Laura and Nick Bakhtiari’s world revolves around kids – Laura’s third-graders at Longfellow Elementary, the high school students who make up Nick’s summer staff at the World’s Only Corn Palace, where he manages the Corn Palace Gift Shop, and their own two children, Nixon, 2 ½, and Maddox, 10 months.
The couple met in Aberdeen when Laura was a student at Northern State University, and Nick, a graduate of University of Wisconsin – Superior, was working in retail. When Laura graduated with her degrees in elementary education and special education, she began applying for teaching jobs. By the time she landed her job as a third-grade teacher at Longfellow Elementary in Mitchell, Nick had been promoted to district manager. Because his job involved almost constant travel, he could base anywhere, so the two moved to Mitchell.
When Laura and Nick married in 2015, they knew they wanted to start a family, and Nick’s travel schedule was not compatible with parenting. He took a position at Cabela’s so he could be home every night.
Working at Cabela’s allowed Nick the schedule he wanted, but he had not spent a lot of time in Mitchell up to that point, which led to some funny situations.
“He was always getting lost and calling me to ask directions,” Laura said.
In January 2017, a new opportunity presented itself; Nick was hired to be the manager of the Corn Palace Gift Shop.
“I had not worked in tourism before,” he said, “but I was confident that my retail experience would be perfect for the position.”
Nick is responsible for overseeing the gift shop’s retail operation on the main floor of the Corn Palace during the summer months and the permanent shop across the street at 603 N. Main. He also supervises the training of the summer tour guides at the Palace.
“It’s so unique, because we hire a large staff and we have 89 selling days in the summer,” he said. “That first summer I’d have been sunk without Troy Magnuson and his experience.”
Looking back after wrapping up his second summer of managing the gift shop and its operations, Nick is happy to see the business grow and to find new opportunities. He has implemented a point-of-sale system to manage inventory and create efficiencies in sales, he continues to hunt for unique merchandise, and the gift shop now has an online presence.
As for that rite of passage for many Mitchell teens, summer employment at the Corn Palace is still popular.
“Working at the Corn Palace is a cool job for kids,” Nick said. “I think it’s great for young people to learn and share the story of the Corn Palace from a perspective that is different from being a spectator at a basketball game.”
And as Nick employs the young workforce at Mitchell’s iconic attraction, Laura is educating younger members of the community in her third-grade classroom.
“I’m a Longfellow Lion,” Laura said. “I feel fortunate to be in such a good school district.”
Laura credits her colleagues at Longfellow for helping her get established as a young teacher. The more experienced teachers took her under their wings and shared knowledge and supplies.
“Having your own classroom is much different than learning to teach as a college student,” she said.
Laura appreciates the focus on problem-solving in today’s classroom.
“I remember memorizing multiplication tables,” she said. “Now we teach how to get to the solution, breaking down the steps to get the answer. That problem-solving skill will take them farther than just memorization.”
Her students are like an extended family. Laura says she gets very attached to them and enjoys watching their growth and maturity from the beginning of the school year to the end.
“I am privileged to touch the lives of so many kids,” she said.
Nick also spends time in her classroom – as a Junior Achievement instructor.
“It’s great,” he said, “I don’t have to teach them to pronounce ‘Bakhtiari’ because they already know it.”
Outside of work, they mostly are focused on their growing little family. But Laura also coaches at Mega Gymnastics, and Nick likes to hunt ducks and pheasants.
“I hunt as much as I possibly can, which is not as much as I’d like to,” he said.
They feel at home here because of the welcome they received and the similarities of Mitchell to their hometowns. They agree that Mitchell is large enough that they don’t know everyone when they go to the store, but small enough that they usually run into someone they do know. The location is central to Laura’s family in Yankton and Nick’s in Minnesota.
“We came here because we had to,” said Nick. “But we stayed because we wanted to.”