Lessons in leadership have been plentiful over the last 11 years for Jake Woodford ’13, Appleton’s mayor-elect.
From his time as president of the Lawrence University Community Council (LUCC) as an undergraduate to his work at Lawrence the past seven years as secretary to the Board of Trustees and assistant to the president, Woodford has been a voice of insight, intellect, and reason on a myriad of issues impacting Lawrence and the city.
When the ballots in the Appleton mayoral race were counted Monday, nearly a week after the April 7 election, the 29-year-old Woodford was elected to a four-year term, garnering 54% of the vote. He will be sworn in April 21 and will succeed Tim Hanna, who has served as Appleton’s mayor for 24 years.
“I’m so grateful for the incredible support my campaign has had from not only the Appleton community but also members of the Lawrence community,” Woodford said.
It was in the fall of 2009 that Woodford, who grew up in Appleton, walked onto the Lawrence campus as a first-year student. He declared government as his major and never looked back.
“It was an area of passion for me,” he said.
It’s a passion that would grow over the next four years, blossoming in many ways as he forged his own academic path and worked to strengthen and enhance the Lawrence experience for his classmates and those to come. In addition to his classroom work, he would serve in multiple student leadership roles and would be elected president of the LUCC, a student governing organization that’s an integral part of shared governance at Lawrence.
“It really was a living lab for me in terms of leadership — elected leadership and also in terms of management,” Woodford said of his undergrad experience.
He would walk off the Commencement stage in 2013 and into an important role in the president’s office, one that had him in frequent collaborations with the City of Appleton and other regional government bodies on issues ranging from mobility studies to infrastructure development. It would all prove to be preparation for his entry into elected office.
Woodford delivered a letter of resignation to Lawrence President Mark Burstein on Tuesday morning, 10 hours after being declared the mayoral victor. He called it a “bittersweet moment.” For Burstein, it was a moment of deep Lawrentian pride.
“Many Lawrentians are called to public service and to roles that have direct impact on their communities,” Burstein said. “It has been a pleasure to watch Jake’s energy turn toward the city he loves. I know the mayor-elect will lead us into a great future.”
Woodford will assume Appleton’s top leadership position at a time of great uncertainty with the COVID-19 pandemic. His Monday night victory came amid the state’s safer-at-home orders and pleas for social distancing, leaving him to do media interviews in his driveway instead of at a packed victory party.
What comes next for Appleton and other communities navigating the fallout from the pandemic has yet to be written. But Woodford is confident the lessons learned at Lawrence over the past 11 years will serve him well.
“This is a complicated time to be taking office, but I feel well prepared for this work,” he said. “I feel well prepared for adjusting to the times and facing the challenges we face, and I credit a lot of that to the Lawrence education that I have, this education that has prepared me to think critically and to be able to adjust to the situations that I face and the circumstances as they change. And to be grounded in values, values of community and of building a community that can be home for all people.”
Appleton and Lawrence have long had a collaborative relationship. Their histories are closely intertwined and the health of one is critical to the health of the other. Burstein noted those ties as he applauded the passing of the city’s leadership torch from Hanna to Woodford.
“I also want to thank Mayor Hanna for his efforts to foster a more inclusive Appleton with a vibrant economic base, safe environment, and bustling downtown,” Burstein said. “Even though our aims have differed at times, we have always found a way to work together to improve the quality of life for the people we serve. I hope to have the same relationship with Mayor Woodford.”
As Woodford prepares to become the top elected official in the city that Lawrence calls home, he points to mentorship from Burstein and other campus leaders as key to his preparation for a leap into public office. Those are lessons he’ll lean into as he manages a city with more than 74,000 residents.
“The thing I’ve always been struck by about Lawrence is that it’s a place where people are treated with respect and trusted to do their work, trusted to lead,” Woodford said. “I went from being a student at the university to being a colleague, and to being a senior leader at the institution, and I always felt respected and supported and mentored by my colleagues, by the faculty, and that’s been such an important part of my Lawrence experience.”
Next stop, City Hall.