has always created this moment for Andy. When he was in high school, he was selected to participate in a Washington DC trip and while in college he visited Chicago and New York. Those trips opened his eyes to a different world. He noticed how differently things operated. How quickly people move. How they talk to each other. For him, seeing the hustle and bustle of a big city helped him appreciate where he’s from even more.
As a college administrator, Andy took groups of college students to Chicago. He said it’s fun to open their eyes to the diversity and possibility found in a big city. The students love to explore, see the sights, the stores, and the people. Oftentimes, this is the first time they’ve been exposed to homeless people, different languages and racial diversity. Andy said that 15-25% of the students left those trips knowing the big city is where they wanted to be, while the other 75-85% were thankful to be from, and stay in, a small town.
**Andy’s helpful note if you are going to take your small town students to Chicago: remind them to leave their pocket knives at home. On almost every trip at least one kid would have to give up their pocket knife before going up into the Sears tower. It’s completely normal for them to carry a pocket knife wherever they go.
What experience is the most memorable from your time in a small town? Andy fondly recalls riding his bike around town and hanging out at the pool in middle school. He has great memories of end of the year athletic banquets (always a potluck), and events like the Buffalo Commons Storytelling Festival in McCook. He also had a three year run being on the unofficial fireworks pyrotechnic crew when he and his cousins choreographed a 10-minute display to music on the 4th of July. It was shut down the third year when more strangers than friends showed up to watch.
I learned from Andy about a Nebraska tradition (confirmed by another small town Nebraskan to verify it’s truth): soup suppers. Every Friday, there was a soup supper, typically in the high school cafeteria before the high school basketball games. On the menu: chili and cinnamon rolls. When Andy coached high school basketball, he would be interviewed by the local radio station after the games. Not only did he become known for his basketball commentary, but he also began commentating on the quality of the soup supper (Food Network – when are you going to pick up on this tradition?!?)
What is the most important lesson you took with you from your small town upbringing? Success isn’t measured by your bank account, but the difference you make in your community and the relationships you have. Andy’s parents were both active in community organizations and his dad served as mayor. His mom was involved behind the scenes, helped organize lights for the ball fields and is still active with the community foundation. In a small town, people have pride in what they do. They take the long view. They make their community better together.
Success isn’t measured by your bank account, but the difference you make in your community and the relationships you have.
How have you brought the small town spirit with you in life? Andy is trying to pass down what he’s learned to the current and next generation of rural leaders through his non-profit, Cultivate Rural Leaders. If small towns want to survive, and even thrive, it’s time for residents to be more progressive. The days of the Jaycees, Rotary, Lions and Optimist clubs are fading, and with it, the baby boomer leaders who have been in charge of the school board, town councils and county commissions.
If small towns want to survive, and even thrive, it’s time for residents to be more progressive.
Andy is actively working to bring up the next generation of leaders, who to this point, haven’t had much leadership development. Through his work, he’s helping the next generation become strong civic and business leaders. He’s helping them explore the opportunities they can create in their small towns.
Andy believes strongly that we can influence the future of our communities and he’s working everyday to make it happen.
What has been your greatest observation from working with other rural and small town leaders throughout your career? It doesn’t take long to tell the people who are in it for the mission instead of the money. If people join an organization or are elected to a board with one or two issues they want to ‘fix’, they aren’t going to be good board members. If they are in it for the mission and are willing to learn they will be great. Most small town leaders are in it for the mission.
Andy has had experience working in metropolitan areas for larger companies, and what he saw in that setting is that ego gets in the way more often than in small towns. We hear messages every day that we have to have more, that we need this, and deserve that. This “me” focused messaging isn’t helping create the type of community that naturally forms in small towns. Everyone is so close to you that life isn’t about “me”, but instead about your family, co-workers, and neighbors. As Andy says, in a small town, “It’s not about me. It’s about this community.”
An ah-ha moment on networking and metrics from our interview: The way a lot of the world works is to crunch the numbers. Growth and progress in a small town can’t be put on a spreadsheet. When you grow up in an agricultural-based economy, progress is based on seasons and generations. That patience in the process trickles down to our relationships.
Growth and progress in a small town can’t be put on a spreadsheet.
We don’t need to network in a small town. People know what other people do. People do what they say they will do. People come together to make things better. The focus isn’t on a quarterly number. Instead, the focus is on growing and feeding something bigger than ourselves.
How can small town alumni who moved away from their community continue to provide support to those in their hometown? Think about moving back and contribute to the local community foundation!
What advice would you give kids who are growing up in your hometown today? Appreciate what you have! Get involved in speech and drama.
It’s ok to move away – and come back. People who have gone away and choose to come back, not only have great appreciation for their small town, but also bring new ideas with them.