Faces of Boone County

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Putting out fires

Al Hyser didn’t have to become a firefighter. He was making a comfortable living, working as a sales rep for Carlson Distributors, a Rockford-based building materials company.

But the Belvidere native was looking for something more fulfilling. He found it when he came home to serve his hometown as a firefighter.

“That was the key to my decision,” he said. “As a salesman, people are talking about what products you have or do not have; in fire service, you can see the end product. On a citizen’s worst day, we can be difference makers. I can’t think of a better way to serve the community. I would do this all over again.”

Hyser joined the Belvidere Fire Department in 1995. In 2010, he became a lieutenant and four years later, he was promoted to captain. In 2015, he was named chief.

“The most satisfying part of my job is watching the department grow in different ways,” he said. “Aside from emergency response, the most important aspect of our jobs is fire prevention. We have increased our presence in the schools. Training is also important. We are starting to see the fruits of our labor.”

Hyser oversees a staff of 28, which includes firefighters, lieutenants, captains and one administrative assistant. The department responds to about 3,000 calls a year, mostly medically related, along with fire, rescue and public assistance calls.

In addition to covering Belvidere, the fire department responds to Cherry Valley Fire Department as a rapid intervention team. It is also a member of Mutual Aid Box Alarm System, a regional mutual aid system, headquartered in Illinois, with 1,500 member fire departments across the Midwest.

Hyser and his wife, Lisa, have been married 26 years and have two sons, Eric and Garrett, and a 1-year-old granddaughter, Madison. During his free time, Hyser enjoys working out and rooting for the Green Bay Packers and Chicago White Sox. He also serves as a volunteer coach for the Belvidere Bucs football team.

Most importantly, he is happy to be serving his hometown. “I love Belvidere and hopefully I am making a difference,” he says. “There is a sense of community here. We keep pushing forward to make Belvidere a better place. I can’t imagine being anywhere else.”

For the health of Boone County

The health of Boone County is Amanda Mehl’s top priority. Mehl is the public health administrator for the Boone County Health Department, which works to keep the almost 54,000 residents in Boone County safe.

Mehl joined the department five years ago as director of personal health services, responsible for clinical nursing and health outreach education. Last fall, she replaced retiring administrator Cynthia Frank. “We are fortunate to have a great health department with a tremendous staff,” Mehl said. “Our team is committed to the health and wellness of our community.”

As the administrator and a registered nurse, Mehl’s role is to oversee the clinic and 17-person staff, including nurses, nutritionists and licensed environmental health practitioners. Many of the staff speak Spanish, to accommodate a growing segment of Boone County’s population.

“In public health you never know what is coming next,” she said. “If we experience a large-scale outbreak of salmonella or influenza, for example, my role is to lead the department in the prevention of a communicable disease threat to the community.”

The local health department investigates more than 70 illnesses – from the Zika virus to foodborne illnesses. “We are the unsung heroes of population health,” Mehl said. “Any health department flies under the radar, keeping the community safe. We’re your tax dollars hard at work. We’re always investigating matters that can easily spread throughout the community.

“I love Boone County,” she added. “It is a place with a great history and hardworking individuals. Sometimes it’s easier to work in preventative health care in smaller communities. It’s easier to bring partners together for projects. Boone County has a lot of potential.”

Away from work, Mehl enjoys dancing, teaching Zumba and traveling with her husband, Carmelo, who works for the Winnebago County Health Department.

Putting students first

When Dr. Dan Woestman, was hired as Belvidere School District’s superintendent in 2016, he wasted little time getting to work.

First, he started getting to know the personnel and schools. Then he spent a day in each school; rode the bus with the students; met with parents and toured each school. He was a substitute teacher in various classes, dined with students and teachers and held town hall meetings with community members. “The work we do happens in the classroom,” he said. “It doesn’t happen in my office.”

Growing up in Cincinnati, Ohio, Woestman, the oldest of six children, developed a love for education at an early age. He attended public schools until seventh grade and then was home-schooled for a year, before attending St. Xavier, a private, all-boys high school. “I loved high school,” he said. “It gives you an opportunity to learn and feed your curiosity.”

Others encouraged Woestman to study economics in college; Woestman, however, had other plans. He wanted to be an English teacher. After his freshman year at Brigham Young University, Woestman went on a two-year Mormon mission trip to East Germany, where he taught English. “I enjoyed the social work and the interaction with the people,” he said. “I also realized that I wanted to be a teacher.” Woestman returned to BYU where he finished his degree in education. He also met his future wife, Sarah, in college. The couple has three young children.

In addition to his professional work, Woestman is a High Priest in the Northern Illinois leadership for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, assisting youth pastors and youth leaders.

“My faith is very important to me,” he said. “Being in a leadership position for a congregation has helped me lead people professionally. It’s not just telling people what to do, but connecting their hopes and dreams.”

