John Durham’s Master Class on Contemplative Leadership

Written by Katie Rosenberg

I spoke with County Board Supervisor John Durham about a week after the November 2018 election as part of my aim to get better acquainted with my fellow County Board members. From the moment I sat down until I left, class was in session. Not only because John was a professional educator, but because several significant and heart-breaking events have made John question — and re-assess — his own values at key points in his life. In sharing his story, he certainly stirs others to do the same.

I actually knew a little bit about the way John thinks before I ever met him. Over the years, I’ve read many letters to the editor he’s penned in our local newspapers. But this day was a “deep dive” into civics, history, and humanity . . .


Marathon County Board Supervisor John Durham

John grew up in Bayfield, attended college at the University of Wisconsin–Superior, and then got a call a few days after his winter graduation that Mosinee High School needed a history teacher to start at the beginning of the second semester. The school was also looking for an assistant basketball coach. He dove right into both positions, reflecting:

“I wanted to teach and see if I could survive and figure it all out. I don’t know how I survived it, but I had help. The head basketball coach was also head of the History Department, which I was in, and he was just great.”

John coached boys’ basketball for just about a decade, but always considered himself a teacher first.

During the summer, he took classes, working toward his master’s degree. The local paper mill would reimburse teachers’ graduate tuition if they earned a B or better. It was just the motivation John needed to whet his intense curiosity. He recalls:

“One summer, I took a two-week economics workshop in Indiana. I didn’t know anything about economics at the time. But I listened to a guy named Wolff who was from East Prussia, the part of Germany that was overrun when he was a kid. This guy questioned everything — and, boy, was he smart!”

It’s one of the themes that kept coming up throughout our talk: the power of questioning, and the freedom — and sometimes necessity — to view matters in new ways. I couldn’t help but think, That’s what a truly skilled teacher does: helps you gain knowledge and competencies, while also challenging you to ask questions and to continuously shape your values and beliefs based on new information and life experiences.

Though he’s retired now, John is still clearly a teacher.

He shared that as a freshman in college, all of the young men at UW–Superior were enrolled in the Air Force ROTC (Reserve Officer Training Corps) program:

“We didn’t even question it. Every Wednesday, you put on your uniform and you took these classes. We didn’t have enough sense to question everything — not that you should question everything — but there are some things.”

He did eventually start to question his knowledge, beliefs, and actions, though . . .

During his first full year as a history teacher in Mosinee, the Vietnam War was underway. He invited a guest from Dartmouth to speak to his high school class. John said that, at the time, he was for the war:

“So, I listened to him. He went through the history of how Ho Chi Minh became the communist leader after World War II. I started thinking, This is the wrong side . . . We shouldn’t even be messing around over there!”

Throughout our conversation, John gave recommendations for reading and news programs. He suggested watching VIETNAM: The Ten Thousand Day War, as well as documentaries from FRONTLINE, and reading historical non-fiction like James Bradley’s The Imperial Cruise: A True Story of Empire and War and Jeremy Scahill’s Blackwater: The Rise of the World’s Most Powerful Mercenary Army. Clearly, John is still a voracious learner.

He entered politics just over a decade ago at the urging of his friend, fellow history and economics teacher, former Mosinee mayor, and Marathon County Board Supervisor Jim Eick. Jim represented District 26, but was resigning due to health concerns.

John applied for the opening and was appointed to the seat and has been re-elected as a County Board Supervisor since 2008. He currently sits on the Human Resources, Finance, and Property Committee , Transportation Coordinating Committee, Park Commission, MCDEVCO Board of Directors, and just finished chairing the Marathon County Airport Board.

And he never misses an opportunity to learn and reflect. Even when others are on autopilot, John views his actions in terms of historical context and patriotism —

“But just think about this . . .

We say the Pledge of Allegiance to the flag and to the republic. What does ‘to the republic’ mean? Well, we go into the constitution: Every state is guaranteed a republican form of government. Article 4, Section 4. But there’s no detail!

So, it’s come to be accepted that it means a representative. A state couldn’t set up a monarchy. It has to be a representative form of government, and that’s come to mean one with checks and balances and one that’s based on popular sovereignty. We don’t throw the whole thing out; we elect different people. Therefore, if you believe in popular sovereignty, you believe that the power is in the people, and they have the right to change the system.

I think about this too much. I’ll wake up sometimes thinking of a letter to the editor at 4 a.m., and I can’t get back to sleep.”

The last 10 years have been challenging from a policy perspective. The nation went through a recession that put all levels of government on alert. In Wisconsin, we’ve seen the powers and authority of County Government change because of legislative action. And John has served through it all.

He’s also faced several very serious personal challenges in his own life . . .

He was diagnosed with atrial fibrillation, a condition he noticed when he was playing basketball. He hasn’t let it impede his active lifestyle — you can still find him riding hundreds of miles on his bike in the summer.

John Durham and his bike have put on thousands of miles​.

He finds that stress can bring on afib symptoms. He was about 25 miles into a charity ride this summer when he felt his heart racing. He went to the hospital to get checked out, and it was then that he realized that it had been one year since he had lost his son Brian to suicide.

The emotional anguish causes John to be a bit more pensive and halting about his role as a community leader:

“When something like this happens, I didn’t see it coming. And I should have. It’s always shoulda, woulda, coulda, and you can’t get that out of your head. So, one of the issues that comes out, that spins out of this, for me, is that I think, Who am I to be telling anybody what to do? It’s the hardest thing. The only positive is that I don’t think anything worse can happen to me. I’ve already been through hell.”

John uses sports as a kind of escape. He says that he spends too much time watching high school and college basketball games and playing fantasy basketball and football. He thinks he could do more:

“A lot of people are falling through the cracks. I think things could be so much better. I think superficially how they could be better, but I don’t follow through probably as far as I should. Maybe I should take up the cause and really dig into it.”

There is a sadness about John that I and so many others wish we could wipe away. The terrible tragedy he’s experienced with the passing of his son Brian has clearly left him at a loss.

Yet John soldiers on . . . choosing to explore new endeavors, meet new people, face new challenges, and continue his quest for lifelong learning.

“All the art of living lies in a fine mingling of letting go and holding on.”
— Havelock Ellis

One lesson for us to take away from John Durham — the teacher — is that almost every life will experience pain and loss at some point. The strong are honest about their grief and self-doubt. John’s candor reveals his strength of character, his trusting nature, and his lifelong desire to bravely open himself to others so they may learn, grow, and move forward.

Katie Rosenberg - County Board Supervisor District No. 1

Katie Rosenberg

Marathon County Board Supervisor |  District 1

Katie Rosenberg is a Marathon County Board Supervisor representing District 1. She is passionate about engaging the community and is active on social media and in organizing neighborhood constituent meetings with her Wausau City Council counterpart, Alderperson Pat Peckham. In her free time, you can find Katie enjoying the outdoors with her husband on bike, on roller skates, and in trail shoes. She also enjoys attending all manner of political events, traveling the world, and cooking up a mean vegetarian soup.  Email Katie Rosenberg. 

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