“I’ve held off from retiring because it is a great job. I have had a lot of wonderful people work for me, I’ve been able to engage with people from all across the area, I like solving problems, I had the opportunity to be involved in the community and I genuinely enjoyed going to work every day. Why would I quit?” asked retiring State Farm Agent Dennis Fenton. “One of the great things about State Farm is that we are a company that works through local agents to invest in the communities we serve. The agent before me was here for 55 years. When I am done today, I will have been associated with State Farm for 42 years. My hope is that the next agent, Brian (Limbaugh), will be here for a similar amount of time.”
The new year brought a major change for Dennis Fenton, who sat behind his desk at the State Farm office, located at 114 School Street in Hillsboro, for the last time on Thursday, Dec. 31. Fenton started with State Farm in 1978, working in their regional office in Bloomington.
“I started at State Farm right out of college, having been an older student after serving four years in the United States Navy. I graduated from Illinois State University in Normal and State Farm is a big employer there. I knew other people in the community who were already working for the company and they kept telling me what a great opportunity it was,” Fenton explained. “In my case it really worked out and has been a blessing in so many ways .”
He worked at the regional office for 4.5 years, before moving to become an agent in Decatur. There he built a large and successful agency over 18 years serving that region. The success of his Decatur-based agency led Fenton to yet another promotion. Fenton and his wife, Deborah, found themselves relocating to take over Hillsboro’s State Farm Agency in July 2001. The move found them jumping into new opportunities, as well as reconnecting with old ties.
Originally from Granite City, Fenton was now closer to his parents and extended family. Their young-adult-age children, Dustin and Danica, both attended Greenville University (then college), making the relocation a relatively smooth transition.
“The opportunity to take over the Hillsboro office has been good in ways that I expected but also in many ways that I could not have ever anticipated,” said Fenton, with a reminiscent tone. “I came here because the company thought I would be a good fit for the community. I was actually born in Montgomery County (but only lived here as an infant) and as a teenager, I spent my summers working at my grandparents’ farm in South Litchfield Township. When I came back I thought it would be an interesting experience that would allow me to rediscover old connections.”
Fenton had no idea that within a year after arriving in Hillsboro, his mother would be diagnosed with cancer and die a few months later, then his father, the Rev. Norman Fenton would pass away a short five years later.
“Had I been in Decatur I would have been two hours from where my parents were located in Granite City. My grandmother was still living in Litchfield at that time and needed a lot of assistance in her last years of life; being here to help her was a blessing. There are just all kinds of things like that, that couldn’t have been if I hadn’t made the move to Hillsboro,” said Fenton.
While Fenton had 18 years of experience managing the thriving agency he had built in Decatur, he soon found that managing an agency in a small town would require learning new skills. “I thought I knew everything I needed to know about being an agent when I moved here. Well, I learned some stuff, and of course learning is always a good thing,” said Fenton with a laugh. “When I first decided to become an agent I thought that this was where I really belonged. Not in Hillsboro specifically, but a small community. I wound up in Decatur. I had built a large agency in Decatur, but the thing that you learn is that you can have a large agency and serve a lot of people and none of them bump into each other very often. I came here and learned what it actually means to be in a small town. Here there are so many connections. Everyone has a connection. Everyone knows each other. It is just a much deeper, more intertwined community.”
Fenton credits learning the ropes and connection points in the area to his co-workers, especially his long-time employees Michelle Gardner, Cindy Otto and the late Delores Hughes. Typically the Hillsboro-based State Farm Agency has at least three licensed team members working out of the office. A people-person by nature, it didn’t take Fenton long to enmesh himself in the community.
“Community service is just one of those things you naturally take on when you are visible in the community,” Fenton explained. “As an insurance agent and business owner you know a lot of people and are engaged in a lot of things so it makes sense to be involved. You’ve learned how to run a business and how to help people, and hopefully you can bring some of that experience and training to the table.”
Throughout his tenure heading the Hillsboro State Farm Agency, Fenton has served as president of the Hillsboro Chamber of Commerce twice, vice-president of the Montgomery County Economic Development Committee and spent 12 years serving as a trustee on the Greenville University Board of Trustees, among other community involvements. He and his wife were also active members of the Free Methodist Church of Hillsboro.
“One of the things you learn as an agent is that an insurance agency is one of many hubs in the community for all kinds of things that happen in terms of the local economy,” said Fenton. “Around 99 percent of the dollars we bring in as an insurance company go right back out into the community. For example, if you have a car wreck you are going to hire a local tow truck or go to the local auto shop, all of which employ local people. If your house burns down you are going to call a local contractor who is going to call the lumber company and other tradesmen; all these things go right back into the local economy. When you pay your premium you are really paying to bring in a new imaging machine to the hospital, because they couldn’t do that if someone wasn’t paying the bills for medical care. This insurance agency and others like it in the area help provide economic stability in the community.”
Finding a replacement that could both run a large-scale business and be an active presence in the community was foremost in Fenton’s mind when he started seriously considering retirement over two years ago.
“I didn’t actually put my resignation down on paper until last December (2019). It isn’t unusual to have a long transition period when you run a large operation, because the company needs to find someone to take over that will be a good fit for the community we serve - and it is a long vetting process,” Fenton explained. “As State Farm agents we want to be available for our neighbors on a personal basis. We want people to feel like they can come to us with their problems and, if we can, we’ll find a way to take care of them so we can reduce their concerns. Brian was somebody I had thought of as a great candidate quite a long time ago, and we had some brief conversations that didn’t mature until later. I couldn’t be happier knowing he is taking my place behind this desk.”
With no end to the COVID-19 pandemic in sight, Fenton’s retirement plans center on spending more time with his family, specifically his five grandchildren who range in age from six to 13.
“Both of our kids and their families live close to where we are located. Yesterday afternoon we watched two of the grandchildren and I suspect next week we will watch a couple more and of course there will be lots of kids sporting events when the spring comes,” Fenton ended, with an anticipatory smile.