As a city employee for over four decades and the city clerk for almost three of them, Anne Donahue was always the person to ask about what form to fill out, where to locate a file or who to contact if you stopped at the City Hall with a question.
“It’s been a great job. I’ve always loved it,” said Donahue, 65, who retired Sept. 1.
She got started as a part-time dispatcher for the city in 1976, when emergency calls for the police, fire and rural electric departments were handled out of the City Hall.
Back then, the city clerk had to drop whatever he or she was doing to answer the phones from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., and Donahue or another part-time dispatcher would take over in the evenings and on the weekends.
When the phones weren’t ringing, Donahue had other office duties to work on, and since she was eager to learn new things — like what she could do with the new-fangled computer that showed up in the clerk’s office one day — she quickly gained more responsibility and her position evolved.
In 1987 she became the deputy clerk treasurer, and the following year she was promoted to city clerk.
For her part, Donahue was happy to see things modernize over the years and often played a lead role in shepherding in the changes, whether that meant embracing the computer’s use, updating the City Hall’s air conditioning systems or replacing the old World War 2 surplus generator with a modern one.
Elections also fell under Donahue’s purview.
The city counted ballots by hand until 1990, when Columbia County got its first vote-counting machine. While the machines were an improvement over hand counting, they weren’t perfect, Donahue said. They would jam periodically, and there was often a long line to use them on election nights as clerks from all across the county would stream into Portage.
Quite often, Donahue found herself at the end of the line, because she had the longest drive to get there and, next to Portage, the most ballots to pack up before she could leave.
“I remember one time driving home at quarter to 6 in the morning,” she said.
By 2006, Columbus got its own vote-counting machines, and that put an end to the late night drives to Portage. The clerk still has to deliver the ballots, but since they’re already counted, the process goes much quicker, Donahue said.
Donahue has worked under 16 different mayors over the course of her career, and during one particularly turbulent era, she saw the city go through three different mayors and 16 different aldermen in about a 16 1/2-month time frame (from April 1, 2006 through Aug. 21, 2007).
“We had a couple of recall elections. We had somebody die in office. We had one resignation, and we had the mayor removed for cause,” Donahue said.
All of that drama trickled down to her in variety of ways, because it’s the clerk who has to serve papers, set up special meetings, send out public notices, send in information to call special elections and the like.
These days, things are considerably calmer, she said.
Still, not everything is predictable.
Columbus has had its share of emergencies and natural disasters, over the course of Donahue’s tenure.
‘You’re in Wisconsin’
Donahue was always a support person whenever disaster struck, helping others get what they needed to make sure the city got through the crisis.
During the flood in 2008, she went around checking on residents and offering them buckets of cleaning supplies and then took politicians around to see the damage.
She remembers showing some FEMA officials from out East some of the areas that had been flooded 2 1/2 days earlier. When they told her the damage didn’t appear to be too severe, she had to explain that the cleanup was already well underway.
“You’re in Wisconsin,” she told them. “People don’t sit around waiting for help to come. As soon as it stopped raining, people were out with chainsaws cutting down trees. They were sweeping water out into the street. They were out helping their neighbors clear stuff away so they could get in and out of their houses.”
Several years later, when the windstorm blew through town, it was a similar story, Donahue said.
“People didn’t sit around waiting for somebody to dig them out,” she said. “They dug themselves out.”
She likes the can-do spirit of people here, and said that is part of what makes Columbus a special place.
Even outside of emergencies, Donahue said people around here are always willing to volunteer their time and talents to serve on a committee or commission.
“It’s not unique in the world, but it is special in Columbus,” she said. “There’s so many people like that here.