Growing up, Onalaska Mayor Kim Smith ’14 didn’t dream of becoming mayor, but she didn’t rule it out either. She remembers watching a TV show as a girl in which a character sings a song called “Every Boy Can Be President,” prompting her to ask her mother why just little boys? Why not girls?
Smith became Onalaska’s first female mayor on Dec. 18, 2019, appointed to a sudden vacancy by the Onalaska Common Council. She went into the meeting as a council member, and she walked out as the choice of her fellow council members to be mayor.
As the prospect of her becoming mayor loomed that evening, a big question presented itself to Smith. “When the time comes, when you’re put in a position where you can either step up and be a part of the common good or go home and watch Netflix, am I going to step up?” she said.
She did step up for the temporary appointment and the following April won election to a full term, but if it hadn’t been for going through the servant leadership master’s degree program at Viterbo University, Smith said, she doubts she would have taken on the mayor’s job.
“I really do credit Viterbo with giving me the confidence to raise my hand and say, ‘I’ll do it,’” Smith said. The servant leadership program also helped her develop the interpersonal skills and other tools needed for success.
An Onalaska native, Smith has a long history of giving back to the community. Her first job after graduating from the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse with a degree in geography and biology was with the Wisconsin Conservation Corps. For four years, she oversaw crews of young people with their share of challenges, helping them gain work and life skills.
The crews were based in the Onalaska parks, and when Smith needed to call the home office in Madison, she’d go to Onalaska City Hall, where they’d tell her to use the phone in the mayor’s office.
Her connections with the parks department prompted city officials to recruit her for service on the Parks and Recreation Board, serving on the committee that got the Onalaska Aquatic Center built. She also served on the city’s Plan Commission and chaired the committee working on an expansion of the Onalaska library.
“I’ve always believed in serving my community and doing my part,” said Smith, who won her first term on the Onalaska Common Council in 2004. In 2010, she lost re-election to a fourth term on the council by 18 votes, but that didn’t deter her from running again (and winning).
A couple years after her election defeat, as she was helping one of her daughters search for colleges, Smith said she felt like she was at a turning point. During a Viterbo campus visit with her daughter, Smith picked up a brochure on the servant leadership program.
“The more I looked at it, the servant leadership program really resonated with me,” Smith said. “It validated the things I already felt were true, but was still learning how to express such as the importance of rituals and celebration in building community, making sure those most vulnerable in our society are cared for and never forgetting that every person has something valuable to contribute.”
As mayor, the cornerstones of leadership for Smith are listening and viewing issues from all perspectives to find the best version of the common good, lessons emphasized in the servant leadership program.
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