MADISON — In a 1993 interview less than a year after he became executive director of the Wisconsin Catholic Conference, John Huebscher remarked, “I like going to work in the morning, and the range of issues we deal with. It may be health care in the morning, gambling at noon, education in the evening, and abortion the next day.”
Asked last week if he still felt that way, Huebscher answered, “Yes.”
Huebscher retired Jan. 15 from the WCC, the public policy voice of the state’s Catholic bishops.
Archbishop Jerome E. Listecki said Huebscher “is among the most respected of all state Catholic Conference leaders in the United States. When I go to U.S. bishops’ meetings, there is not a time where someone concerned about social responsibility does not ask me about John Huebscher.”
Huebscher, a native of Williams Bay, earned a bachelor’s degree in education from the University of Wisconsin-Madison in 1972 and a master’s degree in educational administration in 1979. He worked for many years as a legislative aide, and was a legislative liaison for the state Department of Health and Social Services before joining the WCC in 1987.
One of the three state senators Huebscher served, Clifford “Tiny” Krueger, made a lasting impression. Krueger was a onetime circus fat boy and a Merrill tavern owner who served more than three decades before retiring in 1983.
“I always had an interest in Wisconsin history. (Krueger) bridged the gap from the politics of the 1930s to the politics of the 1980s,” Huebscher recalled, noting that Krueger made his first race as a candidate of the Progressive Party. “Tiny never thought of himself as anything but a Republican, but he thought legislators had a responsibility that transcended party.
“He was not a really partisan guy,” Huebscher said of Krueger. “He considered himself a professional politician, and he told his colleagues to be proud of that because politics is a noble profession. He had a great capacity for listening. When I came to work for the bishops, I had already worked for a saint.”
In 1987, Huebscher joined the WCC as associate director, working with its founding director, Charles Phillips. He became Phillips’ successor in summer 1992. In the 1993 interview, Huebscher said, “Chuck left a very good legacy in the legislature. He burned no bridges; there is no ill will. The WCC is very well regarded.”
Sharon Schmeling, executive director of the Wisconsin Council of Independent and Religious Schools, said Huebscher “took over from the guy who built the organization, and did a tremendous job. So he had big shoes to fill, and he more than excelled.”
In 1993, Huebscher said WCC’s “approach has always been to make your point with quiet dignity. The WCC is not thekind of interest group that makes its point by cajoling and threatening people.”
Schmeling, who worked for WCC in the 1990s and proudly notes she was the first person Huebscher hired, said he maintained that dignified approach, even in a more polarized era when there was much more money in politics.
“When you don’t electioneer or fund campaigns, you’re always at a disadvantage compared to groups that do those things,” Schmeling said. “He has an approach of working across party lines and finding creative solutions. That kind of approach is sorely needed in Madison, among lobbyists and legislators.”
Huebscher said a legislator once told him, “‘You guys elevate our debate.’ We try to elevate the debate and improve the discourse. We are truer to our mission when we do that. We represent the church and, more fundamentally, her values.”
Advocacy is only part of the WCC’s mission. The conference seeks to keep bishops, Catholic institutions and citizens
Wadas is 3rd WCC director
MADISON — Kim Wadas is the third executive director of the Wisconsin Catholic Conference, succeeding John Huebscher.
Wadas is an attorney who joined the WCC in 2007 as associate director for health care and education. She had been on the staff of the Coalition of Wisconsin Aging Groups. She earned a bachelor’s degree in political science and history from Marquette University and a law degree from the University of Iowa.
Wadas noted that Huebscher had big shoes to fill when he succeeded Charles Phillips in 1992, and quipped “the shoes seem to be getting bigger.”
She considers herself fortunate to have spent several years learning from Huebscher, saying, “I know a lot of (state) conference directors who don’t get that kind of mentoring.”
Wadas said her basic plan for the WCC is to “stay the course. My first goal is to make it to the end of the (legislative) session and not have anything fall through the cracks.”
After that, the WCC will hire a new associate director, and Wadas plans to strengthen the conference’s social media efforts and website. But for the most part, she said, “If it isn’t broke, why fix it?”
Archbishop Jerome E. Listecki said, “We have come to appreciate the talents of Kim Wadas. We are confident she will continue to provide the same thoughtful and informed representation that has marked the WCC’s advocacy in the past.”
Sharon Schmeling, executive director of the Wisconsin Council of Independent and Religious Schools, said Huebscher “has worked hard and done tremendous things for the Catholic Church in Wisconsin. He’s trained Kim Wadas well, and she’s going to do a tremendous job.”
informed about issues in Madison. Huebscher has written his “Eye on the Capitol” column for diocesan newspapers, and Schmeling said he began producing a newsletter and helped spearhead the development of Catholics at the Capitol, the biennial gathering where Catholics from around the state come to Madison to learn about issues from experts and meet with their legislators.
“Any lobbyist does two things,” Huebscher explained. Besides advocacy for those they represent, “they have to explain the workings of the process and policies to bishops, diocesan leaders and people in the pews.” Schmeling said Huebscher “is modest. You’ve got to work to get him to talk about his accomplishments.”
One was his leadership role in the National Association of State Catholic Conference Directors, and service as an observer on the U.S. Catholic Conference’s committees on Domestic Policy and Pro-Life Activities.
Service with the national association allowed Huebscher the chance for a brief meeting in Rome with Pope John Paul II in 1999.
He said the state conference usually tries to visit Rome once every decade or so, “and as luck would have it, I happened to be president of the organization at the time.”
He also was able to attend John Paul’s address to the National Catholic Education Association convention in New Orleans in 1987.
Instead of naming a top accomplishment or biggest disappointment of his tenure, Huebscher preferred to discuss the political trendlines with which he was happiest and most disappointed.
“We played a small but constructive role” in establishing Wisconsin’s school choice program, Huebscher said. “We developed the case for vouchers in a way that did not demean public education.”
Conversely, “I’ve always felt disappointed that nationally and in Wisconsin we’ve backed away from the notion that the poor have a moral claim. We religiously advocated for the poor and vulnerable in state budgets,” and in interfaith efforts to oppose predatory financial practices. “Poverty is not a character flaw, and sometimes we forget that.”
Huebscher has a perspective on the political polarization many observers point to, nationally and in Wisconsin.
“We can never lose sight of the fact that this is a representative government,” he remarked, wondering if changes in popular media have helped fuel political polarization. He recalled several of the most popular radio personalities in Chicago, Milwaukee and Madison during the 1960s and 1970s.
“No anger was being stoked, there was rarely any shouting,” he said of those programs. “We all know what shows are popular now, and we can’t blame politicians. If we’re concerned about our discourse, we have to look in the mirror.”
Huebscher said he has made few plans for retirement, beyond saying he’ll continue living in Madison.
“I try not to overscript things,” he said. “I want to remain open to the opportunities that might come along.”
Archbishop Listecki said, “John has consistently served the church and used Catholic social teaching along with reasonable, practical and political approaches to bring meaningful change in our state. We will miss his presence, but his legacy will continue in the staff he has developed, who will effectively serve the Catholic Church in Wisconsin.”