Auctioneer Roger Hiebert conducted yet another Marion-Florence FFA work auction two weeks ago, a volunteer gig he’s been doing about 40 years now. It’s a way Hiebert gives back to an organization and a discipline that in the 1950s gave a shy young country lad what he needed to succeed in school.
When Hiebert entered Hillsboro High School as a freshman in 1955, it was an abrupt change from attending elementary school in Aulne.
“I got to high school and it was a culture shock,” he said. “I was real shy. When I saw what some of those other kids knew about some of those classes, I said I was in the wrong league.”
But he found a place where he could fit, in Truman Diener’s vocational agriculture classes and FFA.
“It was vo-ag that helped me keep my head above water,” Hiebert said. “FFA was special to me.”
Hiebert jumped into FFA activities, doing dairy and cattle judging, poultry contests, and serving as chapter treasurer. He excelled in vo-ag classes, and also in English, a good combination for a future auctioneer.
Hiebert has had a consistent message for FFA students over the four decades he’s been doing the work auction.
“FFA and vo-ag were terribly important in my life in high school,” he said. “When they started the work auction I’ve told the kids I’d have never survived high school if not for vo-ag .”
Hiebert became interested in auctioneering well before his Hillsboro High days, when as a 5-year-old he attended an auction with his father.
“For the next few days I walked around the yard mimicking what I heard,” he said. “I had no idea what they were saying.”
After graduating Hillsboro High in 1959, Hiebert started attending cattle auctions with his brother-in-law Wilbur Leppke, a cattle buyer. Auction after auction, Hiebert paid close attention to the auctioneers, noting things he liked about particular styles and rhythms.
All that exposure to auctioneering perked Hiebert’s interest enough that on the way home from an auction with Leppke, they had a conversation Hiebert recalls this way.
“We should go to auction school,” Hiebert said.
“What for?” Leppke asked.
“To be auctioneers,” Hiebert said.
“Just help yourself,” Leppke replied.
That’s exactly what Hiebert did – help himself. He didn’t go to auction school, but began practicing every chance he could get. He developed an unusual study technique of creating an auction while he was driving. Every can or bottle he saw alongside the road was a bid, he said. The irregular spacing of the “bidders” mimicked the varied rhythms of an auction, with bids sometimes coming one right after another, and at other times separated by long pauses.
By the time he was 28 or 29, Hiebert said, he was ready to try his hand at a sale, and volunteered his services to Hillsboro auctioneer Bud Seibel. The day of the auction, Seibel threw him a curve.
“He did exactly what I didn’t want him to do,” Hiebert said. “When he introduced me, he said ‘This young man wants to be an auctioneer someday.’”
Seibel picked up a leg vice, which Hiebert sold for $35, and he was off and running. Soon, he noticed that Seibel had disappeared, and was gone for over an hour. Seibel had taken the opportunity to work on a real estate deal.
“He said, ‘You didn’t need me, you were doing just fine,’” Hiebert said.
In 1971, Hiebert contacted the El Dorado cattle auction of Paul Seeley, an operation that at the time ran between 300 and 400 cattle per auction.
“Cattle auctions fascinated me,” he said. “That’s where the action was at. If you go into a big cattle auction, they’re going to be selling on individual cattle a sale every 17 to 22 seconds.”
Knowing he was raw, Hiebert volunteered to work without pay for a month or two for Seeley to judge if they could get along and if he had what it takes to work in the fast-paced environment.
Hiebert made the grade, and as he grew as an auctioneer so, too, did Seeley’s business, mushrooming to nearly 3,000 head by 1978. Hiebert worked there for 12 years, until an opportunity to partner with Seibel brought him back to the county in the early 1980s. He and Seibel had been together just a year when Seibel was diagnosed with cancer in 1983.
That was the year Wilbur Leppke’s son, Lyle, a recent Kansas State University graduate, joined Hiebert in the auction and realty business. Lyle had seen Hiebert auctioneer as he grew up, and had asked when he was 16 or 17 what he could do to become an auctioneer. Heibert gave him a recording of various auctioneers and told him to pick out one he liked and practice.
However, when he finally heard Lyle call an auction, Hiebert was surprised to hear his own cadence in the young man’s voice.
“He said, ‘I already had your rhythm down,’” Hiebert said.
The pair has been together 33 years, and Leppke has followed in Hiebert’s footsteps by volunteering as auctioneer for Peabody-Burns FFA’s annual work auction.
“One of these years Lyle’s going to get to be too old to do this, and I can’t be in both places at the same time,” Hiebert joked.
Hiebert’s longstanding tradition at the Marion-Florence FFA work auction is to start the bidding for each student at $20. Some students will go for $30 or $40, while others will bring $200. Hiebert said he starts each auction by telling students to look at the big picture, that they’re participating in a chapter fundraiser for which every dollar counts, and to have fun.
More than 40 students participated in this year’s auction, which raised around $3,000 for chapter activities, Hiebert said.
“The FFA thing was valuable and important to me, and if I can call attention to that or encourage that for others, I do that,” he said.