NEW RICHMOND, Wis. -- No one could have predicted the unprecedented events of 2020 -- from the Senate acquittal of President Donald Trump on two impeachment charges, to the invasion of the COVID-19, to the death of George Floyd and the ensuing swell of support to reform police and realize racial equality -- and that was just the first six months.
Jim Zajkowski served as alderman of New Richmond’s 6th District for 28 years. John Hueg served on the St. Croix Central School Board for 15. Both tenures came to a close with the April 7 election. Their legacies will continue in their accomplishments but also their examples of patience, perseverance and dedication that changed their communities for the better, forever.
Ten years into their respective terms, it might have already seemed like forever to Hueg and Zajkowski, but they persevered. Both of their terms started when their communities were beginning to experience the kinds of challenges that would shape the future for generations and neither man shied away; they embraced it. Their paths never crossed but they shared a passion for the work, for the citizens, for meaningful and productive progress.
“A community is more than one person, but one person can change a community. I wanted to get involved. I wanted to see our community grow in a sensible way so that we would keep our identity as 'The City Beautiful” and not just become another Twin Cities suburb. That’s why I became an alderman in 1992,” Zajkowski said.
“Some people would say, we had no business moving to western Wisconsin. At one of the referendum meetings, someone in the audience stood up and said, ‘You’re nothing but the rich banker from Roseville trying to figure out new ways to spend my money on your kids.’ I said, ‘You don’t know who I am and there are no words I can say right now to change your mind, but there are a whole lot of actions that over time might,” Hueg recalled.
Why volunteer to serve?
When John and Amy Hueg moved their family from the St. Paul area to Hammond, daughter Anna was in fourth grade, Claire was in second grade and son Joe was 4 years old. They left behind ties to a number of community organizations from church to Big Brothers and Big Sisters.
“My wife and I made a vow to each other that we would not sit on the back deck but we would sit on the front porch. We said, if we’re going to move to Hammond, we’re going to get involved in Hammond,” Hueg said.
Five months after the move, Hueg was running in the primary for the School Board.
“Giving to your community, being part of your community, has been a way of life since I was a small boy. My mom and dad modeled it. My favorite story is 'Stone Soup.' Everybody has something to put into the pot of soup and each addition makes it a richer stew worth celebrating. Promote the common good,” Hueg said.
He draws a distinction at the heart of his service between duty and purpose: “Duty is someone else telling me how I have to live my life. Purpose says, ‘This is how I chose to live my life.’ I’ve done it because it was the right work to do and it fulfills me to do it."
Hueg chose the school board because it was local, accessible and nonpartisan.
In his mind, serving on the board was affecting the future in the most profound way possible, through the education of young people. It was a good fit.
There was this moment early on in Hueg’s tenure on the board that put his commitment into perspective.
"We needed exceptional systems and processes and resources like teachers and school psychologists, and bus drivers, and cooks, so that these kids knew, 'I have food, shelter, clothing. I have safety and security. I have a sense of belonging.' Then we could start to unlock that self-actualization. That’s what the board does."
- Tom Hueg
“We put up a picture of an actual class from SCC. At that time the thinking out there was that a 97% passing rate was OK. So we passed the picture around and said, ‘Circle the three kids for whom it’s OK to not make it.’ Couldn’t do it,” Hueg said.
Hueg and his fellow directors recognized their mission was to provide the resources and relationships to give every single student the best chance to succeed.
“We needed exceptional systems and processes and resources like teachers and school psychologists, and bus drivers, and cooks, so that these kids knew, 'I have food, shelter, clothing. I have safety and security. I have a sense of belonging.' Then we could start to unlock that self-actualization. That’s what the board does,” Hueg said.
Eighteen years later, Hueg reflects on moments that epitomized why he was compelled to serve and the innate fulfillment that comes from such service.
In the early morning hours of Tuesday, April 30, 2013, more than 90 firefighters from nine area departments responded to a massive fire at the Roberts elementary school. Although no one was hurt, the fire so damaged the school that it had to be closed, sending the district scrambling to find new quarters to complete the school year.
By Monday, May 6, one week later, classes reopened at a repurposed Girl Scout camp near Hudson.
