The days since the loss of Bruce Hagen have hosted a stream of recollections, condolences, reasonable criticisms, unfair accusations, expressions of grief and a struggle for meaning.
It is not uncommon, even for a small community, to lose a figure of fame or renown and the words of tribute come easily. The unique life, long service and tested character of this man have demanded of us a search for a legacy and the past days have tested his friends, admirers, critics and enemies as they rush to define him.
These memorials, whether thoughtful or rash, have all fallen short, as will mine. The life and legacy of the man are too rich and diverse to be defined or suitably memorialized in a single work. His life was not a single work, but the composition of innumerable acts of kindness, service, generosity, and sacrifice.
His death leaves behind a legacy that he will not see but that, if we do not fail in our duty, will outlive those that now grieve his loss.
Few men or women will ever know the extraordinary honor that falls daily to those of us chosen to serve as mayor. And while it is perhaps easy to imagine the glory and pride that can often accompany the title and the privilege of working in the service of a better future for our community, most will never know, or even consider, the cost that often accompanies the honor.
Most of us will set down this burden as too heavy after a few short years or be relieved of it by a public that moves beyond our vision. But through six elections and nearly two decades, far more than any other mayor in the city’s history, Mayor Hagen accepted the burden, and his people accepted him in return. He weathered his failures and mistakes in the bright and harsh light of public criticism and too often celebrated his triumphs alone.
Public service, for all of its rewards, can be exhausting and demoralizing. Mayor Hagen wore these struggles visibly and honestly. It is impossible, even for another mayor, to comprehend why he would or could do it for so long. We can only understand it by recognizing that for some, public service is not a career nor a passing duty, but a way of life in and of itself.
Before he was a mayor, he was a teacher, dedicating himself to the education and prosperity of others and setting aside his own. When he left office after more than a decade, he refused to leave public service and gave to Wisconsin the same diligence he gave to Superior.
Later, at an age when most would retire to the joys of family and more peaceful pursuits, he again entered the arena of public life and a loyal public trusted him again with leadership.
I will leave to other works, many already written, the testimonials to Mayor Hagen’s political accomplishments. While numerous, those are not his legacy. His legacy lies in those innumerable moments of service that made up his life. These acts of service, some quiet, some passionate, most forgotten or never known at all, are his true estate. We are all his heirs.
A life such as his should not be simply remembered, but lived again by those of us that admire or respect it.
Shortly after my election as his successor, I encountered Mayor Hagen and his wife, Lois, on the morning of the Memorial Day service at the veterans cemetery just outside the city. Too few elected officials attend this solemn ceremony anymore, but for years, I had watched my mayor dutifully and silently lay the wreath of remembrance on behalf of our city.
He had passed that duty to me, but I was not surprised to see him there, unprotected from the cold rain and still paying silent tribute to men and women of service with no hope or expectation of recognition.
I will hold that memory as I, with all of you, mourn and offer a grateful farewell.
Jim Paine has served as mayor of Superior since 2017. He previously served for seven years on the Douglas County Board.