Superior honors its longest-serving mayor
Colleagues remember a great boss willing to serve to make Superior better.
Flags fly at half-staff in honor of Superior’s youngest-, oldest- and longest-serving mayor, Bruce Hagen.
Hagen, 73, died Friday, July 26, after a lengthy illness. He twice served as the city’s mayor, first from 1975 to 1987, and then from 2011 to 2017, when he retired from the post midway through his fifth term in office.
Between his tenures as mayor, he went on to serve in state government as chief of staff to Gov. Tommy Thompson, deputy secretary of the Department of Workforce Development, an unemployment insurance administrator and director of intergovernmental relations.
Hagen was just 28 when he left his job as a school district administrator to take office as the mayor in 1975.
Former City Councilor Ron Thoreson remembers working on Hagen’s first campaign for the seat that had once been held by his father, Lawrence Hagen.
“We would gather at his home in East End and, in the days of car-top signs … we would take caravans and ride around the city and honk horns,” said Thoreson, who was 18 at the time.
Hagen went on that spring to defeat Charles Deneweth, who had defeated his father, said Thoreson, who served on the Council in the early to mid-1990s.
Douglas County Board Chairman Mark Liebaert was a Superior police officer when Hagen first took office in 1975. Liebaert said the union worked with Hagen to modernize the Superior Police Department.
“We had relied on him to help the union … get a hand on management that we thought wasn’t doing the right things for a progressive department,” Liebaert said. “He backed us on a few changes we needed to have made.”
He said as chairman of the county board, Hagen backed Liebaert in negotiating the deal for Minnesota Power and Dairyland Power Cooperative’s proposed Nemadji Trail Energy Center.
“He was able to broker that deal to the city and county’s advantage,” Liebaert said.
Among his many accomplishments over the years, Hagen will be best remembered for his work to establish the marina and hotel on Barker’s Island and his work to put the Belknap Street reconstruction project in motion.
Prior to Hagen’s work with the Wisconsin Department of Transportation to begin planning the project, the crumbling highway that runs through the city of Superior wasn’t on anyone’s radar, Hagen said in 2012 when plans to reconstruct the highway were announced.
“He said we’re going to rebuild Belknap, and by God, we rebuilt Belknap,” Public Works Director Todd Janigo said.
Janigo was twice promoted from the streets division to assistant public works director and then to director during Hagen’s second run as mayor.
However, for former Superior Mayor Dave Ross, Hagen’s crowning achievement was Barkers Island Inn Resort & Conference Center.
“Hagen was the first modern mayor for the city of Superior … he wasn’t locked into the old-fashioned thinking,” Ross said.
And one of the things Ross said he appreciated was when Hagen stopped by his upholstery business in East End to offer encouragement during Hagen’s first tenure in office.
“He’s going to be sadly missed,” Ross said.
“Every day was a good day to work with him,” said Rani Gill, the mayor’s chief of staff. “One of the things he always said is you don’t work for me, you work with me, which is the best that a boss can ever say to you.”
Gill said her relationship with Hagen was the best working relationship she’s ever had with a boss.
“Mayor Hagen was an amazing boss,” said Jean Vito, the city’s soon-to-be retired finance director and senior administrative officer. “In fact, that was my nickname for him, Boss. He cared about us as employees and he cared about the citizens of Superior. He so loved his community and was passionate about public service at the local government level.”
Vito said she was devastated when she heard of his passing Friday.
“Bruce we well respected by his administration,” Vito said.
Linda Cadotte, who was promoted to direct the city’s Parks Recreation and Forestry Department under Hagen, said one of the she always appreciated about him was his willingness to listen.
“He was one of those guys that at the end of the day, he would be upfront with me,” Cadotte said. “He valued my opinion. He wouldn’t always go with it, but he heard, he was curious, he had a great respect, and really utilized his team and set into their strengths.”
Cadotte said she most admired his many years of public service.
“He was just so, so committed to our community,” Cadotte said.
“He was a great guy,” Janigo said.
“Mayor Hagen was a man that loved his community and was a committed public servant. Today is a sad day for all the citizens that benefited from his service as mayor,” said Nick Milroy, D-South Range, a former Superior city councilor.
Hagen was born June 17,1946, in Superior; he is survived by his wife, Lois; daughters, Kari (Ryan) Charles of Aurora, Ill., Courtney (Chris) Arnold of Houston, Texas, and Krista Hagen of Arlington, Texas; and three granddaughters, with a fourth due in December.
Services are pending with Downs Funeral Home.
Gill said the city has received permission from the governor’s office to fly the flag at half-staff in Hagen’s honor this week; both the city and school district plan to fly flags at half-staff through Saturday
“I think he was the best mayor the town has had,” Thoreson said. “Not taking away from anyone else, but I think there was an honest effort to still improve and grow.”