“I raised my hand and said, ‘I have some project management coordination experience.’ I have a list of over 150 people who volunteered. We logged over 3,000 volunteer hours in three days. This was an expression of the community taking the absolute worst of a situation and becoming better because of it, the whole community, not just the school and the kids. My heart broke for that young man that made that choice. There’s a whole backstory and again he carries that story with him, but to see the fear and uncertainty and the anger, get channeled into 150 people working side-by-side at that camp, it was unbelievable. It was a closed camp. We were shoveling gravel back into the stairs, we were fixing washouts, trimming trees along the driveways, cleaning every one of those cabins so they could be used as classrooms. Three days."
It was the epitome of "Stone Soup." Everybody put something into that pot.
New Richmond leader
It is unclear if 28 years is the New Richmond record for longest serving alderman, but even if it is not, the accomplishments achieved by the xity during Zajkowski’s tenure are a fitting tribute to his dedication and perseverance.
“I could go on and on about the last 28 years. It gives me a lot of pride to brag about New Richmond,” Zajkowski said.
A legendary fundraiser and relentless advocate for taxpayers, you are likely to find his name associated with just about every meaningful project approved or even debated by the New Richmond City Council since 1992.
City Administrator Mike Darrow paid tribute to Zajkowski’s legacy as a local legislator following his narrow single vote defeat to Kari Kraft last April.
“Throughout those years, his commitment to community, economic development, parks and recreation, our library and short and long-term sustainability was demonstrated with passion and purpose. Regardless of his particular position, Jim was engaged in an issue and wanted to see things through. There are countless examples of this: skate park, disc golf, Citizen’s field, Freedom Park, library project, VFW project and the list goes on and on. Beyond his ability to present on these issues, Jim was passionate about raising funds for projects and was relentless for projects big and small.”
"I wanted to get involved. I wanted to see our community grow in a sensible way so that we would keep our identity as 'The City Beautiful” and not just become another Twin Cities suburb. That’s why I became an alderman in 1992."
- Jim Zajkowski
Most people will admit that asking people to donate their money to support a cause, any cause, is not a task they would seek out. It is famously time-consuming, frequently humbling and universally hard work often out of proportion to the amount of funds donated. To build a reputation as a successful fundraiser is no small feat especially in a small municipality and especially when you do it over and over again for a variety of causes. It requires a gift for persuasion and a resilient ego, the ability to hear “no” and think “next,” but most importantly it requires the ability to listen, to hear the whole idea through and envision what that reality could look like and who it will help.
“I have had the opportunity to meet many different community leaders over the years. You can listen and learn from them. I have bent City Administrator Mike Darrow and Mayor Fred Horne’s ears many times. I think they cringed when they saw me coming, wondering, ‘What idea is he proposing now?’ But when you hear positive comments about parks, pathways, new streets and new businesses, you take pride that you have helped to make these things possible,” Zajkowski said.
For example, he raised $130,000 to build the new skatepark, $30,000 for the new scoreboard and $20,000 to renovate the bathrooms and improve the field at Citizens Field and had already secured commitments for $50,000 toward a new disc golf course when he left office.
A turn of fortune
Maybe a portent of things to come from Zajkowski occurred early on when as president of the Park Board he had seen enough new blacktop and told a new developer so in response to his pitch to develop a new subdivision on Hatfield Lake.
“I sort of read him out at the meeting that this was our only lake in New Richmond and we had had enough blacktop streets and that the land should be preserved for recreation. I mentioned that the island could be used for camping for Boy Scouts. That changed his whole outlook because he was a Boy Scout growing up. I met with him after the meeting. He said he would talk to his mother who owned the land and see if she would sell it to the city. She called me the next morning and said she would sell it to us for $2.4 million. The next job was to convince the City Council to buy it. With some creative means, the council went for it,” Zajkowski recounted.
When Zajkowski won his first term, New Richmond was a city of about 4,000 residents. This year, the city will near if not eclipse the 10,000 mark. There has been a lot of development in that time, but the city has also matured, grown from within, in character.
“I’m proud of having watched the city staff at the Civic Center grow in their positions and make a positive impact in the community,” he said..
Darrow recalls during his 2012 interview to become city administrator a question Zajkowksi. The question not only stuck with Darrow but has influenced the way he thinks about the “city” on a daily basis. Zajkowski appreciated that there is a living narrative in New Richmond being written through the lives of its citizens every day. His question to Darrow, “How do we tell that story?”
Zajkowski knew the answer: listen.