Checking stock can be a two-man job says Cullman Farmers Co-op Manager Chad Federer (left), who works not with a man, but with "fellow" employee, Frances Dahlke (right), the first female manager of an AFC member store. Now working as a part-time bookkeeper, Frances celebrates 50 years this month, having earned the respect and admiration of employees, managers, and producers alike. "It goes both ways," she says, "They are a great bunch to work with."
When Frances Dahlke joined the ranks of the Co-op community, it was strictly a man’s world. In truth she did not set out to become one of the boys, but 50 years later, she has become much more than that.
Cooperative Farming News (CFN) cornered Frances at the Cullman Farmers Co-op where she now works part-time as a bookkeeper to find out how this unusual journey came about. Sitting at her desk in the Co-op, Frances explained how she happened to become an expert in a man’s game.
CFN: We thought you retired.
Frances: I did, way back in 1996. But, I couldn’t stand it so I came back.
CFN: You grew up on a farm. Did that prepare you to work at a Co-op?
Frances: Our farm was in Cullman County and I grew up with five brothers and sisters. We lived just four miles east of Cullman. Daddy’s property, where we used to farm, now joins the Cullman Medical Center. We lived in a community with no name and I went to East Point School for eight years. I graduated from Cullman High School in 1955. We just had our 50th reunion.
CFN: Did you go?
Frances: Of course.
CFN: Fifty year reunion and fifty year career; you must have started at the Co-op right out of high school.
Frances: Yes, I did. I really didn’t know what I wanted to do when I got out of high school. My daddy said, "The Farmers Exchange (at Cullman County) wants you to come in and work a few days." Carl Ellard was my boss and every night I would say, "You want me to come back tomorrow?" Finally, he said, "You keep coming back until I tell you not to." I’ve worked steady with the Co-op ever since; never asked for a job and never drew an unemployment check.
CFN: So you were an on-the-job training project?
Frances: I’ve had good teachers. I couldn’t have done it without the managers and employees I’ve worked with through the years.
CFN: Chad Federer (Manager, Cullman County) says one of your secrets is that you "sorta mother us a little bit."
Frances: (Laughing) I guess I do tend to mother the ones I am working with now. They are so young! But very good at their jobs.
CFN: Chad has good things to say about you, too. He admires the fact that you pay attention to what you’re doing and when you get it done, you get it right. And he also said this: "For a lady or woman in an agribusiness retail store like she ran, there’s not another one in the Co-op system that has been successful like hers. The attitudes of farmers about women, you know, but she’s earned their respect."
Frances: Before I became a manager, I always tried to keep in mind that if this store was mine, would I do this or would I do that and I kept that thought when I was running the store. I tried to make my best interest the store.
CFN: How did you happen to become the first female manager of a Quality Co-op?
Frances: John Mackie was the manager at the Walker Farmers Co-op and he called and asked me if I would take the job. I didn’t think I could do it. We talked on a little bit and he said, "If it gets to be too much for you, you can step down and do your old job."
CFN: Was that a con?
Frances: I think he thought I would be more comfortable if he put it that way. I did a lot of praying about it. I knew lots of people down there, but I think it was the responsibility that really gave me mixed feelings. I had been in the store about a year when we decided to expand, and I thought "goodness gracious, I’m going to have to make a $1400 a month payments." I think I worried more about making those payments more than a man would.
CFN: How many stores in all have you worked?
Frances: Besides Jasper and Cullman, I was at the Arab store part-time. Next thing I knew I was manager there for about 10 months. Steve Hodges took my place and I came to the Cullman store part-time.
CFN: Do you have a philosophy about work?
Frances: My daddy said before he died, he wasn’t able to give us a whole lot growing up, but one thing he did was teach each one of us to work. His advice has served me well. Another thing is I have always tried to take care of other people’s things with the care I would give my own.
CFN: What do you do when you’re not working?
Frances: I love to keep my yard and I like to travel when I get the chance to go. Back in June I went to South Dakota on a farm tour trip. In August I went to Italy and Switzerland. That was a wonderful trip, and I’ve made a few other short trips around here. I’m not ready to stop working, though. I’ll keep working until they run me off or I get to where I am not able.
CFN: What would surprise people to know about you?
Frances: I don’t know how many people it would surprise, but I have been going with a man for about two years. We go out twice a week. I have known Kenneth Neal for 40 years. I was best friends with his wife. Really nice people.
CFN: You are the most active semi-retired person we know. How do you do it?
Frances: I get up at 4 every morning and walk until 6:30 with a friend. I try to do it at least four to five times a week.
CFN: Why not retire again and live it up full time?
Frances: You know, when I’m not working, I automatically answer the phone, "Cullman Farmers Co-op." I said I would never marry a farmer, but I guess I’m married to the Co-op.
Fran Sharp is a freelance writer from Alabaster.