Taking reins of Lincoln's Challenge brings new director's career full circle


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RANTOUL — The new director of Lincoln's Challenge was there at the dawn of the academy's existence in fall 1992, when studies were being undertaken on where the program should be located.

Michael Haerr was an Illinois National Guard project officer in the fall of 1992 when he was assigned to conduct initial analysis about where Lincoln's Challenge would call home. He worked on the program until May 1993 when he was offered a full-time position to provide support for Army Guard units throughout the state, a post he held until 2015.

Haerr, 55, came full circle in a career that has included roles in many areas of the state as well as two stints in Afghanistan. He returned to Lincoln's Challenge in 2016 when Director Peter Thomas was off due to medical reasons.

Thomas returned to lead the program and then retired effective Dec. 31, 2018, after a lengthy tenure.

"It was my second opportunity to be mentored by a tremendous noncommissioned officer in Sgt. Maj. Thomas," Haerr said of his predecessor, who was also present at the start of the academy in 1993. "To be able to rely on his mentorship and guidance was a tremendous asset."

The new director sees attracting staff as one challenge.

When the academy started, Chanute Air Force Base was closing. A large workforce of federal employees — including Air Force civilians, active-duty members and family members — had been on a base of 4,500 to 5,000 active airmen with another 2,000 to 3,000 civilians.

"It was just a natural fit for the first 15 to 20 years of the program where you had all this experience" from which to draw staff, Haerr said.

Now, many of those personnel are retired, and Haerr said coming up with replacements isn't as simple as before. Authorized to employ 100 people, the academy has 93 working there, he said.

Lincoln's Challenge, which includes high school dropouts training in a military environment, has seen some downturn in enrollment in recent years, partly due to greater competition. Some of that could be offset by a new campus, but Haerr said that hasn't yet been realized.

He believes it will take time for the word to spread that cadets no longer have to live and train in old facilities such as Building 303, Grissom Hall and the Amerinvest field house. They have a new campus.

"I want to say our population is probably 275, maybe 300 who have graduated from the program in the new facility versus the 16,000 who graduated out of the old" facilities, Haerr said.

Haerr knows he follows a tough act. Thomas "had a great body of work to be able to relate to the vast (number) of cadets who were his word of mouth and his champions throughout Illinois." Among the academy's competitors are school-operated, alternative-education programs.

Haerr said those programs provide a less-expensive service to taxpayers and are a less emotional event for guardians.

"There is nothing tougher on family than to create a long-term separation from loved ones," Haerr said.

Many find it difficult not being able to communicate regularly via social media or cellphone with friends and family. The academy requires cadets to leave their phones at home.

"The fact we ask the guardians to separate themselves for that length of time is a challenge," Haerr said. "That wouldn't be a challenge for older people, but today's parents and guardians can't relate."

As director, Haerr is working to find a middle ground — "trying to figure out the sweet spot on how to communicate in the 21st century."

Raised in Woodford County, northwest of Bloomington-Normal, Haerr, a history major, earned a bachelor's degree from Illinois State in 1985 and was an ROTC cadet. He was commissioned a second lieutenant.

He and his wife, Amy, whom he met in 4-H at the Woodford County Fair, have two grown daughters.

He said education remains a prime interest in his life. He has been present for four academy graduations.

"Those four days make the two years worthwhile, seeing the guardians, seeing the cadets and the pride on their faces doing something as tough as this," he said.

Dave Hinton is editor of the Rantoul Press, a News-Gazette Media community newspaper. For more, visit rantoulpress.com.