Starting the Conversation in Beloit

The Wisconsin Humanities Council is committed to strengthening community life for every Wisconsinite. We are doing this using history, culture, and conversation in different ways every day.

As an organization, we are guided by a board that includes humanities professionals and members of the public. These extremely dedicated volunteers from around the state bring a range of experience and wisdom to their service. We are lucky to get to know each and every one of these people during their tenure.

In June, we eagerly greet our newly nominated members as they rotate onto the board. This year was no exception. We are excited to introduce you to (l-r) Juan Jimenez, Alton “Sonny” Smart, Kathy Laakso and John Viste!


Juan F. Jiménez is the Associate Dean of General Studies at Western Technical College in La Crosse. He oversees the college’s library services and tutoring programs at the main campus and the six regional learning centers. Juan was born to Mexican immigrants and has had a passion for education and worker’s rights since a young boy. While teaching in southwest Wisconsin, Juan became involved in the teacher’s union and became President of the South West Education Association. After four years teaching in the public schools, and two years at a private school, he became the Associate Executive Director of the Racine Education UniServ Council, representing teachers and educational assistants in the Racine Unified School District, then the Assistant Executive Director of the Kenosha Education Association. Juan has a passion for education, especially in the areas of developmental education and mathematics, and enjoys reading, hiking, traveling and spending time with his family whenever given the chance.

Alton “Sonny” Smart is an Anishinaabe educator who occupies many roles in native and non-native communities. He is first and foremost a father, husband, son, uncle, and grandson.  He is a member of the Bad River Band of Chippewa of Wisconsin, where he was born into the Fish Clan. He is a professor and Director of the Department of Social Work at the University of Wisconsin – Stevens Point, where he coordinates the Native American Rural & Social Work program and Native American Family Institute. He has served as a Tribal Judge for the Bad River Band since 1985 and is currently Senior Associate Tribal Judge. Sonny is a United States Army (Airborne) Vietnam Veteran and he holds positions on Ojibwa ceremonial Big Drum and Midewiwin medicine societies.  He is known for his ability to use cultural stories of song and dance and life stories of his Anishinaabe people to bridge gaps in understanding between communities.

Kathy Laakso has deep roots and strong connections in the northern part of the state. She is the former director of the Douglas County Historical Society, where she received several grants from the WHC to support exhibits on local history and culture. Seeing a need to complement the exhibits and bring that history to life, she began writing history-based plays and created a History Theatre for the historical society.  She now works part time at UW-Superior in the Department of International Programs and continues to write history-based plays and work with other theaters and historical societies. Kathy is a past member of the Wisconsin Council for Local History and her passion for history also led her to volunteer for five years as chair of Superior’s historic preservation commission. She served as a northern Wisconsin representative for WHC before her nomination to the WHC board.

John Viste grew up in Wausau, Wisconsin and spent his professional career working in education, economic development, and humanitarian assistance.  He was appointed Director of the West Bank/Gaza office of an educational and training organization in 1985 and continued to serve abroad with non-governmental organizations (NGO’s), educational institutions, and international consulting firms for twenty-two years. He retired in 2011, then came out of retirement in 2013 to work with the Wisconsin Institute for Public Policy and Service (WIPPS) until 2015.  John now lives in Oneida County and, when not serving on the boards of local and regional organizations, he spends a lot of time in the woods.

In welcoming new board members, we must naturally say farewell to others. We want to extend a huge Thank You to Alan Anderson and Dennis McCann, two outstanding humans and humanists whose contributions to the state of Wisconsin cannot be overstated.

And thanks to Beloit College for hosting us last month under the old oaks of the campus and in the charming downtown.  We enjoyed a tour of the effigy mounds on campus with Bill Green, Director of the Logan Museum of Anthropology, and a delicious dinner at Bagels and More, where we were whole-heartedly welcomed by State Representative Mark Spreitzer!


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