For Jake and Sandy Hoffner, there’s no place like home — even if it’s a relatively new home.
Originally farmers, and raised in rural North Dakota, they left during a time of drought in which their farm was struggling. When the opportunity to buy a crop-dusting business presented itself in Yankton, they took it and, in 1988, moved their family here, not really knowing what to expect in what Jake labeled “a city.”
“It seemed like, since the day we came, Yankton was so welcoming, such a fun, loving community,” he told the Press & Dakotan. “So we started getting involved.”
The Hoffners have been active in many community groups and projects since. It is for this generous spirit of volunteerism that they have been named Yankton’s 2020 Citizens of the Year.
The Hoffners were nominated by several people, including the Yankton Morning Optimist Club and its president, Chuck Iverson.
“They have led, or are significant players, in Big Friend Little Friend, Young Eagles, Santa’s Workshop, Accelerated Reading Program via Aviation, Sleep in Heavenly Peace, and as confirmation teachers at Yankton’s Trinity Lutheran Church,” Iverson told the Press & Dakotan. “We believe that because of their efforts, Yankton is a better place to live.”
The Hoffners’ participation in civic groups began in the early 1990s, with the Jaycees and then the Yankton Morning Optimist Club, in which the couple is still active.
“I was president and she’s been on the board as a secretary for the last couple of years,” Jake said. “The Optimist Club was such a benefit, because we love kids and we appreciate what Yankton has done with our three boys, Josh, Adam and Matt.”
Before joining the Optimists, Jake, whose sons were still in school, decided to start coaching in his spare time. He began as an assistant coach for his son’s baseball team, and later went on to coach basketball, soccer and football.
Also in the early 1990s, Jake and his former flight student, Steve Hamilton, currently secretary for the Yankton Regional Aviation Association, founded a Yankton chapter of the Experimental Aircraft Association (EAA). That year, the EAA launched the Young Eagles program, which aims to inspire children to become pilots by giving youth ages 8–17 their first ride in an airplane for free.
“What better opportunity to give back and to offer your experience flying, to give a kid an airplane ride?” Jake said. “When I came to town, I had two goals in the back of my mind: to write a syllabus to give airplane rides to kids and to obtain a display aircraft.”
In 2002, a T-38 Talon jet was put on display at Yankton’s Chan Gurney Airport. Hoffner spearheaded the effort to secure the jet from the U.S. Air Force, according to a press release published in the Press & Dakotan at that time.
Jake also served on the Yankton City Commission for nine years beginning in 2011, followed by a term as mayor after selling his crop-dusting business and entering a semi-retirement in 2013.
By then, Sandy Hoffner, who had completed her teaching degree at the University of South Dakota in 1992, was preparing to retire from teaching English for the Yankton School District.
“I actually did my student teaching at Yankton High School and I got hired,” she said. “I worked there for 21 years.”
In 1998, while still a teacher, Sandy started the Gift Giver program, which involved the whole of Yankton High School working together to bring Christmas to poorer area families.
“I’ve always had a heart for helping out when we can, so I look for opportunities,” she said. “In school, you look for opportunities to teach kids things that they can do beyond the classroom that will help the world be a better place.”
After 22 years, the student-driven program has expanded and is still going strong — even in 2020, during the pandemic.
Retirement gave the Hoffners the opportunity to expand their civic activities, said Jake, who has been active on the board for Yankton’s Riverboat Days since 2013. He also helps organize the airport’s annual Fly-in Breakfast and its Air Show. In 2019, Hoffner was awarded the Frank Yaggie Cornerstone Award by the Yankton Chamber of Commerce for selfless acts of time and service.
After her retirement, Sandy, who said she always loved animals, got involved with Yankton’s Heartland Humane Society (HHS), serving two three-year terms on that organization’s board during the agency’s relocation and expansion.
Sandy said her time with HHS gave her the opportunity to work with one of her former students, HHS Director Kerry Feilmeier.
“It’s always fun to be able to work with students as they become adults,” she said. “I’m really proud of what we were able to do during that whole renovation.”
Sandy is also president of the Dakota Prairie Quilt Guild, which organizes quilt shows and contests, barn-quilt painting classes, a self-guided tour of Yankton’s barn quilts and presents Quilts of Valor to veterans in recognition of their service to this country.
At the beginning of the pandemic last spring, she temporarily switched her focus to making masks, which were in very short supply at the time, to protect front-line medical workers from the coronavirus.
“Many reputable doctors did say that they worked and we needed to protect, initially, all of our people in the medical field,” Sandy said. “It reminds me a lot of ‘Rosie the Riveter’ from World War II. I just started sewing one day, and I have a lot of good friends who sew, and I just put the word out and it really mushroomed.”
It was likely her connection to quilt guild members that made the project a success, she said, adding that she lost count of how many thousands of masks were made overall. But, she said she made about 500 and several women in the group each made close to 1,000 masks.
“We bundled up those masks in groups of 10 and I put them out in front of my door in a tote, and ladies would stop by morning, noon and night to pick them up and drop them off,” she said. “I used to joke that it was like a drug house out here, except we were leaving fabric and elastic.”
The homemade masks were distributed to Avera Sacred Heart Hospital, the Yankton Medical Clinic, the Human Services Center and to other agencies with first responders.
“We sent some to the veterans hospital and some to the Navajo Tribe,” Sandy said. “Everybody was making masks not only for our local agencies, but we were also sending them off to everybody. It’s like spokes on a wheel. Everybody’s got these connections to places and they were just sending them off.”
Production eventually caught up with the pandemic, and Sandy said she was thankful to be able to return to making Quilts of Valor.
“We have a great group of gals who are just always getting ready for the next presentation,” said Sandy, who is currently the club’s president. “It’s a very moving experience because most of these veterans are World War II vets or Korean War, and they’ve seen a lot of life and some of them have seen some very serious battle. It’s such a very humbling thing to honor them in that way.”
“I go along as the photographer and I even get teary. It’s so special,” Jake added.
Humbled by being recognized as Citizens of the Year, the Hoffners said that being retired makes it easy for them to focus so much of their time on community efforts.
“I tip my hat to the working mom and dad that have three kids and full-time jobs and you’re still volunteering just as much as we are,” he said. “My line is still true, ‘It’s easy to serve something you love.’”
Sponsors of the Citizen of the Year award include the following entities and civic organizations: Yankton Elks; Yankton Rotary; Yankton Kiwanis Club; Federated Women’s Club; Yankton VFW Post 791; Association of Retired School Personnel; Lewis & Clark Shrine Club; Yankton College; Yankton Catholic Foundation; L&C Behavioral Health Sciences; Yankton Area Mental Wellness; Knights Of Columbus; Interchange, Inc.; The Center; American Legion Auxiliary; Yankton Morning Optimists and Yankton VFW Auxiliary. The award is also sponsored by these local law firms/attorneys — Den Herder Law Firm; Blackburn and Stevens Prof LLC; Matt Michels, attorney; Marlow Woodward & Huff, Prof. LLC; and Craig Kennedy, attorney — and by the Yankton Press & Dakotan.