Calling Boone County home

Growing up, Karl Johnson had political aspirations. “I dreamed of becoming a U.S. senator,” he said. “But it wasn’t in the cards.”

It may not have turned out the way he imagined, but Johnson is still making an impact on his community. Today, Johnson serves as the chairman of the Boone County board. He has served on the board for eight years. “It is something I thought about for a long time,” said Johnson, who has spent the past 20 years working as a sales rep for HD Supply Waterworks in Belvidere. “I have always been interested in politics and I am passionate about the process.”

Johnson fell in love with Boone County when he and his wife, Jennifer, moved to the area in the early 1990s. For 10 years, they rented an old farmhouse on 80 acres, large enough for their goats and cattle to roam, before buying a place of their own in the county. “I really enjoy the rural setting, farm atmosphere,” Johnson said. “I love the small-town feel of Belvidere and Poplar Grove. These are communities who really care about their neighbors.”

The couple has two teenage sons – Hayden, 17, and Jarrett, 14. They stay busy helping their children show beef cattle at the Boone County Fair. Johnson also coaches youth hockey and has coached youth baseball.

It was Johnson’s passion for Boone County that helped him make the decision to run for a seat on the county board, the legislative body responsible for policy decisions related to operating county government.

“Our job is to bring municipalities together to promote economic growth throughout the county, and to be responsible in how we spend the citizens’ money,” Johnson said. “Our board has challenges. There are situations when we don’t always agree. But most importantly, we must always treat each other with respect.”

As for his own political ambitions, Johnson might not become a U.S. senator, but he’s not ruling anything out. “With anything, the timing has to be right. It would be fun if the opportunity presented itself.”

Class act

Dr. Michael Greenlee spent 10 years as a principal in the North Boone School District. So, it made sense when he was hired as the district’s superintendent two years ago.

North Boone Community Unit District 200 serves about 1,600 students from preschool through high school in the villages of Caledonia, Capron and Poplar Grove. “I am very familiar with the area,” he said. “I like the size of the district, the rural community feel and I know most of the people. I love it here.”

Greenlee grew up in Rockford, where he attended Guilford High School and excelled at basketball and baseball. Guilford is also where he was introduced to his wife, Shelly. The couple has been married nearly 24 years and has three daughters: Megan, a student at Iowa State; Britlyn, a junior at Guilford; and Jaden, who attends Holy Family.

Greenlee has made the most of his opportunities. He served 10 years as a physical education teacher at Harlem High School. In addition to being a North Boone principal, Greenlee also spent three years at a superintendent in Rockton and one year as assistant superintendent at Belvidere, before taking the North Boone job. “I have been very fortunate to learn under some great mentors, including Mike Houselog and Dennis Harezlak,” he said.

Greenlee and the North Boone district are working on a six-year strategic plan. The board, along with teacher and staff representatives, is working on creating collaborative joint goals. Greenlee has several key priorities, including staff retention, academic achievement and aligning curriculum across all areas of the district.

In his free time, Greenlee enjoys spending family time at their cottage in Green Lake, Wisconsin. He also plays golf and softball, although now it is more for the social aspect rather than the competition. “It is a good release and a chance to spend some quality time with good friends.”

Greenlee is grateful to be in an educational leadership position in Boone County. “When you work with young people every day,” he said, “you get the opportunity to see there are some really great kids during some pretty remarkable things.”

Law and order

For as long as she can remember, Tricia Smith dreamed of a career in law. She has been an attorney, a police officer and now, she serves as the Boone County State’s Attorney.

“It is nice to be in smaller community where you can get to know other attorneys, and where you can really make a difference,” the Belvidere native said. “I love every minute of my work.”

Smith graduated from Belvidere High School and attended college at Bradley University, where she graduated with a bachelor’s degree in Administration of Criminal Justice. Three years later, she received her law degree from the University of Iowa.

Smith’s first job as an attorney was at Tobin & Ramon law firm. After a few years of private practice, she decided to pursue her interest in law enforcement, becoming a Rockford police officer. For six years, she patrolled Rockford’s west side at night, where she encountered some intense situations.

“It was a completely different world,” she said. “It taught me that not everyone is the same as you. I have been shot at. I have had some scary moments, but you have to trust your fellow officers. It was an invaluable experience.”

Smith then took her experience as a police officer back into the courtroom as an attorney with the Boone County State’s Attorney’s office, where she worked with traffic, misdemeanor, juvenile and felony cases. In 2008, she went to work at the Law Offices of John Maville.

Smith serves as secretary of the Winnebago County Police Museum board, and is a member of the Boone County Bar Association. She is a member of Zonta and past president of the Cosmopolitan Club. In her free time, Smith stays busy with her husband, a Rockford police officer, and their young son.

“I wake up every morning excited about what I get to do,” she said. “Being state’s attorney keeps you on your toes. You never know what the next phone call or case is going to bring. There is never a dull moment.”