Growing up beneath the bluff, Rep. Kurt Bills looks to climb mountain
by T.W. Budig
ECM Capitol reporter
Rep. Kurt Bills remembers how as a boy he use to wait for his father to come home on Friday nights.
Bills, 42, grew up in a small town in South Central Wisconsin.
During the 1970s, a misery-index decade of inflation and high unemployment, Bills’ father, Leroy Bills, a tradesman, would sometimes have to travel as far away as Iron Mountain, Mich., to find work.
“We had a CB (citizen’s band) radio that would sit on the counter at home,” said Bills, a high school economics teacher in Rosemount who is the endorsed Republican candidate for U.S. Senate.
“And his handle (radio call name) was ‘Sandpiper.’ And I was the ‘Roadrunner,’” he said.
“I can remember Friday night I would sit at the bar stool at our counter and stare at the radio, because I knew dad was coming,” Bills said, his voice thickening with emotion.
Lots of people were laid off in those years, Bills said.
“It was a challenge.”
The Bills family lived in Sauk Prairie, nickname for the twin villages of Sauk City and Prairie du Sac, snug on the banks of the Wisconsin River in southern Sauk County.
Traveling south on Hwy. 12 out of Sauk Prairie for 30 minutes takes you to Madison. Travelling north takes you past the Badger Army Ammunition Plant — formerly a big area employer — with the highway then climbing the Baraboo Bluffs, polished sides jutting downward just a few feet off the shoulder of the road.
Once over the bluff top, Wisconsin Dells awaits about 30 minutes down the road.
Kurt Bills’ parents grew up nearby, with Leroy Bills living within walking distance of Sauk Prairie at Stone’s Pocket and Sheila Bills, Kurt Bills’ mother, growing up near Plain.
His mother’s ethic ancestry is German, his father’s more speculative — perhaps Irish, perhaps English.
“We don’t know for sure. But I do have a little bit of everything in me,” Bills said.
Raised a Catholic, Kurt Bills attended St. Aloysius Catholic Church in Sauk City.
Bills indicated a certain flexibility in attendance.
“It was tough to keep us,” he said.
There was hunting and fishing on weekends, but also firewood to bring in.
The Bills heated their home with firewood — Kurt Bills isn’t sure he can remember ever seeing the LP tank refilled.
“It was legendary how much wood we would haul in a weekend,” Bills said, adding he learned the basics of conservation by watching landowners select the trees they wanted felled.
Leroy Bills’ theory about how his son got to be a standout shot putter in high school is that the motion of tossing a stick of firewood onto a truck is about the same as heaving a metal ball.
Kurt Bills went to state in shot put and discus, though finished out of the medal hunt, he said.
But his Sauk Prairie High School distance records match favorably against two other local athletes, both of whom later played in the National Football League.
“I was a ‘C,’ ‘B’ student in high school,” Bills said.
“I played sports a lot. I had a lot of fun,” he said.
Bills’ parents still live in the area.
“They just worked hard for everything they got,” Bills said.
Bills traces his core values to them.
“Dad just instilled in me you do things in your life, and what you do has costs,” he said. “And what you do has benefits. And don’t try to push your costs onto other people.”
Bills also credits his mother with having a strong influence. She first stayed home with her son and daughter but later worked outside of the home, eventually becoming the office manager for a feed company in Sauk City.For about 18 months after high school, Bills worked as a union laborer in road and bridge construction, and taking old equipment out of an Oscar Mayer plant.
His interest in attending college and pursuing law enforcement as a career, on advice of a family acquaintance, led him to enroll at Winona State University.
Once there, Bills began to chum with students enrolled in the School of Education, and began to see coaching as a means of providing early guidance to students rather than arresting them as a police officer at some later date.
“It was a lot of hard work. But it paid off,” Bills said of his career choice.
“I’m glad I went into teaching,” he said.
Construction-worker money exhausted, Bills took a job working with adults living in a group home in an old Victorian house in Winona. Pay was decent; it was a good resume builder, and the experience would be valuable, Bills reasoned.
Indeed, during his junior and senior year at college, Bills shared an apartment with two developmentally disabled men.
Bills helped get them up in the morning, stay on schedule, assist them to allow them the greatest control over their lives, Bills explained.
“We had great times. Story after story,” Bills said.
“They are the most lovable people in the world. They’re just happy,” Bills said of people with Down Syndrome.
One night, a bat got into the apartment, and David and Paul were excited and frightened.
Bills got them into their room, and began hunting the bat with a tennis racket.
At one point, in trying to maneuver the bat, he sensed someone standing just behind him.
It was Paul.
Unable to coax the bat outside, Bills whacked it and the bat slammed into the refrigerator, dead.
Bills scooped up the bat, and was about to intern him in the trash outside when Paul insisted a few respectful words first be said.
“‘Well, he was a good bat,’” Bills said, laughing about the brief service.
After citing the bat’s many virtues, Bills performed a tight-lipped rendition of Taps.
Paul snapped to attention.
“Just things like that, makes your life — this what it is all about, just this moment,” Bills said, looking back, smiling.
Besides gaining experience working in the group home, Bills became acquainted with a fellow student who also worked there.
“There’s still some contention about who called whom first. I believe she called me first,” Bills said of his future wife, Cindy Bills.
“If Mrs. Bills was here, she would definitely have a problem with that statement,” he said.
Bills proposed to his wife at Garvin Heights Park in Winona, a scenic outlook with a view of the Mississippi River Valley below.
They married in March of 1995.
The couple has four children. They attend Christ Church in Apple Valley.
Bills depicts his efforts in public office — Rosemount City Council, term in the Minnesota House — as a response to his students’ concerns about the direction of the county.
Charlie Weaver, executive director of the Minnesota Business Partnership and former chief of staff to Republican Gov. Tim Pawlenty, foresees Bills having a tough time raising campaign funding in his run against Democratic U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar, a plight not made easier by the perception that Bills the underdog.
Bills scoffs at the idea of feeling daunted by the challenge.
“I’d much rather be in this election versus Amy Klobuchar than trying to get a wrestling team to beat (powerhouse) Apple Valley,” said Bills, laughing.
Bills coached Rosemount High School wrestling for seven years, among other coaching duties.
In talking politics, Bills cited a basic belief.
“I believe in people,” he said.
“I believe if you let people and businesses they run manage things, I think you’ll come out okay,” he said.
“I think the Republican Party, and hopefully America, is still about the individual,” Bills said.
Bills, showing off the campaign’s three school buses parked next to his campaign office in Bloomington, dismissed the idea that he is an emotional person.
“Passionate,” he said.
Rep. Pat Garofalo, R-Farmington, is not only a friend of Bills but recruited him to run for the Legislature, said Bills is one of the most popular teachers at Rosemount High School among parents and students alike.
He’s been repeatedly asked to deliver the commencement address to graduating seniors, he noted.
“He does a great job at educating the kids,” Garofalo said.
Bills is “really smart,” honest, decent, exactly the kind of person you want to see in public office, said Garofalo.
One reason Bills is eager to address the county’s economic issues, Garofalo indicated, is that as a student of economic history he has a larger view of the problems facing the United States.