New director named for sheepdog trials

Sisters Mary Cunningham, right, and Ellen Nieslanik will work together during a transition period as Ellen steps down as director of the Meeker Classic and Mary takes over.

Sisters Mary Cunningham, left, and Ellen Nieslanik will work together during a transition period as Ellen steps down as director of the Meeker Classic and Mary takes over.
MEEKER I One year away from its 25th anniversary, the sheepdog trials will have a new director.
But the title isn’t going far. It will stay in the family.
Ellen Nieslanik, who has been the director of the Meeker Classic for the past six years, is transitioning out of the role. Taking over will be her older sister, Mary Cunningham.
It will be a role reversal for the two sisters.
“It will be so nice to be able to tell my big sister what to do,” Ellen said, laughing.
There won’t be a lot of bossing around going on, however. The two sisters — the oldest of the late Bart and Mary Strang’s four daughters — get along fabulously.
“We’ve always worked well together and we do things the same way,” Cunningham said. “Growing up, we were that way, too.”
For Ellen, she’s stepping away from the director’s role, but she will continue to be involved with the trials, taking a position on the board of directors.
“I have to say it’s a little bit of a mixed bag, but I’m ready,” Ellen said. “I knew I had to do this for a myriad of reasons. One is because of health reasons that came up. It’s not about me wanting to go … the board kept saying just cut back. It’s not so much about that. You do it, or you don’t do it. I never want to have a bitter thought in my mind about the Meeker Classic. I didn’t want to become an encumbrance. I didn’t want to see it change under my watch. I didn’t want it to become less of an event because I couldn’t do it at a certain level.”
Not that the decision to step down was easy. She made the decision after returning from the national sheepdog finals last year.
“I knew when I got home,” she said. “It just seemed like the right answer.”
“She still gets teary eyed (thinking about it), and then I get teary eyed,” Mary said. “Ellen has done so much. Meeker is internationally known … it has a connection with handlers all across the world. That’s a tribute to the community and Ellen.”
As director, Ellen poured her heart and soul into the sheepdog trials.
“It’s the single best job experience I’ve had,” she said. “It’s been a great ride. I decided, let’s get off at the top and not at the bottom.”
And that’s where Mary wants the event to remain.
“It has the community’s support, so that will keep it going,” she said.
Cunningham and her husband, Greg, moved from Kaycee, Wyo., back to Meeker last November. For Mary, it was coming home.
“Our kids were all raised and in college,” said Mary, who is called Maym by her family. “We had a general store there and we were fortunate to find a buyer. Then somebody wanted to buy the ranch. And dad had been ill, so we thought it was a perfect time to move back to the Colorado mountains.”
One month later, Bart Strang died. He was 81. He and his wife, Mary, celebrated their 51st wedding anniversary during last year’s sheepdog trials.
“I think it would please dad (for Mary to take over as director of the trials),” Ellen said. “He came out to the trials, even last year. He told me, ‘I’m so proud of the job you’re doing.’ So this would please him.”
“Anything with agriculture and animals, he supported,” Mary said of her father, a longtime Rio Blanco County rancher.
Between now and this year’s trials, Sept. 8-12, Mary will shadow her younger sister. She will take over full responsibility in November.
“We already have a working relationship, and I’ll be right there,” Ellen said. “We were just lucky to find someone who had all those common threads. It gives us some continuity.”
Ellen will be there to help with the transition any way she can, not to tell Mary how to do it.
“I just do things a certain way, not that it’s the best way, but it works for me,” Ellen said.
Mary, a 1978 graduate of Meeker High School, has lived in Wyoming for the past 20 years. She and her husband, who is from Cisco, Utah, met at a stock show in Denver.
“He was working for (Meeker resident) Ben Franklin’s father at the stock show, just helping him, and that’s how we met,” Mary said.
The couple has three children.
Ellen was thrilled when she learned Mary was interested in the director’s job.
“When I had made the decision (to step down), I asked her if there was any chance she would be interested. She said she would think about it. When the board caught wind she was interested, that was pretty exciting,” Ellen said. “There were a lot of great candidates.”
“Ellen sort of separated herself from that whole process and it worked out,” Mary said. “Now she’s my trainer.”
Mary has enjoyed returning to her old stomping grounds.
“Of course, Meeker is a wonderful community,” she said. “It hasn’t changed that much. It’s been fun re-connecting with people.”
Mary is familiar with the Meeker Classic, through her sister, of course, but because she competed here — not in the trials, but as a western artist.
“I’ve competed in the art contest, and as a vendor I’ve been involved for a long time,” Mary said.
In fact, Mary and her husband started a sheepdog trial where they lived in Wyoming, modeled after the Meeker Classic.
“It was smaller. We only had about 50 dogs and a $10,000 purse (where Meeker runs 125 dogs and has a $20,000 purse), but we know a lot of the handlers from our trial,” Mary said. “The handlers love to come to Meeker, even in Kaycee they would talk about it.”
“Greg and Maym have used border collies on their ranch forever,” Ellen said. “So they understand not just the competition, but the real application of it.”
As far as her future plans, Ellen will take a seat on the Meeker Classic’s Board of Directors and she’ll continue to compete as a handler. She also will be the director for the North American finals in 2011, which will be held in Carbondale.
“I will be around for the beginning of the Meeker trial, then I can evaporate and do my thing,” she said. “It’s nice they’re going to keep me around on the board. I can offer support without intruding.”
One thing for sure, Ellen will be missed.
“There’s so much she does,” Mary said. “She’s going to leave big shoes to fill.”
But at least Ellen’s not going far.
“She will be around,” Mary said of her sister.
And, for the Meeker Classic, it will be in good hands.
“I know Mary is passionate about it,” Ellen said. “This is how it was supposed to work out.”