RIVER FALLS – When River Falls’ Director of Public Works Mike Stifter moved to River Falls 25 years ago, he didn’t realize how much the City on the Kinni would come to mean to him and his family, making it tough to say goodbye. Stifter’s last day on the job was Friday, Jan. 6.
“We’re going to Hutchinson (Minn.) and it’s all about family,” he said. “My parents and brother and sister are all there.”
Stifter, who grew up in Silver Lake just east of Hutchinson, spent 35 years away from his hometown. The decision to leave River Falls, however, was not an easy one.
“When I applied for the position (public works director in Hutchinson), if my fall back is to stay in a role in a community I love, what do I have to lose?” he said.
Living in his hometown will give him and wife Tammy the opportunity for more impromptu family visits and a front row to watching their nieces and nephews grow up. Stifter said his siblings and parents didn’t pressure him to move home, but they are excited to have everyone all together in one place.
Stifter has been the director of Public Works for River Falls for 6.5 years. Before that, he spent 24 years at UW-River Falls in various roles. He and Tammy moved here in 1999 so he could take a job in student life/residence hall management; he later became the Director of Student Life Facilities.
“I am a social studies teacher by training,” Stifter said. “I was a psychology major. Being from Minnesota, the opportunity to work in the Wisconsin higher education system as a young professional was a great opportunity.”
While Director of Student Life Facilities, he assisted with the planning and development of South Fork Suites Residence Hall and the University Center. This experience afforded him the opportunity to take the Director of Facilities Management role in 2007, a position he held for five years before his recruitment to the City of River Falls.
“My career has taken a weird, meandering road,” Stifter said. “I spent nine years in facilities, which set the stage for the transition to the city as far as public works goes.”
The Stifters joined the River Falls Lions Club soon after moving to town and have been active in the First Congregational Church. More recently, Stifter has volunteered for the Big Brothers Big Sisters program. He also served a term on the River Falls School Board.
“It’s been a great community to serve,” Stifter said. “I’ve gotten more from the experience than I’ve given. It’s an easy community to be involved in.”
He took part in the second class of Leadership River Falls, which led to an opportunity to serve on the Utility Advisory Board, which led to taking the public works directorship.
“I encourage people to expand their boundaries,” Stifter said. “I went outside of my natural inclinations. Connections and networking has let do to a lot of great opportunities. When I look at in college what I maybe aspired to do and where my career has taken me, there is no way I would have thought it would lead to public works.”
Mayor Dan Toland said Stifter always went the extra mile to help citizens with any issue they had. “It was a pleasure to watch him interact with whoever needed help,” Toland said. “Mike will leave big shoes to fill for sure. I wish him nothing but the best in his move home.”
City Administrator Scot Simpson called Stifter a great leader and wonderful advocate for city services and employees.
“His empathy and patience in handling citizen concerns and mentoring and leading employees will be greatly missed,” Simpson said. “He leaves big shoes to fill. We wish him all the best in Hutchinson.”
Stifter’s love of serving people led to him providing financial coaching to people on the side, through community education or on-campus. It’s not about making money, he said, but helping people achieve financial wellness.
“I see myself in retirement volunteering in helping folks with financial matters. I just enjoy it,” he said.
As he starts over in Hutchinson, he’s looking at it as a life reset. His adult daughters are out and on their own, so this is a new beginning in many ways.
“It’s kind of a start anew with almost everything,” he said. “A lot of the time I free up I hope to spend with family. Then maybe do more volunteer work. I do kind of look forward to just resetting things a little bit and seeing where that goes. I will leave my basket open for whatever else may come. Usually opportunities will find you.”
As he leaves behind his “tremendous team” and accomplishments in which he’s had a hand, Stifter will miss the community the most: From the small committees to big organizations, from the residents to his colleagues, from the city to the campus. “It really is an encompassing kind of thing,” he said. “We will be back here often. We’ve driven west 100 miles for 35 years. We can drive this way too.”
As he heads west, he looks forward to finding a house to work on, traveling and celebrating their 30th wedding anniversary this summer in Greece. When asked what he would like River Falls residents to remember him for, he grew thoughtful.
“For caring. I hope they say, ‘he cared a lot about what he did and he took pride in serving.’ I really do just like people and serving them is a pretty easy thing for me,” Stifter said. “I like to connect folks. If those kinds of things resonate or they remember me by, that’s great.”