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Elevating education: MTI's Brookbank named Daily Republic's 2017 Person of the Year

Julie Brookbank is The Daily Republic's 2017 Person of the Year. (Matt Gade / Republic)1 / 2
Julie Brookbank is The Daily Republic's 2017 Person of the Year. (Matt Gade / Republic)2 / 2

The strong, familiar voice of Mitchell Technical Institute is Julie Brookbank.

The longtime marketing director of Mitchell Tech has been the voice, spokeswoman and go-to gal at the school for more than 20 years. And, as the community has come to know the 57-year-old's face on campus, she's just as widely recognized off campus, where her extensive involvement in community organizations shines.

From being a member of the Avera Queen of Peace board of directors, to supporting the Mitchell Community Scholarship Fund or showing off her fundraising skills with the Mitchell Area United Way, Brookbank is well-known.

For her decades of effort to promote both Mitchell Technical Institute and the Mitchell community, Brookbank has been selected as The Daily Republic's 2017 Person of the Year.

SEE A LIST of this year's nominees here. 

Humbled by the honor, Brookbank did what most in her position do: she credited the staff, family and friends around her for her success.

"It's been an amazing journey to get to this point," Brookbank said. "It's such an incredibly talented group of people that I work with. I'm just so lucky to know the people I know in any capacity here. My job is super easy because I have a great place to promote."

But her coworkers disagree — it's all Brookbank.

Citing her involvement as a co-chair of the MTI Strategic Planning Committee, leading the MTI Foundation team and writing program proposals, President Mark Wilson, Vice President John Heemstra and Dean of Academics Carol Grode-Hanks all agree Brookbank's lifelong commitment to Mitchell Tech cannot be matched.

And it's done wonders for the career and technical education field.

"She has become a consistent voice for MTI in crafting a clear and consistent message regarding the importance and benefits of workforce education for both employers and students," Heemstra said. "This message has greatly improved the perception of career and technical education, not only in Mitchell, but throughout the state of South Dakota."

Getting involved in career and technical education

The moment she walked onto the campus of Mitchell Tech, Brookbank knew she'd be there for a long time.

In need of a job, Brookbank started as a substitute instructor for the technical school in 1990, which by the fall of 1991 had turned into an adjunct teaching position. Soon, she dabbled in the marketing office and by 1995 became the director of marketing. And approximately a year ago, the 57 year old became associate to the president.

"Once I got here, it was like there was where I was meant to be," Brookbank said.

Born and raised in the Palace City, Brookbank graduated from Mitchell High School in 1978. That following summer, she took a part-time job with KORN/KQRN Radio in Mitchell — she was hooked.

So for the next several years, she worked as a full-time employee at the radio station as well as a full-time student at Dakota Wesleyan University.

By 1983, Brookbank graduated with a double major in speech communication and English. She continued to work at the radio station until 1986.

Ready for a change, and wanting a full-time college experience, she enrolled into a graduate program at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln for speech communication. In 1988, she graduated from UNL and was in need of a job.

In the spring of 1990, she relocated back to her hometown, and the rest is history.

Even though technical education was not the career path she intended, Brookbank wouldn't have it any other way. Two days are never the same, and her favorite part of the year has become graduation day.

"It's seeing those students leave here, that's amazing in a good way," Brookbank said, shedding a few tears. "They're going off to their lives and we had a hand in that. Down the line when we get stories of successful alumni, and the reach that this education gave them to impact their own world, the community they're in or the employer they've chosen to work for, they're having an impact and it's pretty amazing."

Active member of the community

Wanting to do more for the community she holds dearly, Brookbank began to look for more ways to be involved since she returned to Mitchell in 1990.

"I figured out right away that if I get involved with an organization, I could hopefully assert my talent set and help benefit that organization and they would hopefully be successful," Brookbank said. "It was never about, 'Oh that would be fun.' For me, it was for what could that group accomplish."

In the early '90s, Brookbank was heavily involved with the Mitchell Area Community Theatre. In the late '90s, she and a group of women helped fundraise to build the animal shelter, called the Osterhaus Community Pet Shelter, which still houses animals today.

Soon after, she was involved in helping form the Mitchell Technical Institute Foundation. And in the early 2000s, she was asked by Mitchell School District Superintendent Joe Graves to become part of the Mitchell Community Scholarship Fund committee — which has a goal to provide a scholarship to every graduate of Mitchell High and Mitchell Christian schools. Today, 17 years later, she still attends monthly meetings for the fund committee that has given away more than $790,000.

"The work that goes into making that a reality requires a year-long effort by many people, but none who put more into it — in hard work, in time, and in talent — than Julie Brookbank," Graves said in a nomination letter.

Graves' letter is one of five sent to The Daily Republic in nomination of Brookbank. One of the letters included three signatures and another with two, earning Brookbank a total of eight people in support of her nomination — the most for 2017.

People who nominated Brookbank were Graves, Wilson, Heemstra, Grode-Hanks, Terri and Al Jacklin, Steve Morgan and Dave Stevens.

Graves in his nomination letter said Brookbank has impressed him in the 18 years he's known the Mitchell Tech employee, especially her efforts with the Scholarship Fund and the Mitchell Area United Way.

Brookbank has been with the United Way for more than a decade, serving first as a volunteer and advancing into positions of campaign chair and president of the organization's board.

"Julie Brookbank is an exemplary citizen within our community, committed in so many areas to better the lives of others," said Dave Stevens, director of Mitchell United Way.

Stevens said Julie makes good use of her "three T's" — time, talent and treasure — in her participation with United Way and her many other responsibilities within Mitchell and Mitchell Technical Institute.

But while Brookbank has become so actively involved to benefit the community, she's benefitted as well.

"It's been truly a humbling experience to be campaign chair and president of that organization and to be mindful of the needs within any community, but particularly Mitchell," Brookbank said. "That, I believe, has had a lasting impact."

A strong support system

Brookbank can't help but smile when she talks about her parents, Ivan and Delores Brookbank.

Remembering the long, tiring hours she put in during college, still now today at Mitchell Tech and as a community volunteer, Brookbank said it was her parents' support that helped her through it.

"When I talk about all those hours I worked, that was my parents. They are amazing," she said.

She also credits her husband, Phil Picha, who has put up "with all the crazy," and he's supported everything she's done.

"He sits back and lets me do it. He's like, 'Well what are you doing this week?' And he's always proud of me. I've got a good team behind me," Brookbank said of her husband and parents.

Family is one support system for Brookbank. She said the staff at Mitchell Tech and Graves with the school district have put a lot of trust in her, allowing her to succeed in her role.

But, most importantly, Brookbank credits and thanks the students and staff at MTI. For it's their stories she is blessed with telling on a daily basis, she said. And she'll forever be trying to "do right by the school," that she will always be associated with.

"I've got great stories to tell, and I'm never without something to talk about. So if people want to completely associate me with this place and with that job, that's awesome," Brookbank said, motioning to the conference room she sat in earlier this month at Mitchell Tech. "That means I've been successful. It isn't my story, it's the students' stories."

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