The Green Bay West High School Class of ’64 graduates milled about on the lawn, anticipating summer plans. Among them was 17-year-old Nancy Shoman, oldest of six children, daughter of a paper mill employee, who had been checking out groceries since the day she was old enough to get a work permit. Wondering whatever had possessed her to take a summer job in Durango Colorado.
Tomorrow held her first plane ride to a place called Durango, Colorado, and a dude ranch in the San Juan Mountains. She didn’t know a single person there and would work for the summer cleaning cabins and waiting tables. Her aunt knew the owners of the ranch and thought it would be a great experience. What had she been thinking? She was terrified.
Nancy says that summer taught her about overcoming fear and the rewards that accompany taking risks. She came home, went back to work at the grocery store, and started school at the University of Wisconsin Extension. The next year she met a personable, athletic guy named John Nusbaum who was on leave from the Air Force. He had just finished 14 months of schools to become an Air Force special operations Pararescueman and was in route to his first assignment in Spain. He had one day left on his leave, so they went to a movie (The Sound of Music).
They wrote fairly regularly, which Nancy described as more like “pen pal” letters. “After all,” she said, “there’s nothing very serious about a single date at the movies.” Three years later, John came home from a tour in Vietnam with a chest full of medals, an engagement ring, and permission from the dean to reenter the University at Madison. Within one three month period after John left the jungles of Vietnam, they were married in a modest afternoon ceremony, and began married life in the heart of one of the most turbulent campuses in America. In total, they had actually spent about four months in each other’s company prior to their wedding.
During the turbulent early ‘70’s, Nancy worked three jobs and went to school full time. She passed occupying soldiers to get to class during the black student strike and the anti-war protests. She called it her “baptism by fire” into the world of social justice and political activism. For John, with his military haircut and bearing, the Madison campus was culture shock in the extreme. She is more amazed with every year that passes how he ever navigated it.
Finally, in 1973, graduation came. Life attained a coveted normalcy. Rebecca and then Joe were born, John went to work at a job he loved. Nancy stayed at home, while the children were young, volunteering in school, church and community. A real “Leave it to Beaver Life,” Nancy says. But the 80’s were about to start as turbulently as the 70’s had.
In 1980, the company John worked for selected him to open a new joint venture cheese plant in Coleraine, Northern Ireland. It was the height of the The Troubles. The hunger strike in the Maze Prison began two months after the family arrived. The plant opened the day of Bobby Sands’ funeral. He was the first of ten hunger strikers to die.
In the two-and-a-half years, they lived in Northern Ireland, Nancy started Catholic/Protestant Bible studies in women’s homes, worked with a peace and reconciliation group, met Mother Theresa, and came to appreciate that social justice movements will always require limitless patience and dedication. A highlight for the couple was a Garden Party at Buckingham Palace with Queen Elizabeth.
A few days after the Nusbaums returned to De Pere, they learned the city was proposing to condemn their home as part of a downtown redevelopment project. As the wrecking ball drew closer, John headed a committee to find a candidate for mayor. “He failed to find someone, so he had to run,” Nancy laughed. The full-time manager in a cheese company also became a part-time mayor. He loved the business side of the job but the confirmed introvert did not enjoy the public aspect. Nancy would watch him doing that job and think how much she would enjoy doing it.
Meanwhile, Nancy was a very busy community volunteer during the 80’s. She joined a service organization, worked with Next Door Theatre, served on the board and then became president of Encompass Childcare, served on the United Way Board of Directors, was in the second Leadership Green Bay Class, was a founding member of Partners in Care, served as an elder in her church and as a volunteer in the library at the elementary school.
The end of 1987 arrived, and the City of De Pere was in dire straits. It had the highest taxes in Brown County and its downtown area was rundown and largely vacant. The Spring elections were just around the corner and Nancy didn’t feel confident any of the declared candidates was right for the job. Maybe she should run. She asked peoples’ opinions and was met with mixed responses. Certainly, it was a new concept, a woman mayor in 1987.
There was a four-way primary in February which Nancy won by four votes. Armed with her impressive primary win, she had a strategy. She’d been hearing rumors coming out of the barber shop on Main, that De Pere wasn’t ready for a woman mayor. This business was run by two brothers, one of whom was on the school board, and the barbershop had been successfully operating in the same family for three generations.
Jim Gevers, the barber, agreed to have coffee with Nancy. As he nervously stirred his coffee, he told her he didn’t think De Pere was ready to elect a woman mayor. Immensely relieved that he brought up the subject, Nancy explained that the reason she wanted to talk to Jim was because he was the owner of one of the few remaining successful businesses on Main Street. She said that she was looking for guidance on what the next mayor could do to partner with business to return vitality to the downtown.
