When Beth Wilms arrived in Brainerd to take the reins as Community Services director, she was told she had big shoes to fill.
“I brought my own,” Wilms replied.
Her predecessor, Susan Beck, retired at the end of 2010 after 34 years with the county. Wilms said she had a lot of respect for Beck, department director since 1998. But Wilms expected to bring her own brand of management to the role. Beck said that’s a good thing.
“She’s got a very different style than me and actually I think that’s great,” Beck said.
Wilms grew up amid the rolling hills of Sparta in western Wisconsin. The city of about 9,500 people is near the Mississippi River about a half hour from LaCrosse and northwest of Madison.
A Milwaukee Brewers’ emblem is prominent in Wilms’ office. The self-described hard-core Packers fan doesn’t see the Vikings displacing her team even if her address crossed the border.
As a college graduate with a communications degree, she was a case manager at the Welfare to Work program in Wisconsin, and became an income maintenance worker for Monroe County. She worked in corrections in Wyoming.
She earned her masters in health and human services and spent the last decade in Houston County as human services director. Now that she and her husband are empty nesters, she said it was the right time for a change.
Seated in her office, Wilms said the move has been a good fit.
“People have been great,” Wilms said. “They’ve been very gracious.”
Her lanyard holding her identification badge is decorated with pins. Tab cans are lined up on a nearby desk. Her office is a mixture of books, memorabilia and art work.
She describes herself as a tactile and visual person. The office window ledge is a mini-museum from hand-crafted decorative glass, artistic photographs, to a tiny Hormel Spam van — homage to Wilms’ affection for the Spam Museum in Austin.
The books “Fish! Sticks — a remarkable way to adapt to changing times and keep your work fresh” and “The World is Flat” sit by the window. An avid reader, Wilms said a library in her Sparta home was wall-to-wall books. She would rather have the book to crack open than an electronic reader and reads to the end, whether the book is a winner or not. It’s not uncommon for her to have three books going at one time. She enjoys downhill skiing, boating and fishing.
“I have a lot of energy,” Wilms said. She recently joined the Hallett Community Center in Crosby, where she regularly swims. “I like a good challenge. I would rather be on the cutting edge.”
Type A and extroverted, Wilms is the mother of three grown children. Her husband of nearly 30 years, who works as a salesman, is selling their home in Sparta. It can be a complex task when exiting a place called home for three decades.
“He’s just a wonderful spouse,” she said. “I can’t say enough nice things about him.”
Wilms said she likes to meet people, has an open door policy and doesn’t like to micromanage.
Beck worked with Wilms for several weeks through the transition and knew her from her work in Houston County. Beck said Wilms’ 10 years of experience will allow her to react more quickly to legislative changes. And Beck said she’s been impressed with the way Wilms has jumped into the community, including becoming a Kinship Partner.
“I think she has made a strong effort to get out and meet people,” Beck said, adding that helps with establishing ties. Wilms, Beck said, has “created some opportunities for new ones to be forged. ... I think she is a high energy person and that’s what’s called for right now.”
Wilms said the difficult economic times have been a challenge — and an opportunity to look to be more customer driven, to work compassionately and effectively as the county provides a safety net to serve the most vulnerable people.
Wilms said: “I think we are all only a couple of paychecks of being on the other side of that table.”
RENEE RICHARDSON may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 855-5852.