Van Gompel, staff and residents celebrate his career in Brown Deer
Village Manager leaving to become Eau Claire's city manager
Brown Deer - When Brown Deer Village Manager Russell Van Gompel took office in January 1998, the office atmosphere was, in his recollection, "stuffy."
"The first staff meeting I thought I was going to a funeral. It felt like a morgue," Van Gompel said, chuckling. "I remember cracking a joke or two. I didn't get too many smiles."
His solution to the ho-hum happenings? Doughnuts and bagels and other treats, brought in by the village staff whom he directed to take turns leading meetings.
"That opened up the department heads quite a bit," Van Gompel recalled.
So it was only fitting to celebrate his 14 years with the village - and new position as city manager in Eau Claire - with the familiar comforts of cake and coffee and the team he has built up around himself over the years.
A mix of village staff and community members trickled in and out of the Earl McGovern Board Room last week to taste the bittersweet celebration of Van Gompel's departure. His last day on the job in Brown Deer is Wednesday.
Some shook his hand. Some hugged him. All wished him luck in his new role managing Eau Claire, a city more than five times the size of Brown Deer and his hometown of Little Chute, where he was village manager before coming to Brown Deer.
Regardless of the size, Eau Claire has the local government feel which Van Gompel has come to appreciate throughout his time as Brown Deer's longest serving manager.
"Working in small government, you're able to make differences, to make changes," he said. "It's not totally bureaucratic."
That close connection to residents has played out for better and worse over the years, said Van Gompel, recalling when the community rallied in 1998 to help flood victims and when public outcry in 2001 halted a mixed-income housing development and the village found itself in a legal battle.
"That was trying," Van Gompel said. "It's not fun being in court."
However much he has changed the village, the village has changed him while he has lived out a good part of his 40s and 50s as manager.
"That's when you start to realize and value the relationships," he said, thinking back on his time with the village.
Just as in Brown Deer, relationships will be key when it comes to moving the city of Eau Claire forward.
Fortunately for Van Gompel, he's good at breaking the ice.
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