Looking Out for Appleton

Local Politics Have Always Intrigued Hometown Mayor Jake Woodford

by Tim Froberg

Jake Woodford didn’t wake up one morning as a teenager at Appleton North and declare he was going to be a future mayor.

Still, he knew from a young age that he wanted a career working with others to make a positive impact in his community. After taking government classes at Lawrence University, he was hooked.

Flash forward to the present, and the 30-year-old Woodford is settling into his second year of office after succeeding long-time mayor Tim Hanna. He is Appleton’s 46th mayor and responsible for the daily operations of the bustling city of roughly 74,000, while overseeing a staff of 630 employees.

“As a kid, I was thinking about doing jobs that lots of kids think about, whether it was public service, law, or medicine,” Woodford said. “As I went through school and continued to live in the community, I began to see how important local government is to our daily lives.

“I started thinking, well, public service could be running for office at the local level. As I learned more about it, the more I realized that many of the things that got me excited intersected with the role of mayor.”

While many first-year college students struggle initially to choose a major, Woodford didn’t have any dilemma. He immediately declared government as his major his freshman year at Lawrence and dove into a field he found fascinating. He served in various student government roles and eventually became president of the Lawrence University Community Council, a student governing organization at the school.

A 2013 Lawrence graduate, Woodford went to work in an administrative role for the school after receiving his undergraduate diploma. He served as the Secretary to the Board of Trustees and Assistant to the President for nearly seven years, planning, supporting, and leading major projects and initiatives, while stewarding the school’s relationship with the city of Appleton. The latter role proved crucial in his desire to enter local politics.

“That’s when I really started to see what municipal government was about and the work that cities do,” Woodford said.

Woodford credits his parents and grandparents, along with Lawrence faculty members Jerald Podair and Arnold Shober, former Lawrence president Mark Burstein, and Mayor Hanna as being important mentors who helped him along the way. The life lessons he learned growing up in Appleton — where he has lived his entire life — have also been invaluable, giving the hometown mayor all he needs to succeed.

“It’s a special honor to be mayor of my hometown,” Woodford said. “The community has raised me and prepared me for this. This community has known me for my whole life and has played a role in shaping who I am today and how I see the world.”

Woodford — the second-youngest mayor in city history — started his job at the worst possible time: in April of 2020, smack-dab in the middle of a once-in-a-lifetime global pandemic. But he and his staff have plowed through pandemic-related problems to come through his first year on very solid ground.

“It was an inauspicious time to take office — that’s for sure,” Woodford said. “I don’t know if anyone could have imagined the depth of difficulties we’ve faced as a community. My focus from the start was to make sure we did everything we could as a city to provide the services that our community counts on and to do as much as we could to keep people safe.

“We’ve had to do things a little different in terms of how we work — often doing things virtually — and keep a direct connection to the people in the community. There’s just been a lot to get a handle on that certainly wasn’t expected.”

Hanna was Appleton’s longtime mayor, guiding the city for six terms and 24 years, and providing the type of stability that many cities lack. Woodford’s legacy has yet to be determined, but he knows what he wants to be remembered for.

“I hope that people will always see that I operate with integrity, that I will put the interests of our community first and foremost, and that I care deeply about the well-being of the community and all the people in it,” Woodford said. “I hope those are always the things that really define who I am and how I approach this work.”

When he’s not working to keep Appleton a terrific place to live, Woodford enjoys hiking, camping, and sailing on Lake Winnebago with his wife, Hilary.