Walter closes out 37 years of service in local government
WINFIELD — After 31 years working as city clerk and an additional seven years serving on Winfield’s city council, Jan Walter feels that the time is right to step down and let others lead.
When she moved from Nebraska to Winfield with her husband and four children, Walter didn’t foresee herself looking to uproot her life as a stay-at-home mother to start a new career. An advertisement in the newspaper looking for a city clerk got her thinking otherwise and led her on the path of, a now nearly 38 year career in city government.
The move from Nebraska in and of itself was a big change for Walter. Born and raised in Nebraska, she said she hadn’t traveled much, but when the economy got bad, her husband, Norm Walter, went on the road, working for a company that built nursing homes and hospitals all over the U.S. When Norm landed in Keosauqua, Walter stayed in Nebraska with the children. When he relocated again, the family left their house and took to the road with him.
“I didn’t know if I was ready to do that, but I knew we had to,” Walter said.
Walter said they spent some time moving around, living in cities, small towns and even on a small farm, until finally, it was time to settle down. Of all the places they had traveled to, of all the places Norm had worked, Winfield felt most like home to the Walter family.
“It was a prosperous area,” Walter said. “The people were welcoming and we made a lot of good friends there. It just felt right.”
As Walter settled in and made Winfield a home for her family, she started thinking about the bills and the four children her and Norm had to support. While perusing the newspaper, she saw an advertisement for city clerk. When Walter brought the idea to Norm, he was in complete support of her decision to transition from a stay-at-home mother to a working one.
“I’m of the generation where my mother’s whole life centered around being a wife and mother,” Walter said. “I felt that responsibility too, but was choosing to put a job in that life. You have to change your way of thinking. That’s not always easy to do.”
Before Walter saw that advertisement, she said working in local government was the furthest thing from her mind. She didn’t even think she would get the job when she walked out of the interview and saw everyone else who was interviewing was from the area — but she got the position.
Although she was “dumbfounded” when she received a phone call the next morning saying she had gotten the job, Walter later found out why. Norm had built a nursing home in Winfield before the family moved there. Walter would often help clean her husband’s projects after they were completed before the buildings were turned over to new owners.
“The mayor at the time lived across the street from the nursing home,” Walter said. “He saw me working and realized I had a good work ethic. You never know when someone’s watching you.”
Walter walked into the office her first day on the job on April 25, 1979, to see only two pencils and a pad of paper from the local bank sitting on her desk. She had a lot to learn.
As city clerk, Walter was a human resources director, utility services, city budgeter and teacher.
“Part of your job as city clerk is informing the mayor and the council,” Walter said. “It isn’t a full-time job for them. You have to be that link.”
Walter became a certified city clerk and for one week every year, would attend Clerk’s Institute at Iowa State University, which she said is a great tool for city clerks. “No one in town has your type of job,” she said.
Walter stayed for so long in her position because it was a good job that she enjoyed. It enabled her flexibility as her children grew up if they needed her. She could go home at noon, throw a load of clothes in the washing machine and watch a half-hour of soap opera. But what she enjoyed most was the people.
Even today, Walter said she’s a people person. She gets people up and moving and out of their house and doesn’t understand how they can stay home all day and be perfectly happy.
“My best friend is that way,” Walter said with a smile. “That’s why she needs me. I get her out of the house … and her daughter thanks me,” she added with a laugh.
Walter retired as city clerk the year she turned 65, on Aug. 14, 2009. Her husband was sick. He had cancer. She prayed she could have one year with him in her retirement.
“I ended up with seven. That was an answered prayer,” Walter said.
But she couldn’t be kept out of city government long. After someone stepped down from Winfield City Council, Walter was appointed, a position she graciously accepted.
When she took the appointment, Norm asked her if she was sure she wanted to do this, but Walter was adamant. “I said, you know, it’s going to be nice to be on the other side of the fence. I felt like I could have more of a voice,” she said.
One of her proudest accomplishments on council is the people she has helped hire. She believes Winfield has a good group of city employees, important to any town, but especially a small one where people have to band together to survive.
“It’s good to know the city is in good hands,” Walter said. “We have good employees, honest employees, and I’m glad I could be a part of that.”
Walter knows as well as anyone that being a public servant isn’t always the easiest thing. She said your life is an open book. When new people were elected to city council, even as city clerk Walter would tell them that if there is anything she was doing that they don’t like, she hoped they would confront her about it.
