Want to know our teammates’ deepest, darkest secrets? Well, we can’t share those; they’d probably report us to HR for telling you.
So instead, we sat down with Executive Administrative Assistant Deb Thompson over a mug of orange spice tea to… *sniffles*
Hang on. *sniffles* Sorry…we’re already getting emotional. *clears throat*
Let’s try this again: we sat down with Deb to learn more about her 37 years at First National Bank ahead of her retirement on December 31, 2023!
Position: Executive Administrative Assistant
Years at Bank: 37
Hometown: Harrisburg, South Dakota
Back in 1986 — the same year of the Chernobyl disaster, the Challenger explosion, and Michael Jordan setting the NBA playoff record for points in a game (63) — Deb made the life-changing decision to leave Western Bank for its competitor across the street.
“I was working as Mark Walhstrom’s assistant at Western Bank, which was the building where Hotel on Phillips is now,” Deb recalled. “And then, they transferred me into processing mortgage loans, which — I’m sorry to our mortgage loan processors — was the worst. It just wasn’t me.”
Until one day, Deb got a call from Nancy Wahlstrom, Mark’s wife, who was working at First National Bank.
Nancy was calling to inform Deb that President William S. (W.S.) Baker’s assistant had just put in her two weeks’ notice.
“She said, ‘You need to come over and apply now,’” Deb said. “And I’m like, ‘I cannot come for an interview; I’m wearing pants today.’ Women didn’t wear pants to an interview in 1986.”
But Deb knew she couldn’t pass up the opportunity, so she filled out an application on her lunch break that same day. She interviewed the next morning and was offered the job the following day.
A workplace culture worth nearly four decades
“The culture and the environment at First National Bank were so totally different from Western Bank,” Deb said.
She recalls the story of her approximately third day on the job, when a customer came in and walked right past her desk — straight into W.S.’s office.
“At Western Bank, customers had to sit on the couch in the lobby until someone came and got them,” Deb said. “So I was thinking, ‘Oh, well, I’ve enjoyed my short stint here.’”
“And when the customer left,” she continued, “I went into W.S.’s office and said, ‘I’m really sorry. He just walked right past me.’ W.S. goes, ‘That’s what we do here.’”
You can probably imagine that most people wouldn’t spend this many years at a job if the culture wasn’t on point.
So, allow Deb’s tenure to serve as a testament to the outstanding work environment we love to boast about around here:
“I never thought this job would turn into the career and the family feeling that I’ve been blessed with for 37 years,” Deb said. “For me, it was just another job. But, it really turned into something great. Five Bank presidents later, and here I am.”
One job, five presidents, 37 years
From August 18, 1986, to her retirement on December 31, Deb has served as assistant to the President & CEO — working with the likes of W.S. Baker, Curt Kuehn, Robert S. (R.S.) Baker, William L. (Bill) Baker, and now Chris Ekstrum.
“This job has evolved over the years,” Deb said. “When R.S. got into the corner office, I started doing more and more.”
She became very involved in our holding company, Minnehaha Banshares, as well as the charitable contribution aspect of the Bank.
“And then, Bill would maybe say that I trained him; I don’t know if that’s true,” Deb said. “I think we trained each other, and we became a very good team. His wife called me ‘Bill’s work wife.’”
Even though Deb’s job never changed (evolved, but not changed), it was almost like starting from scratch anytime a new President would take over.
“For example, Bill had a tendency to be late for meetings, so I started putting meetings 15 minutes earlier on his calendar so he’d get there on time,” Deb reminisced. “And Chris is just such a bundle of energy.”
“Every time we changed Presidents, I would get a little anxious,” Deb added, “because you had to learn their habits and personalities. But every one, while they’ve been different, was amazing to work with. I’m very proud that I got to work with five of them.”
She is also quite fond of the other aspects of her role, aside from her duties assisting the President.
