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Kitty Rhoades dies after short bout with pneumonia

Kitty Rhoades

HUDSON -- Hudson's own Kitty Rhoades, current secretary of the Wisconsin Department of Health Services, died Saturday. She was 65.

Rhoades fell ill last week while in Madison and died surrounded by family. The cause of death was pneumonia.

Rhoades was elected to the Wisconsin State Assembly’s 30th District in 1998 as a Republican and served from 1999 through 2010.

After leaving the Assembly, Rhoades was appointed deputy secretary of the Wisconsin Department of Health Services by Gov. Scott Walker. Two years later she was named secretary and has headed the department since.

"Kitty’s dedication and service to the state have changed Wisconsin for the better, and she leaves behind a long list of accomplishments as her legacy," Walker said in a statement. "She also leaves behind many friends in my administration, who admired her tenacity, spirit, and leadership. We will miss all that she offered to us on behalf of Wisconsin citizens."

Kitty was born on April 7, 1951, the first child of George and Joan Richie of Hudson. She graduated from Hudson High School in 1969, UW-River Falls in 1973 and earned her Master’s degree in education from Illinois State University in 1978.

Kitty married Frank Rhoades on June 21, 1975, and together they raised three sons, Chris, Matt and Mike. The couple spent time in Illinois, Michigan and Georgia before coming back to Hudson in 1988.

Before entering politics, Rhoades was a teacher of at-risk youth, a small business owner and the executive director of the Hudson Area Chamber of Commerce from 1991 to 1996. She also served two years with the North Suburban Chamber in the Twin Cities before entering politics in the 1998.

“The sudden loss of Secretary Kitty Rhoades saddens me deeply,” said state Sen. Sheila Harsdorf. “Kitty was a friend to many, a tenacious servant to her constituents as she served the 30th Assembly District, and her constituencies within the aging, long term care, and disability communities. Her legacy as Secretary of the Department of Health Services will have a long lasting impact on Wisconsin. She was dedicated to serving those in need.

“Secretary Rhoades will be missed by all of us who knew her and served with her in state government. My deepest sympathy to her family at this difficult time,” Harsdorf said.

Current 30th District Rep. Dean Knudson, also a Republican, was elected to the post after Rhoades retired in 2010. Knudson is retiring from the position after the current term. He had these words: “We are saddened by the sudden loss of Kitty.  Her leadership and tireless service made Hudson and Wisconsin better. The evidence of that service is all around us. She had a vision of downtown Hudson with busy restaurants and shops, and while leading the Hudson Area Chamber she set the stage for that to happen. In Madison she never stopped advocating for improved long term care for the elderly and disabled. Kitty had the ability to bring people together to make things happen. She will be sorely missed.”

Wisconsin Assembly Majority Leader Jim Steineke (R-Kaukauna) said in a statement: “I am deeply saddened at the news of Secretary Kitty Rhoades. Kitty was a beloved colleague, a loyal friend and a champion of Wisconsin. She devoted her career to the betterment of our state and especially her hometown community of Hudson.

“As a leader in the State Assembly and as Secretary of Health Services, her number one focus was improving the lives of the people she served. Kitty’s unwavering service and dedication will be remembered by many. Our thoughts and prayers are with Secretary Rhoades’ family during this difficult time.”

Other reaction

John Potter and his wife, Mary Claire Olson Potter of Hudson, both knew Rhoades well.

John Potter is the artistic director of The Phipps Center for the Arts. Olson Potter replaced Rhoades as the president of the Hudson Area Chamber of Commerce & Tourism Bureau in 1996 when Rhoades left to assume a similar role at the North Suburban Chamber in the Twin Cities.

They said, “We mourn the loss of Kitty. She was smart, practical, and knew how to get things done. She was fully committed to whatever cause she championed.”

Blake Fry is the current president of the Hudson Chamber. Although he was not living in the area when Rhoades had his job, he says the chamber has built on the legacy she started back in the early 1990s.

“From everything I have learned, Kitty brought a level of professionalism to the chamber that had not been there in the past. I do know her from working at UW-River Falls. She had a real passion for everything she did. She was honest, fun to talk with and had such dedication to service. She was a major presence in the community and she will be missed.”

Carol Doyle was a member of the Hudson Chamber staff when Rhoades took the leadership job there in 1991 and followed her to the North Suburban job before joining the staff of the Minnesota State Fair.

Of her former boss and longtime friend Doyle said Rhoades was “non-stop tenacious,” especially in establishing Hudson as a tourist destination. Doyle said Rhoades was instrumental in getting signage on I-94 that promoted downtown Hudson and its location along the river -- and lobbied hard to have room tax dollars in the city used to support local tourism. It was during her tenure that the organization changed its name to include “Tourism Bureau.”

Doyle considered Rhoades a force of nature who worked tirelessly “with every bone in her body to make things happen.”

“And people responded to her. I think it was her candor and down-to-earth way of telling it like it was that appealed to so many. It is a terrible loss for all of us.”

Doyle is married to Art Doyle of Art Doyle's Spokes and Pedals, a longtime Hudson business.

St. Croix County's ARDC dementia specialist Nancy Abrahamson said she got to know Rhoades during her health secretary tenure, the position she held at the time of her death and with a topic that was a priority for her.

Abrahamson said Rhoades facilitated the first task force in Wisconsin to determine how to address the growing impact of dementia across the state. With the guiding principles for creating dementia friendly communities developed by that task force, she was highly successful in the creation of the Legislative Task Force on Dementia.

Abrahamson said her position exists because because of a state grant to help people who think they have dementia or who have been given the diagnosis of a type of dementia, to create opportunities for those with dementia to remain engaged as well as to support the caregivers. Rhoades implemented suggestions that enable people to remain safely in their homes and spearheaded the creation of funding for dementia/caregiving programs.

On June 9, Rhoades was in Hudson to speak at the St. Croix Valley Foundation Leader’s Forum to encourage community leaders to participate in the creation of a coalition to work on initiatives to make St. Croix County dementia friendly.

Said Abrahamson, “Kitty seemed to have never-ending energy and was passionate about what she believed in and how to create change on the community level without government mandates.”

Hudson Mayor Rich O'Connor honored Rhoades during Monday's City Council meeting.

"She has served our community very well," he said. "Keep her family in your thoughts and prayers."

Among others, Rhoades is survived by her husband, Frank; sons, Chris (Nicole), Matt (Lisa), and Mike (Janine); mother, Joan; and brothers, David, Tony, John, Mike, Matt, and Joe.


Visitation is from 2-8 p.m. on Wednesday, June 22, at the O'Connell Family Funeral Home. Mass of Christian Burial is at 2 p.m. on Thursday, June 23, at St. Patrick's Catholic Church, with a visitation held one hour prior to the Mass at church. Interment will be at St. Patrick's Catholic Cemetery in Hudson.

Engels named to post

Walker appointed DHS Deputy Secretary Tom Engels to the post of Interim Secretary pending the appointment of Rhoades’ successor.

Engels was appointed by Walker to serve as deputy secretary of the DHS Feb. 9, 2015.

Prior to that, Engels served as the deputy secretary as well as the assistant deputy secretary at the Department of Safety and Professional Services. Before that he served as the vice president of public affairs for the Pharmacy Society of Wisconsin for many years.