CCA instituted the Michael Graznak Award as a memorial to an outstanding younger member who met an untimely death. It honors members age 35 or under who have made superior contributions to cooperative communications and who give promise of having a brilliant and successful future.
Schmidt symbolizes excellence
By Casey Hollins, Rappahannock Electric Cooperative
AMPI leader receives Michael Graznak Award
Accomplishment, contribution, competence and promise. These four words symbolize CCA’s Michael Graznak Award and distinctly describe this year’s award recipient. Sarah Schmidt, director of pubic affairs for Associated Milk Producers, Inc. (AMPI), received this outstanding achievement at the 2017 CCA Institute.
Sarah joined AMPI in 2010 to fill the shoes of Sheryl Meshke, now AMPI’s co-CEO. Many of Sarah’s nominators noted this was a tall order. However, she was perfect for the role and has not only developed a resume worthy of the Graznak award, but also proven herself as an excellent communicator and professional who benefits the AMPI and CCA organizations.
“Forgive the clichéd analogy, but the cream rises to the top,” said Jason Jenkins, Graznak Committee member and coordinator for Missourians for Monarchs. “Having ‘it’ is a tough thing to describe, but Sarah has ‘it.’ She’s smart, innovative, determined and resilient. She’s embraced her role with fervor. Live it, breathe it, love it — it’s what she does and it’s evident both in her work and her overall attitude. So much has changed since Michael Graznak walked among us, but I dare to think he’d agree that Sarah represents the best of young communicators. I truly believe there is no height to which she can’t climb, and I hope she shows us.”
Since joining AMPI, Sarah has amassed a long list of accomplishments for such a young professional. She and coworker Nickie Sabo team to create the award-winning, electronic newsletter Moosletter. Produced quarterly, the newsletter delivers messages and images to foster the AMPI community. The newsletter, originally published for corporate office employees, is now distributed to each of AMPI’s 1,400 employees. Doing so has engaged employees across 11 locations, providing them with information to develop professionally and personally with AMPI.
Rising to the challenge
According to Sheryl Meshke, helping develop and execute a communication plan for the sale and closing of an AMPI plant in Dawson, Minn., was a key professional experience. Sarah learned the importance of developing clear, thoughtful messaging for several audiences. In addition, the experience provided her the opportunity to see firsthand how a carefully developed timeline can lead to the successful execution of a sensitive announcement.
In December of 2014, Sarah helped develop the strategy and messages for the unexpected resignation of the cooperative’s CEO, the appointment of new co-presidents and CEOs, a fire in the cooperative’s largest consumer-packaging plant and a historic market downturn. “This tumultuous period that demanded her leadership will one day be a career pillar,” Sheryl added. “She exhibited an ability to navigate difficult situations, delivering the communication AMPI members, employees and the dairy industry were seeking.”
Graznak committee member Michelle Geans, Baldwin EMC, added, “Sarah took an unforeseen crisis for her company and used it to illustrate her co-op’s successful response plan. That is the sign of a gifted communicator.”
Because of her contributions to AMPI and CCA, her competence and promise as a strong leader, like cream, Sarah rose to the top among the nominees for the Graznak award. “To me, Sarah epitomizes the meaning of the word cooperative,” said nominator Karen Knusten, All West Select Sires. “She has always been one to not only work well with others, but to put the needs of the company above her own. Whatever it takes to get the job done, and represent the members to their best…that’s what she does and that’s exactly why she’s a qualified recipient of this award.”
The 41st recipient
Sarah joins 41 years’ worth of young cooperative communicators to receive the Graznak award, presented annually to CCA members under the age of 35 who have outstanding communications skills and show promise of a bright future.
The honor is named for Michael Graznak, a native of Pennsylvania who served his country in World War II as an Air Force staff sergeant and went on to earn degrees in agricultural economics, soils and field crops. He found his passion in the world of cooperative communications, first at Missouri Farmers Association Oil Company and, a few years later, at Farmland Industries.
Graznak loved taking photographs and writing stories about the people and places he experienced, even compiling a book of poetry and pictures entitled “Fragments from our Heritage,” which is presented to each Graznak award winner. At age 51, doing what he loved best, he died of a heart attack, while on assignment. Six years later, the Cooperative Editorial Association — now CCA — established this award in his memory.