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Northwest Technical College: Rancher goes back to school to start fresh in Minnesota

Mansel "Banjo" Rice of Bemidji stands outside of Northwest Technical College. He graduates Friday with a degree in Forest Technology. Pioneer Photo/Anne Williams

More than one decade ago Mansel "Banjo" Rice, 47, was living the life he always thought he'd be living. He was a rancher roaming the mountains of western Wyoming and looking after a herd of 5,000 cattle.

But things have changed since then.

Soon the wrangler with the Sam Elliott voice will trade in his traditional western attire for a graduation cap and gown. He graduates Friday from Northwest Technical College with a degree in forest technology.

Rice was born in Arizona but was raised in Nebraska. He spent much of his time on ranches as a kid, helping with calving, mending fences, taking care of cattle and working with horses. Eventually he moved to Wyoming where he worked along the Wind River mountain range south of Jackson Hole.

"My closest neighbor was a mile and a half," Rice said. "It was great. I'd get up in the morning and I could go out and see wildlife all day long. I was just feet away from baby antelope."

Rice's eyes lit up when he talked of the ranches he had seen and jobs he had worked.

"Every chance I got I was out with the animals," he said. "Calving was my favorite. There's just something about bringing something new into the world. It was exciting."

But six years as a ranch hand out west came to an end as year-round work became hard to find. He grew tired of having to look for jobs throughout the year.

Rice's brother, who worked for a trucking company in Fargo, N.D., told him of a job opening as a trucker. Rice applied and got the job at the same company, but this too turned out to be a temporary position. While disappointed, Rice wound up meeting his current wife, who worked for the same trucking company. His wife's family lived in the Bemidji area so Ron moved to Bemidji to live with his wife.

Rice eventually found a fulltime job in Bemidji hauling modular homes, but after three years of work he was again laid off.

"After that it was tougher and tougher to find year-round jobs," he said. "That's when the economy went to crap and summer jobs were also getting scarce."

Seeing no other options, Rice decided to go back to school. He enrolled at NTC.

Going college was not an easy decision for Rice. Working outside was all he knew. It had been more than 20 years since he stepped foot in a classroom.

"I've never been good with computers," Rice said. "I'm not a very good reader."

Rice took 18 credits his first semester at NTC, which included courses in computer technology, math, reading, writing and forestry. After his first month Rice was ready call it quits.

With help from tutors and instructors Rice found motivation to continue with his schooling.

Mike Jensen, an instructor of forestry at NTC, worked with Rice while he attending school.

"It was a heck of a challenge for him," Jensen said. "I know he was discouraged more than once. But I saw him make tremendous growth. I enjoyed having him in class. He's done so much in his life and really had a different perspective of life."

Last summer Rice found work with a logging company located near Park Rapids. He was hired to haul equipment and forest products. The job gave him a firsthand look at the field of forest management. Rice has been offered the same job after he graduates. He may also get to help the company with surveying timber on private land.

"Hopefully within a year or so I'll be taking over timber cruising," he said. "That will give me good experience."

But Rice has something else besides graduating weighing on his mind. Last year he reenlisted in the Army National Guard. He had 12 years of service with the National Guard already under his belt, but took a 12-year hiatus from the service.

For financial reasons Rice decided to reenlist last year.

Earlier in the year he was called to be deployed to Kuwait, but was pulled of the deployment list because of a shoulder injury. Recently, he was again told he may be deployed this month for 18 months.

"When I first found out I was to be deployed the first time, I thought, 'Cool. I'll get my year of active duty and then I'll be classified as a veteran,'" Rice said. "But now I'm graduating and I bought more horses. If I get deployed that is all going to be put on hold. My wife and mom do not want me to go. I told my mom 'Why should they send someone who is 18- or 19-years old? I have experience and common knowledge. I'd have a better chance at surviving over there."

While he awaits word on his deployment, Rice said he is looking forward to graduating. He is proud of how far he has come since his first day at NTC. He hopes the schooling will allow him to get a better-paying job.

Rice brought a little piece of Wyoming with him when he moved to Minnesota. He and his wife have started their own horse ranch on their 40-acre property south of Bemidji. Rice will have 16 horses by the end of May. He also is actively involved in the Horse Fever club for horse enthusiasts from around the area.

Rice admitted he still misses the mountains of Wyoming but said northern Minnesota "is starting to grow on me."