RED WING — Goodhue County will lose a 26-year employee when Health and Human Services Deputy Director Mary Heckman retires this fall. Fortunately her replacement has been on the team just as long.

Social Services supervisor Kris Johnson will step into the role in August before Heckman officially parts way with the county Nov. 3. The overlap will help ensure a smooth transition, HHS Director Nina Arneson said, adding both women have earned strong reputations in the department.

“She has empowered professionals, customers and communities to work together to improve the health of our communities and its people,” Arneson said of Heckman. “She will be greatly missed, and we wish her all the best in her well-deserved retirement.”

The exact retirement date was chosen for a reason, Heckman said. It will mark 40 years in the public health field, going back to 1980 when she got her start in Winona County.

She initially was attracted to the comfort of a Monday-to-Friday job, Heckman said, but her passion for the work in such a tight-knit community developed from there. She said she enjoyed working with clients of all ages, remembering times she went from a new baby visit to meeting with a grandmother in the same shift.

“My clients over the years taught me so much about how to live and how to die,” she said. “My life is so much richer due to the people that allowed me to care for them in their homes over the years.”

Mary Heckman poses with Minnesota Commissioner of Health Dr. Ed Ehlinger at an award ceremony Sept. 27, 2017, in Breezy Point, Minnesota, after receiving the commissioner's Award for Distinguished Service in Community Health Services. Photo courtesy Goodhue County
Mary Heckman poses with Minnesota Commissioner of Health Dr. Ed Ehlinger at an award ceremony Sept. 27, 2017, in Breezy Point, Minnesota, after receiving the commissioner's Award for Distinguished Service in Community Health Services. Photo courtesy Goodhue County

Heckman moved through the ranks in Goodhue County until being named deputy director in 2011. The administrative nature of the job meant moving away from working directly with the public.

“I always felt I went from taking care of my clients to taking care of our staff,” she said.

It was a time of transition for the county as well, Heckman said, when the Public Health and Social Services departments were merged into a single Health and Human Services Department. Staff also went through a series of moves before coming together under one roof in 2016 inside the renovated Citizens Building downtown.

She said it was a challenge merging the prevention-focused public health culture with the reactive nature of social services work, but staff pulled together.

“I think we’ve come a long way and we’ve done a good job, but there’s always work to do,” Heckman said.

Social services

Johnson’s experience was on the social services side.

The psychology major was hired by the county in 1994 as a child protection worker. She said the field has changed over the years, especially in recognizing the importance of early intervention.

“It helps avoid the crisis, strengthen the family and helps people be more self-sufficient,” she said. “And, lucky for us, it’s also less expensive. It’s just better service all around.”

Johnson has kept up with the evolving field and furthered her education, with plans to earn a master’s degree in December.

Johnson praised Heckman for shepherding the internal changes at HHS and commended the outgoing deputy director on her accomplishments.

“She’s very well known and very well respected throughout the community for the work she has done and the leadership she has provided,” Johnson said of Heckman.

The respect is mutual.

“I think Kris will do a great job,” Heckman said of her replacement. “She’s smart and passionate about people, and making sure they’re being taken care of.”

Johnson said her goal will be to look outside the agency and examine how HHS fits into the county as a convener and facilitator.

“We really see ourselves as serving the community,” she said. “We want to hear from people about our work and how we can support the community together.”

Retiring in a pandemic

Heckman said she never dreamed she would retire during the biggest public health crisis in the past 100 years. She said she learned a lot at the tail-end of her career amid the COVID-19 pandemic — but she has been more impressed with how HHS staff has responded.

Though the pandemic has brought added stress to the department, Johnson said Goodhue County benefited from previous planning due to the Prairie Island nuclear plant.

“We are a big step ahead of other communities that have never really had to think about emergency preparedness,” she said.

Though COVID-19 will put a damper on Heckman’s retirement party and travel plans, she said she is looking forward to having more time for quilting and spending time with her two grandchildren and one more on the way.