She pointed to her own current presidency of Encompass, which had a $1.5 million annual budget at the time, and then dropped her single biggest selling point. As a community volunteer and a stay-at-home mom, she would be available to serve on a full-time basis during the day when business was transacted, but was willing to do that on the same part-time salary. This, Nancy said with a twinkle in her eye, was the closer. The De Pere area was settled by the Dutch, who were notoriously thrifty, and they could recognize a good deal when they saw one.
They shook hands, Jim wished her luck and explained for the sake of his business he never got involved in politics. But never again did Nancy hear that patrons of the barber shop didn’t think De Pere was ready for a woman mayor.
The election wasn’t even close. Nancy became the first woman mayor of De Pere and one of its biggest challenges was its struggling downtown. As she says, “The first step to solving a problem is recognizing what you don’t know.” In her case, she searched the country for programs on downtown revitalization. There was a conference on the National Main Street Program about to be held in Denver.
With no money in the city budget, Nancy went to John Gilman, manager of JC Penney, and secured a grant to enable her to attend. She learned how cities across America were using an historic preservation approach to restore the vitality of their downtowns. De Pere was the perfect city for this model. “Start,” they were told, “by identifying your 800-pound gorillas.” She went to Bob Mettner at De Pere Federal, Harry Olp at Bank One and Harry Macco, a local developer, and told them she had some good news for them. They looked to her like 800-pound gorillas. Not one turned her down.
Nancy calls this a Magic Time in De Pere’s history. Enthusiastic young business people had opened startup businesses. There was a strong base of community support, the generational businesses were there for wisdom and guidance and then, of course, there were the 800-pound gorillas. Money was raised, committees formed, and on the second application De Pere was accepted into the Main Street Program. The energy level was high, new businesses began coming in and downtown looked up. One witty observer noted the town seemed to be run by women. Diane Roundy headed the Business Association, Sandy Duckett the Main Street Program, and Nancy in City Hall. De Pere was unique in many ways.
Nancy struggled with one persistent problem that had hung on in De Pere for almost 100 years. It had once been two cities. In some ways it still was. It was the only city in the state to have two school districts. As the city approached the Centennial of its existence as one city, Nancy had an idea. Throw a big party celebrating the city’s unity. Roy Badciong chaired the event, with two days of food provided by local non-profits, entertainment, and fireworks.
Mayor Nancy proposed a unique fundraiser. She and local radio celebrity Murphy in the Morning sold raffle tickets and then jumped out of an airplane (with a parachute, of course) landing on a large bingo card. Nancy’s right foot picked the winning number. The next year barber Jim Gevers joined them to make it a three-way competition. That Centennial Celebration has been renamed Celebrate De Pere and has continued every Memorial Weekend since 1990, providing the opportunity for local nonprofits to raise over $1.5million.
Nancy was re-elected three times without opposition. In 1995, a vacancy occurred in the Brown County Executive’s office and Nancy ran. She faced, as she puts it, “four guys,” and was elected the first woman County Executive in Brown County. Again, she approached the office like she would a college course. She attended all the board’s committee meetings and met one-on-one with all board members. She quickly realized the county board functioned in a very different way. “I could tell I wasn’t in Kansas any more.” Try as she might to maintain a civil, respectful relationship, there were some, who were determined not to let that happen.
Nancy continued her community involvement. She served on the United Way Board, Leadership Green Bay, the Chamber of Commerce Board, Chaired Advance, the Economic Development Arm of the Chamber of Commerce, the Visitor and Convention Bureau board, was a founding member of the Bay Area Community Council, a founding board member of the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign, and numerous other organizations. At the same time, a phenomenon was occurring, that was not unique to Brown County, but which rattled it to its foundations when it first occurred.
Mike Austin’s farm show and Party Line were replaced by a right-wing flame throwing talk show host who made Nancy his primary target. His language and his vitriol were shocking to the standards of the community and various community leaders spoke out to object. Nancy retained the services of an attorney to advise her if she had any recourse. The answer: no, as a public figure, you are fair game and what is said need not be true or civil. That was just the beginning of an era.
The key to progress in the late 90’s was built upon public-private partnerships.
As money became tighter for public projects, inventive leaders found ways to build upon those partnerships to achieve what had formerly been government funded quality of life projects. Studies indicated Brown County’s economy would greatly benefit from the construction of a new, modern arena. Nancy tore into the project, single-handedly raising $8.5 million in private donations through individual calls.
