As cool and sweet as fresh farm milk, Paula Sue Blecha’s jump shots drained through the hoop as she beat me in a game of H-O-R-S-E.
That was nearly three decades ago, when I interviewed her during her senior year at the College of St. Mary in Omaha. She not only averaged nearly 15 points a game the year before, but also scored highly in the classroom — a 3.8 grade-point average as a business major.
As I found out when I caught up with her recently, she did go into business — in a big way, with her husband. Ben and Paula Sue Steffen run a 135-cow dairy operation on 1,900 acres in southeast Nebraska.
Ben is heavily involved in civic and agricultural affairs and had just returned from Washington, D.C., where he testified Feb. 14 before the Senate Agriculture Committee, with Paula Sue sitting just behind him.
I thought of Paula Sue recently when the College of St. Mary honored senior Karyn Bixler for breaking the school’s scoring record, previously held by Ann Heller Hanigan, a 1978 graduate. Ann, too, was honored.
Paula Sue was a standout player, as well: At Humboldt (Neb.) High School, she once was the Nebraska all-class scoring leader in girls prep basketball.
But in 1984, her senior year at the College of St. Mary, she didn’t play at all — the season was canceled because the team didn’t have enough players.
The Steffens, both 50, could have lived anywhere, but they never left their Cornhusker roots — and they have contributed greatly to our state and beyond. It’s a good partnership.
“Paula Sue is absolutely capable of running our entire business,” Ben told me. “She drives the combine, collects all of our data, helps plan all our crops, scouts for pests, plans chemical purchases and handles our payroll. A to Z, I couldn’t have a better partner.”
She, meanwhile, praises Ben for his ag acumen and his many public activities.
“There continues to be a little disconnect between people who live in the country and some who live in the city,” she said. “Ben does a very good job of promoting our cause. A lot of people don’t seem to know where food comes from when it’s on our plates, and they don’t know where milk comes from except from a plastic jug.”
Paula Sue harbors no ill will from missing her senior season in college, noting that she had both academic and athletic scholarships and received a good education.
“It was hard to have the season canceled,” she said, “but I ended up having a fun senior year. It allowed me to do other things socially.”
She had made an eye-popping 90 percent of her free throws as a junior and hit a 20-foot jump shot with four seconds left to win a game.
But back in late 1983, as we shot around in the gym on the afternoon of what would have been the opening night of her senior season, she looked forward to numbers in a different way — becoming a certified public accountant.
Upon graduation, she worked for a year as an auditor for a big accounting firm. But she and Ben, a graduate of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, got married and returned to the Humboldt area in Richardson County. His parents had started the farming operation with 20 cows in 1957, and after graduation the younger couple joined in.
Though she didn’t become a CPA, Paula Sue — named after her parents, Paul and Susie — said she loves the career she and Ben chose.
“We love being outside and not stuck in an office,” she said. “We are our own bosses, and to some extent are able to reap the successes, or otherwise, of our own hard work.”
Their diversified operation includes corn, soybeans, wheat and hay.
The couple have been honored for soil-conservation practices on their dryland operation and as an “Ag Family of the Day” at the Nebraska State Fair.
Ben, who directs a community choir and enjoys barbershop singing and magic, has served on the local school board and the county planning commission. He holds a private pilot license and is active in the Nebraska Farm Bureau.
He serves on the University of Nebraska President’s Advisory Council and Sen. Mike Johanns’ ag advisory committee.
No surprise, then, that when the senator asked for a Nebraska farmer to appear before the Senate Agriculture Committee to discuss the impact of drought, fire and other disasters, Ben got the call.
He testified that federal crop insurance “is not a fountain of free money” and that in the 11 years prior to 2012, the Steffen operation had paid more in premiums than it received in indemnity payments.
He called the federal program “an investment in food security for our nation — in a plentiful food supply, an inexpensive food supply and the highest quality food supply anywhere in the world.”
The Steffens, who have no children, aren’t looking to retire soon and aren’t sure what eventually will happen to their operation four miles east of Humboldt. Said Paula Sue: “I’m willing to do this until I can’t walk anymore.”
Ben and Paula Sue sing at weddings and funerals. A couple of years ago, Ben said, they were on their way to sing a duet when Paula Sue spotted teenage boys playing basketball on an outdoor court.
She asked Ben to pull over. In high heels, she walked over and shot a few with the boys before heading to a wedding.
“I’ll take on anybody in a game of H-O-R-S-E or shooting 10 free throws,” she said. “I still think I can shoot.”
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