More specifically, a favorite of her responsibilities has been working with the shareholders, the Minnehaha Banshares Board of Directors, and the Bank’s board of directors.
Deb Thompson with Cal Willemssen, a former member of the Bank’s board of directors.
“I now call myself the Executive Team’s work mom,” Deb laughed. “First of all, I’m too much older than any of them to be their work wife. But our Executive Team now — they’re so young and full of energy. To see where the Bank is headed under their leadership…it’s going to be amazing.”
A history of giving back
Working at the same job for 37 years also means being a part of the same community for that long.
And considering how big we are on community involvement here at First National Bank, you would suspect that Deb has stayed pretty active in the Sioux Falls area.
“We’ve always been very involved with the Sioux Empire United Way at FNB,” Deb said. “And back in the 90s, I told Amy Bruns, the assistant campaign director for United Way, ‘We need to get people in the habit of giving earlier.’ So, we hatched up Coins for Kids.”
Since 1998, the Coins for Kids program has worked with area schools to help students join the giving effort.
“When it started, they would bring empty canisters to the Sioux Falls schools and send them home with the kids, plus a note to fill it with coins,” Deb said. “Then, the Bank sent volunteers to the schools with our portable coin counters, and they would dump the coins in and count them. The schools would have assemblies and make it into kind of a contest.”
While we no longer send volunteers out to the schools, we still bring the coins back to our Downtown location where our Tellers run it through the coin counter.
Last year, the program raised more than $20,000 to buy books for students in need!
“In addition to Coins for Kids, I’m now enamored with the Veterans Community Project and their tiny home village,” Deb said. “I went over there and volunteered this fall. They put a power drill in my hand, and I did what I needed to do with it — and then turned to painting, which is more my speed.”
A well-deserved retirement
Heading into retirement, Deb is looking forward to — no surprise here — spending more time with her grandchildren.
She has two in Harrisburg and two in Minnesota, and she’s especially looking forward to attending dance competitions to support her 15-year-old granddaughter.
“And I’m blessed to still have my parents, who are 92,” Deb said. “So, I’ll be helping them out a lot.”
Finally, she plans to do some more traveling and to ramp up her volunteering efforts.
“My husband and I are taking some trips to the Dominican and to visit my sister in Phoenix,” Deb said. “We also will be attending more Jackrabbit games and taking in some Twins games. And then, I will still be volunteering. Maybe in the NICU at Avera rocking babies, or walking dogs.”
“Everyone dreams about retirement,” she added, “and I’m so blessed that I get to retire from such an amazing place after working with so many amazing people. The thing I’m going to miss most is definitely my fellow teammates. We’re a family, and we truly care about each other. When one of us hurts, we all hurt; when one of us needs help, we just step up and do it.”
Just because Deb is retiring doesn’t mean she’s exempt from our steaming hot round of questions!
What’s your favorite place you’ve traveled to?
“I used to host Bank trips for the mature market. Through that, I got to go to a lot of places, but I would say my favorite one was probably Nashville. I’m just a huge country music fan.”
If you had $1 million to start your own business, what would it be?
“A wedding planning business. You know me, I love to plan parties!”
If you could teach a college class on any subject, what would it be?
“Not that I’m very good at it, but it would have to be some sort of communication class. Business etiquette communication, maybe.”
What would be the title of your autobiography?
“I Don’t Believe I Did This, But…”
What is your favorite FIRST Value?
“The value I’m most proud of, being a member of the First National Bank family, is the Stewardship value. The way that not only the Bank gives back to the communities we serve, but how we allow the teammates to give back.”
Any last words?
“Retirement is such a different feeling when it’s actually happening to you and not your coworker. Because it’s so hard to just let go and know that you’re not really going to get to be a part of the amazing things that are coming for the Bank. There truly is no other place on the planet like First National Bank. There is no place with this kind of culture — and I’ve worked a couple other places before finally coming home to First National, where my home has been for 37 years.”