The theme of this year’s Waterloo Homecoming parade is “Agriculture: Past and Present,” and by selecting Arlin Obst as grand marshal, the town is honoring someone whose work in the past still makes an impact today.
“It’s quite an honor that they still recognize you,” the 95-year-old Waterloo resident said. “It means you did at least a halfway decent job when you were working, so they remembered you and give you this job.”
Obst worked for 25.5 years as farm advisor at the University of Illinois Extension office, beginning in the summer of 1961.
He grew up in Red Bud and graduated from the U of I in 1950.
After graduating, Obst taught agriculture in Iowa for about four years.
In 1955, he got a job with his alma mater and moved to Wateska to serve as an assistant farm advisor, spending six years there before coming to Monroe County.
“They offered me a good salary and I took it,” Obst remembered as he chuckled. “They treated me fairly after that. I tried to be the best farm advisor in the state of Illinois.”
The role came with much more responsibility than Obst’s previous jobs.
“Basically, I was in charge,” Obst recalled. “The decisions I made, some of them didn’t have to be approved by anybody else.”
In that now defunct position, Obst was instrumental in determining what classes the extension would provide.
He expanded the extension’s offerings in both the breadth of topics covered and the depth with which they were examined. Each class, which took place in the evening, lasted about two hours.
For example, he organized the first ever class on hogs and held multiple classes on different parts of that topic like feeding or marketing.
Obst did the same thing with goats and sheep after the community requested courses on those animals.
He also innovated by having some female-only classes when he noticed women did not usually participate in the typical offerings.
In addition to remembering the classes fondly, Obst said he enjoyed many aspects of the job.
“There was a lot of it I liked,” he noted. “I enjoyed the horticulture part of it – gardens and fruit. The other thing is management was also important.”
His job also had challenges, like in the 1980s when agriculture took a downturn and farmers would come to Obst’s office because they could no longer balance their books.
So, he would work with them to create a financial balance sheet.
“It’s not easy when someone sits across the desk from you in tears because they’re broke,” Obst somberly said.
Although Obst retired as farm advisor on Dec. 31, 1986, he continued to work in the agriculture industry with the Illinois Crop Improvement Association in his 60s.
His job was to certify crops in fields, including one soybean field that was 800 acres.
“I walked fields back and forth every year for seven years,” Obst said.
Obst also volunteered at county fairs for 36 years, including his time in Iowa.
His community work reached beyond agriculture, too, as he has been a member of the Waterloo Rotary Club since when a couple of his friends convinced him to join in October 1961.
He still attends meetings almost every week.
In his nearly 58 years with the Rotary, Obst has served in various leadership roles including club president and on the vocational education committee for 26 years.
Obst said he always liked when he could get an impressive speaker for the club’s meetings, like the president of U of I’s College of Agriculture or Illinois Director of Agriculture.
“There are some people who say, ‘man those are good programs.’ You’re bound to have some good programs with those kinds of speakers,” Obst said.
Obst no longer serves in leadership positions so others can have that experience. He now spends most of his time keeping his house, lawn and garden in good shape.
Despite not being in the public eye for years, Obst’s wife, Marian, said his impact is still felt.
When the couple attends the Monroe County Fair, for instance, Arlin gets many visitors.
“A surprising number of people stop and talk to him, and not just former farmers,” Marian said. “He really enjoys it. I think it’s sort of sweet and nice.”
That is particularly the case when dozens of those people say the same thing: that Obst is the best farm advisor the county has ever had.