The same was true of the need to build two new libraries to meet the county’s rapidly growing population needs. Through her personal efforts, Nancy raised $1 million naming rights contributions for each new library, plus considerable smaller donations and saw the two new building completed during her 7 ½ years in office. Also badly needed, and not likely candidates for public- private partnerships were a new jail and mental health center. Those were as important, but more difficult to accomplish.
Nancy says that it gave her great satisfaction to see these significant additions to the quality of life in County communities, but you will not find a single “Recognition Plaque” that commonly is placed on a new public building listing the office-holders of the day. She said this reflects her belief that public buildings should be monuments to the services the public receives and the staff who provides them and not a way for office holders to build monuments to themselves.
Nancy’s greatest satisfaction came with the opening of the Fox River Trail, a state-led Rails-to-Trails conversion that put a public recreational trail from southern Brown County along the banks of the Fox River through De Pere, and Allouez. Opposition was fierce from private property owners, who apparently had felt fine having freight cars running through their back yards, but were rabid that no walkers, bikers, roller bladers, or families with strollers ever should. The battle went on for years. Nancy says she has plenty of scars to prove it, and the day the trail opened it became the most heavily used trail in Wisconsin. Nancy says nothing gives her more joy than seeing families using that hard-won trail.
Then there were the quirky things that happened, things that Nancy said, like Tevya in “Fiddler 0n The Roof,” made her want to raise her fists to the heavens and ask, “Why me God, why me?” All of a sudden out of nowhere (well, that’s not fair, he came all of a sudden out of Alabama) came this guy who had his own brand of religious ideas and his own brand of religious followers and apparently a pocketful of money, to bring his own special light to Brown County, Wisconsin. His name was Roy Moore.
Now on the surface, Good Ole Roy appeared to have a special concern for the rather shaky lives folks were living in Brown County and he had just the answer for them. They needed to display the Ten Commandments in their courthouse. The first thing they did was take that pocket full of money and reserve 10 very expensive, high-visibility billboards for our non-partisan spring local election.
To make a long story short, it turned out Roy and his boys had teamed up with some locals and rounded up a bunch of candidates to take over the county board in the low turnout spring election. Back in the 90’s, this was a little-known technique called a “stealth campaign.” The gimmick to turn out their voters was to call for a referendum on the spring ballot that would turn out conservative voters. The good news was that it really had nothing to do with the moral turpitude of the good people of Brown County.
Calling it her greatest purely political victory, Nancy said she figured out what they were doing and advocated giving them what they wanted. In spades. Want a referendum on the ballot? Sure. But let’s put it on in the fall, when lots of people vote. It’s surely important enough to merit that. (Ignoring, of course, that it won’t help your stealth candidates in the spring.) The fall referendum was scheduled, Roy and his cohorts cancelled the order for the ten billboards and went back to Arkansas with their tails between their legs, and a few months later, the county board cancelled the fall ten commandments referendum to no one’s objection.
Nancy’s greatest challenge came when the Brown County Board passed an “English Only” resolution. Green Bay was changing demographically and the board’s action reflected the fear and resistance that frequently accompanies such change. Clerics, educators, business leaders, members of the Oneida Nation, social service providers, and others spoke passionately about the harm this resolution would do to our community. Green Bay was catapulted into the national spotlight. The resolution passed by a veto-proof majority.
Nancy could veto the resolution knowing the votes were there to override her veto. Her primary concern was that whatever course she took was the least hurtful to minority communities. She held several meetings with representative minority groups, seeking their direction. The legislation had already resulted in racial anger and violence toward their communities, particularly their children. Without hesitation, they said it is important to stand up to discrimination, even if it triggers additional violence.
Surrounded by hundreds of opponents to the resolution on the St. Norbert Campus, Nancy signed the only veto she ever cast. The county board overrode the veto.
The end of her second term was near and Nancy announced she would not seek a third term as county executive. Shortly after that, she got a phone call that sent her life in yet another challenging direction. Attorney General Peg Lautenschlager asked if she would join her cabinet at the Wisconsin Department of Justice and direct the state’s crime victim services. “Would I do it?” Nancy was heard to say from the next room, “It’s my dream job!” For the next 2 ½ years, Nancy worked with victims of violent crime, domestic violence, sexual assault and the dedicated advocates who supported them. As she said, “No one wakes up in the morning expecting to be a victim. The support network that stands by to aid and guide them, seek justice for them, is a truly remarkable group of people. It was my privilege to learn from and be inspired by them.”