“I want you to be open with me because I’m going to be open with you, and I think I opened that door to them being comfortable with me,” Walter said.
Once, a city counselor said to Walter: “Jan, when I got elected to city council, they told me you were hard to get along with, but you know what I found out? You were just doing your job.”
Walter believes in city council’s ability to be caretaker of the city. An important rule she served by was making decisions best for the city overall and not just for one group of people.
With Norm’s death last year in 2016, Walter said that it’s been a big adjustment. Norm had cancer four times over 17 years, during which Walter was his primary caretaker.
“He was my rock,” Walter said. “He was a very good person … but I’m doing fine. I think I’m taking more time to take care of myself. It isn’t all easy, but I’m happy. I have my kids. I have my grandchildren and I have my St. Alphonsus friends and my Winfield friends.”
A part of that new life was not running for another city council term, a decision she said just simply felt like the right time to make. That doesn’t mean she’s done being “Mrs. Winfield” — a title given to her by Winfield’s mayor Chris Finnell.
Walter fully intends to see the town through raising money and constructing a new swimming pool, a process she said she has been present for since the beginning. Walter will continue to be active in the Winfield Community Development Group as the swimming pool project progresses, saying that it’s important for the cities survival.
“You’ve got to do things that make people want to stay here,” Walter said.
The current swimming pool had been in the community for 60 years, and Walter fondly remembers her children spending their summers there while she was at work as city clerk. “My kids lived at the pool,” she said with a laugh. “I know how important it is.”
Aside from local government work, Walter has many hobbies, including serving as a hospice volunteer. Walter said that 20 years ago she never would have seen herself volunteering in this capacity either, but as she and Norm faced his sickness, she learned a lot about death, dying and preparing for that.
In fact, on Norm’s tombstone, it reads, “You can never give enough” — another motto Walter lives by. “The more you give, the more you receive,” Walter said.
Her other hobbies include sewing. “My sewing machine is my buddy,” Walter said.
Walter makes pillow cases for her late-husband’s oncologist so anyone who goes through that office receives a pillow case from her and Norm.
The creative gene was passed down to Walter’s daughters, who have their own company making purses out of repurposed fabric. Walter calls herself a “picker for them,” searching for materials for them to use.
Walter said it gives her pride to know she and her husband taught their children to repurpose. She recalls them going out to pick up used brick to help build their house when they first moved to Winfield.
“When your children are growing up and you try to teach them, sometimes you wonder if they’ve gotten it. But when they become adults, you see the fruits of your labor,” Walter said.
That’s something she has taken away in working for the city too. “It’s not always easy in the growing up process,” Walter said as she’s watched the town change and grow.
The biggest change she saw was the implementation of computers in city offices.
“When I came here, I read the meters, I did the billing and I hand wrote over 800 bills for years,” Walter said. “I have a permanent little lump right here just from pushing the pencil,” she said, pointing to her index finger on her right hand.
One thing she hopes to never see change is Crooked Creek Days in August. In fact, Walter and two other women were the first Crooked Creek Days committee over 20 years ago, she said. It’s a tradition she is glad to see continue and she is proud of the work and dedication of the current Crooked Creek Days committee.
Walter’s last city council meeting was Wednesday, Dec. 15. As she steps down from her position, she hopes to see others become involved, to use their talents and gifts for the betterment of the city.
“Together, we all can give something,” Walter said. “Part of our responsibility is to share those gifts. I would like to see everybody give what they can.”
Walter has two homes. Nebraska and her home in Winfield. She travels back and forth often, visiting family and returning for her friends in Winfield and her St. Alphonsus Church community.
“To move away, that was the biggest adjustment. Not to have that family around you for support,” Walter said. “I really missed that and I always have, but you have to look at the good of where you are.”
During a city council meeting on Wednesday, Nov. 8, Walter said that stepping down from Winfield City Council was a bittersweet decision, made with a lot of thought. She is thankful for the city of Winfield for the home it is to her now and for everything the city has done for her for the past 37 years.
Finnell said she’s done a lot for the city too. “She’s been Mrs. Winfield for a long time,” he said.
“We have good employees and happy employees,” Walter said of the city during the council meeting in November. “It makes life easier and it’s good for our whole city.”