“Supposed to” was never a concern for former Waukesha Mayor Carol Lombardi.
Led by the drive to do what she felt best, regardless of what society said a woman should do, she became the second female mayor of the city.
Growing up, Lombardi remembers once being told in Sunday School that if you’re willing, God will make you able. From a young age, “I always was willing to step forward.” No matter what she was involved in, “I always was somewhere in a president or vice president role or willing to take responsibility.”
From the top
Graduating from high school in 1954, when “it was very unusual for women to accept those kinds of responsibilities,” she recalled she felt that if she can make something better, she had to try.
As a young woman, Lombardi was involved in local government, having served as secretary of former Mayor C.C. Smith.
“I got to know a lot about government at that time,” she explained.
She recalls the time when Robert Kennedy stopped by the mayor’s office to talk about his brother John F. Kennedy’s presidential campaign. She and Robert had two of what Lombardi calls “in-the-eye conversations” during his visit.
After leaving her secretary position, Lombardi spent the next 32 years working in Waukesha schools – first as one of the first reading aids, then as a preschool helper teacher before serving as administrator to the superintendent, then in the guidance office at Waukesha South High School.
When she retired at 57, “I felt it was time to give back to my community. I felt that after finishing my career that it was time that I got involved with my local government.”
Lombardi was elected to the Waukesha Common Council when Carol Opel, the city’s first female mayor, was elected. After Lombardi’s first year on the council, people started asking if she would be interested in running for mayor.
“I felt that I could do the job,” she remembers, given at she already had the knowledge of the position and local government. Running against one other woman and two men, Lombardi was voted mayor in 1998.
“At that time I was 62 and a lot of my friends thought that I should be retired, but that’s not who I am,” she laughed.
At the time she was one of three other female mayors in the area.
“It was quite unique that there was finally the opportunity for women,” she said of mayoral roles.
Business began quickly once she was in office.
On her second day as mayor, Lombardi recalls initiating a policy of providing media outlets with the same agendas and background information that council members are given. It was her belief that city issues couldn’t be written about for others to stay informed if the media didn’t have all the needed information. To her, it was important that residents were provided with the information that they needed.
“I felt very happy in my heart that there were opportunities for everyone to make comments and come forward with ideas,” she said, noting that keeping the city informed through media was just one of those ways. “I wanted people to come to me with things that I thought weren’t correct to make them better.”
In the years to come, Lombardi’s understanding of delegating responsibilities and local government served her well. Despite a couple of harmless looks now and then from some male common council members, they were accustomed to her spunky demeanor, and were quite supportive of her efforts.
“I was never shy, and I never have been,” she said.
Lombardi pushed forward with many changes in the city that still are influential today.
She recalls that when Brookfield Square opened, the city of Waukesha was no longer the shopping center of the county. The city did what it could to keep shoppers coming to the area, but some of its approaches ran counter to the goal, Lombardi said.
“I felt that as I looked around, there were a couple of areas in Waukesha that kind of concerned me,” she said.
For one, the replica Spring House – which years earlier had been placed in the middle of the Five Points intersection downtown in the hope that it would create something of a mall atmosphere like a Brookfield Square – became problematic. That, combined with downtown's many one-way streets, made traveling downtown difficult to people not familiar with the area.
“I was able to start that idea of ‘let’s get that Spring House out of there and back to two-way streets,’ ” Lombardi said.
With a generous personal donation of $40,000 from former State Assembly and Senate member Joanne Huelsman and her husband, the city was able to move the Spring House. Many of the streets were also converted back to two-way traffic.
There were other issues and efforts to solve problems along the way – such as drafting a proposal to require permits for open intoxicants in the city and helping get an emergency management plan in place (shortly before the 9/11 attacks in 2001) – before her second and final term as mayor ended in 2006.
Through all of it, her husband, Bob Lombardi, her high school sweetheart, played the role of Mr. Mom “because I worked many hours and way many places.”
Now in her early 80s, she is slowly stepping back from some of her civic work.
“It’s the next generation’s turn to take over,” she said.