Engineering Perham success: Fred Sailer retiring after 34 years at Perham Public Schools
Fred Sailer has been a catalyst for change and success since taking over the Activities Director position at Perham public schools in 1997.
Since that time, the school district’s athletics and fine arts have jumped to a level of excellence that has earned statewide recognition.
Much of that success can be pointed to Sailer’s approach to creating an environment conducive to success for both students and coaches.
In February, Sailer announced his retirement, effective at the end of this school year. He’s leaving on a high note, after being named the Minnesota State Class A Athletic Administrator of the Year.
Reflecting on his career in a recent interview, he said, “I feel good about what’s happened. Things had been a little rocky around here. There was a fair amount of unhappiness. There had been some coaches who had been run out and I think it was fair to say that this place was known as somewhat of a graveyard for coaches.”
Sailer possessed a solid background on the state of Perham’s activities, having graduated a Yellowjacket in 1973. He went on to college in Fergus Falls, and then Bemidji, graduating in 1977. From there, he worked in Fergus Falls for two years at the Chamber of Commerce while also taking on roles as a part-time college instructor and coach at Fergus Falls Junior College.
Sailer returned to Perham in 1979 as the Community Education and Public Relations Director, as well as an assistant football coach. He remained a head or assistant coach for the Perham-Dent School District for the next 30 years.
“I have really kind of made it as somebody who has coached a lot,” he said. “I’ve always tried to be an activities director that paved the way so coaches could coach. They didn’t have to worry about whether the bus was going to be on time or whether the funding was there. I wanted them to coach.”
When the activities director position opened in 1997, nobody applied. Then-superintendent, Dennis Drummond, came to Sailer and asked, “Could you get us through this in the short-term?”
Sailer accepted the task on an interim basis, but not without requesting some specific help, as he already had other jobs in the district. That help came in the form of people.
“I said, ‘I’m going to need Dan Schroeder and Janet Siefert.’ Without those two, we don’t get this done,” he said. “I think we got it right. We got the help we needed. It was just kind of meant to be a short-term deal… It was more of a favor that we did this.”
A favor that lasted more than a decade and a half.
People and personalities make up much of the enjoyment, stress and success of a position that does not allot much in the way of free time.
“What I found really interesting about this job is the collection of personalities,” Sailer said.
He added that, “There’s so many ways to motivate kids. If you look at Sandra Wieser-Matthews, or Kevin Kosiak, Jeff Morris, Mike Peterson, Robb Moser and Charlie Fleck; they’re not Xerox copies of each other. They are all different and I think it’s absolutely fascinating what makes people like that tick. And I’ve always felt your best employees, if it’s your best salesperson or your best coach, they’re often the most difficult people to manage. They’re always pushing the limits. They’re always wanting to do more. They’re always wanting to see if the experience they create for the kids can be better. So there’s a fair amount of holding the reins back and you try to knock some barriers down for them so they can go out and be as creative and successful as they can be.”
Sailer’s daily investigation into getting the most out of employees, coaches and his own athletes stems from one specific instance in which he started to learn how to manage people: “I really learned it coaching Charlie Nelson.”
Nelson was a three-sport star in Perham during the late 1980s and was drafted by the Los Angeles Dodgers in the ‘93 Major League Baseball draft out of the University of Minnesota.
“Charlie was not always easy to coach,” Sailer said. “That kind of taught me, right there.
What made Charlie sometimes difficult to coach was his intensity and his unwillingness to lose or fail, always pushing others around him to compete. I just really enjoy watching the mental part of what makes coaches and kids good.”
The responsibilities of an activities director ebb and flow in a state of constant busyness. No more so than during winter, when the school year becomes most challenging.
“There’s a lot,” he said. “You try to be at work at 7:30 in the morning and a lot of times…by the time you get people out of the building and deposit money, it’s 9:30 at night. That’s not too bad, but when you add a Saturday on top of that, and tournaments, and oftentimes…people tend to get a little short. There’s a lack of patience with officials, coaches, other people’s kids. It’s not always Happy Valley. And I get that. As a parent, I understand. You have to have the perspective of a parent sometimes, too.”
For Sailer, a strong family life at home has been essential to his success: “In all the years I’ve worked for the district, I have never entered into a sensitive or difficult decision or discussion without seeking the advice of my wife, Sue. She is a social worker by trade, and I have learned a great deal about human nature, patience and understanding from her.”
Fred and Sue will remain in Perham after his retirement.
“We’re not going anywhere,” he said. “This is our town.”
Having a well-rounded perspective on his career and the effects his decisions have made on the lives of students, Sailer is quick to stress the importance of activities for kids without taking away from the main reason kids go to school – to get educated.
“I wish we all took chemistry as serious as we take, ‘you name the activity.’ I wish we did and it should be that way,” said Sailer. “The fact of the matter is, people here love watching their kids compete and it is a very public venue. Unlike chemistry, teachers don’t have 1,500 people watching them for 75 minutes to see how they did. They’re all really important, but unfortunately, we do put a whole lot of importance on sports.”
Sports are just some of the extracurricular options available to students. There is a large variety of activities that occur without a scoreboard or playing surface. They all play an important role in shaping tomorrow’s leaders.
“When people say there is too much emphasis on activities – I don’t care if it’s speech or robotics or bike building or any of the sports – these kids are active, engaged, involved and the finest academic institutions in the nation demand that kids are in activities. These are kids that we’re trying to develop into leaders. We’ve really got to embrace these extra things for kids.”