Public service is a calling not suited to everyone. Mel Thompson, however, embraces the principle.
The Medicine Lodge cattleman is an agricultural assistant for U.S. Sen. Pat Roberts, the Kansas Republican who chairs the Senate Ag Committee.
Thompson keeps his affiliation with the family farm, while traveling the state covering agriculture as a member of Sen. Roberts’ staff. Thompson earned a degree in agriculture economics and ag business from Kansas State University.
“Having an agriculture background is very helpful as you experience first hand what producers face and you can relate to their concerns,” Thompson said.
As an agricultural assistant, Thompson focuses on listening to producers about agricultural issues and needed services.
Thompson and Roberts started their association in 1969, when Roberts was chief of staff for the late Rep. Keith Sebelius, a 12-year congressman and member of the House Agriculture Committee.
In 1976, Thompson returned to the family farm due to his father’s declining health. The family farm was recognized as a “Century Farm” by Kansas Farm Bureau. Roberts and Thompson maintained their personal and professional friendship, and Thompson joined Roberts’ Senate staff after he was elected in 1996 to replace retiring Sen. Nancy Kassebaum.
He admires Roberts for continuing a legacy of knowing constituents are the true boss.
“When Pat was chief of staff for Keith it was Pat who coined the phrase ‘Keith Cares,’” Thompson said. “That has been a commitment that Sen. Roberts continues to have.”
“Make sure you understand you are in public service to serve the public,” he said is an oft-stated comment of Roberts.
Listening is key
The key to serving is having the ability and the desire to listen. It is important to honor those you serve by listening, Thompson said.
When Roberts was House Agriculture Committee chairman in 1995, he held producer forums to find out what producers were seeking in a new farm bill.
“Leon Torline made the comment at a meeting in Dodge City, ‘I want to have the freedom to farm’ and that became the title of the new farm bill.”
Twenty years later, the farmers desire to have a market-oriented approach to agricultural programs continues to be a hallmark of farm programs. Thompson said there is only one farmer he has talked to who wanted to go back to supply side management. Thompson said he continues to listen to that producer, too.
Public service allows producers to find a conduit to solve problems, he added.
“There is no substitute for common sense. Farmers like practical solutions. They are hardworking, independent and they are, by necessity, self preservationists and as a result they don’t naturally ask for help,” Thompson said. “We need their advice and they need our support. It is a partnership that works.”
Farming is a risky business, he said, because of Mother Nature. Drought, fires, flooding, blizzards and tornadoes have all occurred during his time in working with Sen. Roberts.
The past two years Thompson has had a front-row seat to large wildfires along the Kansas-Oklahoma state line. Because of its proximity to where he lives he knew people affected and he also knows they needed someone to listen. The Thompson family farm was affected by the Anderson Creek fire.
His personal experience helped others access the resources they needed. He added what was more impressive was how farmers and ranchers came to the aid of others.
Countless stories of volunteer aid, feed, fencing and other supplies came from all over the country.
“Farming is a unique business. There is a camaraderie with farmers and ranchers and they work together to help their neighbors,” he said.
Providing constituent services is about listening, and public service kicks into high gear during a crisis. One he recalls vividly was the Greensburg tornado in May 2007. He remembers how devastating it was to see how the EF-5 tornado destroyed 90 percent of the community. Sen. Roberts went to the scene and responded by contacting President George W. Bush.
“I can remember Pat telling the president we need help and that call was made the next morning,” Thompson said, and the senator uses a phrase “boots on the ground” to convey the importance of help on multiple fronts.
“When a tragedy occurs there is an opportunity to serve and make resources available from the federal government,” he said.
Thompson also remembers the pressure of low commodity prices in the late 1970s and increasing interest rates that led to the farm crisis of the 1980s.
“Farmers have to go through so much. I always thought it was my job to help them,” he said.
Thompson likes what he does even in tougher economic times.
“I enjoy visiting and being with people. I’m a people person,” he said.
Recently he traveled to an evening meeting with farmers in Rush Center, Kansas, which is about a two-hour drive from Medicine Lodge. Although he got home late he found it enjoyable because of the conversations he had. Mel also credits his wife, Carol, who has been involved and a supportive partner in his public service.
“I enjoy making a difference and hopefully I can continue to make a difference,” he said. “Sen. Roberts has been very supportive of me over many years and I value that partnership. It is a joy and pleasure if you do something you love and it never has become a job.”
Dave Bergmeier can be reached at 620-227-1822 or firstname.lastname@example.org.