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Wadena County leader retires after 45 years in field

It came down to $100. That was the deciding factor between two career paths that Paul Sailer could have chosen.

It was just after the Vietnam War and Sailer, a helicopter pilot, had to decide between a job in shoreland management or one as a social worker, which offered an extra $100 pay per month.

Although his interest was in shoreland management, Sailer chose to become a social worker. After all, he had a new family to support and that extra $100 a month would help.

“I haven’t regretted that decision since,” he said.

Today, after 37 years in the Wadena County Human Services Department, Sailer is retiring as director. It’s a post he’s held since 1988.

Sailer, 66, has served at director for 26 years. He’s been in the human services field for 45 years.

In his time at Wadena County, Sailer has seen the Human Services Department balloon from six employees to the 65 today.

“Federal and state money was pumped into human services to provide programs that didn’t exist 50 years ago,” he said.

Sailer was there when housing assistance for the elderly switched from “an institutional approach to a community approach” as the government moved away from “dreaded” nursing homes to the assisted living environment.

“The public really appreciated that approach,” he said.

It’s that satisfaction, that impact on people’s lives, that kept Sailer in his position for so long.

“We always have that hope that something improves our community,” he said. “We want to keep people here. In order to do that, we want to help generate programs that generate jobs for the community.”

Looking back, though, Sailer is most proud of his and his department’s ability to implement programs such as MNsure.

“Helping manage those changes is big,” Sailer said. “None of us like change very much, but it’s part of life. So to work close with staff, the board and community leaders, and to handle those changes, has been satisfying for me.”

Deciding to retire came down to wanting to spend more time with family.

“My wife and I want a few good years together,” he said.

Sailer wants to spend more time writing. He’s already published a book called “The Oranges Are Sweet.”

He’ll spend more hours on the small tree farm, where he and his wife have been growing trees for the past three decades.

First, though, he’ll take a few months to “just distance myself from 45 years of what I’ve been doing.”

He’ll think about the future, what he wants to do.

By retiring, Sailer wants to give the younger generation a chance to take the reins in the department.

His replacement should be named in a month or so. And for that person, he leaves this advice:

“Our society is only as strong as its public servants. If we don’t do our job well, that reflects poorly on our taxpayers. We have to have strong public servants. We need to be respected. We need to be known as people who would do the right thing. The moment we don’t do that, you have a really shaky foundation.”

JESSICA LARSEN may be reached at or 855-5859. Follow me on Twitter at