SIOUX CITY | While a junior in college, Leesa McNeil hit that point that many undergrads can identify with.
As McNeil tells the story, she was in her University of South Dakota dorm room, wondering just what kind of career she was going to pursue through her majors in criminal justice and political science.
"I liked the idea of justice, but I didn't want to be a lawyer. I wanted to be involved in the justice system," McNeil said.
She just had no idea how. She was praying for a sign for a Plan B at a point when she didn't really have a Plan A. Call it faith, fate or luck, but McNeil signed up for a class called Introduction to Court Administration for the following semester.
"I took that and never looked back," McNeil said. "I always feel so fortunate that I got to do a job that I wanted to do."
On Wednesday, McNeil will end what she considers a dream career. She'll retire as the Iowa Judicial District 3 Court Administrator -- the first woman to hold the job in the district -- a job she's held for 33 years. Add in the two years McNeil spent as the assistant court administrator when she first arrived in the Sioux City office, and she's spent exactly 35 years here -- her first day on the job was Jan. 3, 1983.
As administrator for the 16-county district in Northwest Iowa, it's been McNeil's job to work with the chief judge to make sure the court system in this part of the state runs smoothly. She's in charge of budgeting, hiring, managing case flow and many other duties. It's a role similar to that of a hospital administrator or school superintendent.
And that role has changed significantly since she moved here from a job in Michigan so she could be closer to family in Aberdeen, South Dakota.
"When I started, it was all paper. So I've been involved on almost every committee that set up computerization of the system," said McNeil, who earned her master's degree in court administration from the University of Denver College of Law.
As an assistant court administrator, McNeil would drive to each of the 16 counties in the district four times a year when trial sessions were set to begin. In each county, she would look at trial summaries, read them, take written notes and schedule cases for trial, then type up the schedule with carbon paper to send copies throughout the district.
"It's crazy to think how we did it 35 years ago compared to now," she said.
Now, the court system is centralized and computerized. Court filings are electronically transmitted to other offices and state agencies.
At one time, McNeil said, she envisioned working at the state court administration office in Des Moines. Then she met her husband, Jon Nylen, and they decided they weren't leaving.
The two will retire together. Nylen, a juvenile court officer, also retires Wednesday. The pair talked about retirement for the past three years. McNeil said they felt now was the best time.
"I want to go out when I'm feeling on top," McNeil said. "I feel good about the work I've done and the work I've helped get done. It just feels right."
McNeil will stay busy in retirement, continuing to volunteer with three groups that she became involved with as court administrator, teaching an online class on criminal justice and criminal court systems for the University of Phoenix, making visits to nursing homes, schools and other organizations with her golden retriever and remaining involved with prairie and Loess Hills conservation groups.
She's also going to delve into genealogy to determine if her ancestors were Irish or Scottish and learn to play the bagpipes.
There's plenty to do in retirement, she's realized, and she wanted it that way rather than sitting at home doing nothing.
"You have to live with a purpose," McNeil said.
For 35 years, that purpose has been to make sure justice in Northwest Iowa was delivered efficiently, and she'll miss the daily action in the courthouse and the buzz when there's an exciting trial attracting media attention.
It's the kind of career she had hoped for when pondering her future in that dorm room.
"I feel so blessed I got to spend my life in the career that I dreamt about and in a place that I love," she said.