Leah Pigatti launched her career as a Head Start teacher in 1978, helping adults make their children proud by being the best parents they could be.
“It was my dream job,” Pigatti recalled. “I would go into the homes of low-income people and work with the child and the parent together because the parent is the first and most important educator in a child’s life.”
The second eldest of seven children, she always admired her own parents, Neil and Angela (’77) McCluhan. And by example, they inspired her to a life of service.
Pigatti retired in November after 16 years as executive director of the Mahube-Otwa Community Action Partnership, a non-profit corporation based in Detroit Lakes. The agency serves low-income people in Mahnomen, Hubbard, Becker, Ottertail and Wadena counties.
At its helm, she supervised a staff of 155 and 40 consultants and managed an annual budget of $25 million. She also worked with an 18-member board representing elected officials, private enterprise and low-income people. During her tenure, the agency renovated offices, built a Head Start Center and constructed four new office buildings. In 2012, it also expanded in one of Pigatti’s most ambitious undertakings.
But that gets ahead of the story.
Pigatti grew up in Sioux City, Iowa. Her father, an attorney and judge, did pro-bono legal work for those in need. Her mother, a registered nurse, started her career with Indian reservation hospitals in Nebraska.
“My parents were always concerned about people who had less, and I was proud of the work that they did,” she said.
As a student at Briar Cliff College, Pigatti met her husband, Tim, and they eventually moved to Park Rapids to raise their daughter, Tina.
By 1978, Pigatti was the Head Start coordinator and teacher for the Mahube agency and a student at Bemidji State University, where she found her studies well aligned with her work. She graduated magna cum laude in 1983 with a community service degree and in 1989 with a master’s in applied behavioral science. She remembers working hard to juggle career, family and studies.
“I got my master’s when Tina was in high school, and I thought I wasn’t doing enough for her,” Pigatti said. “But when I got my Ph.D., she told me, ‘I never remember you not being there when I needed you.’ That meant so much to me.”
Looking back, she is grateful for how her experience at Bemidji State shaped her career. She did her master’s thesis on employer-provided child care and was able to apply her findings to her work.
“I think that’s why I did so well,” Pigatti said. “I was living what I was learning at school. And Bemidji State was such a perfect match for me.”
She was promoted to Head Start project development director before she completed her bachelor’s and served in that position for 18 years. She made it her mission to listen to struggling parents and deliver services to meet their needs.
“There was a fierceness and determination to her commitment, in addition to her obvious grace and smarts,” said long-time colleague Joelle Hoeft. “Leah was an important person to pay attention to for all things Head Start in our state.”
When Pigatti became executive director of the Mahube organization, Hoeft said, “She brought these impressive strengths to a new sphere of impact.”
She also brought her boundless energy. “She would be at work at 6 a.m. every day even though she commuted an hour to work,” said Marcia Otte, the agency’s family development director. “Then one day Leah was diagnosed with cancer, and I saw her in a fight for her life.
“When she lost her hair, I cried for her. Little did I know that in a few years, I too would be in a fight for my life.”
While the women bonded through their battle with cancer, they also bonded in their work to help the agency thrive and grow. “Leah was the hardest working executive that I ever met,” Otte said.
From its inception, Mahube served three counties – named by the first two letters of each county — Mahnomen, Hubbard and Becker. Then in 2012, Otter Tail and Wadena counties were required to restructure within nine months. Pigatti’s staff worked night and day to incorporate them into what became Mahube-Otwa.
“What’s amazing is that we did it, we did it successfully, and we did it so we’re better serving our communities,” she said. “We became such a skilled team, and I’m so proud of that.”
In 2007, Pigatti completed her doctorate at North Dakota State University and started teaching in the master’s program at Minnesota State University, Moorhead. “I never aspired to teach, but I just love it,” she said. Just before retiring, she also received Minnesota’s Connie Greer Lifetime Achievement Award for community action.
Of all her achievements, what Pigatti holds most dear is the admiration of her daughter.
“I want her to be proud of me,” she said. “Every child deserves that – to be proud of their parents.”
Written by Cindy Serratore