Wanda Fullmore felt the love growing up on Madison’s South Side and for four decades has shared it as the heart and soul of the mayor’s office at City Hall.
As an 18-year-old single mother barely out of high school in the mid-1970s, Fullmore was hired as a clerk-typist by Paul Soglin in his first of three stints as mayor. With a mix of caring, humor and warmth — and a pinch of no-nonsense brash — she became the face of the office, the first person you see or talk to on the phone and a problem solver for residents, administrators and politicians.
Fullmore, 58, has been like that for five mayors — Soglin, Joe Sensenbrenner, Joel Skornicka, Sue Bauman, Dave Cieslewicz — fielding dozens of calls daily on matters essential or not, and greeting visitors with a disarming “honey” or “babe.”
“She is the face and the voice of the city,” Soglin said. “One of the brilliant things I’ve done in 20 years of public service was the hiring of Wanda Fullmore.”
Now, 39 years later, Fullmore, who can barely walk the snug, modest streets of her old neighborhood or the gentrified ones around City Hall without exchanging waves, conversations or hugs, is retiring. To get an idea of her impact: As she leaves, her photo is displayed amid the gallery of mayoral portraits in the city clerk’s office, and to handle a crowd of well-wishers, her going-away party Thursday will be held at Monona Terrace.
“When you work in an environment this long, you meet so many different people from all walks of life who have a distinct impact on the person you become,” she said. “And boy, I’ve met some people.”
Although she doesn’t live there anymore, the South Side neighborhood where she grew up left its imprint on Fullmore, with its modest homes, narrow streets and social oases like Penn Park, Mt. Zion Baptist Church, the South Madison Neighborhood Center (now the Boys & Girls Club) set between South Park Street, Wingra Creek and the railroad tracks.
“It truly was a village growing up,” Fullmore said. “Everyone knew everyone and their children.”
Fullmore’s parents, Joseph and Gloria, moved from Waycross, Georgia, to the neighborhood, now called Brams Addition, in 1955 — Wanda was born at Methodist Hospital that year. After moving a couple of times, her family ended up in an apartment on Fisher Street across from Penn Park.
Their home was always filled with people eating, playing cards and socializing, Fullmore said. “People would sit on the lawn drinking beer watching people playing ball,” she recalled as she gazed at the basketball courts in the park from the terrace of her former home during a recent walk of the neighborhood. “Everyone knew Gloria Fullmore. Everyone came to Gloria’s home.”
Fullmore was a teacher’s aide at Child Development Corp. down the street from her home. She went to church and hung out at the neighborhood center. She was encouraged to prepare for jobs and the adult world by then UW-Madison students like Candace McDowell and Hazel Symonette who came to work with youth. She was part of the Neighborhood Youth Corp., which nominated her at age 16 to spend a summer in a work experience program in Washington, D.C.
She remembers the names of those who helped her and the families who kept their yards neat and neighborhood children in line. She laments the struggles the neighborhood suffered after she left, including the shooting of the son of family friends.
Although an only child, Fullmore was used to having people around and was always outgoing, said Rita Henderson, who met her in middle school and remains her close friend. “People are just drawn to her,” Henderson said. “She’s very loving and warm — and can snap at you, too, if you push her the wrong way.”
‘Just help people’
She once dreamed of becoming a pediatric nurse, but Fullmore became a young mother just after she graduated from Madison Memorial in 1973 and eventually had two children, Tamara Doherty and Will Smith III. With her clerical skills, she was hired by the city as an hourly clerk-typist in the clerical pool, then as a permanent clerk-typist in the Personnel Department. Three months later, she was transferred to the mayor’s office.
“It was her skill set, her personality,” Soglin recalled of her hiring. “She came to the office with everything needed except experience.”
Ever since, Fullmore has been at the crossroads of city power, fielding and making calls, handling correspondence, charming the media, protecting her bosses.
“She’s probably the most professional person I know,” said former Mayor Dave Cieslewicz, who served from 2003 before a narrow loss to Soglin in 2011. “She has a reputation for being warm, and everybody’s mom. She knows everybody. She never betrays anybody’s confidence. As time went on, God knows she knew a lot of stuff about me.”
And he added, “she never crossed the line into any kind of partisanship.”
Over time, Fullmore became known for going out of her way to help the 50 or so people who contacted the office daily, as well as for her politeness and professionalism in dealing with often confused or irate callers. She was called a “nigger” twice, dismissed as a “(expletive) thug” and told to kiss a caller’s behind — dealing with the latter person with assertive diplomacy when he later showed up at the mayor’s fourth-floor suite. “It turned out good,” she said.
“Her current job description doesn’t adequately describe what she does,” said Cieslewicz, who compares Fullmore to a human 311 non-emergency response system. “She’s sort of the connecting tissue of city government.”
“That’s what you’re supposed to do,” Fullmore said. “Just help people, and do it with respect.”
Tragedy, joy, change
From her tenure, Fullmore remembers the depths of numbing tragedy — the 1988 fatal shootings at the City-County Building of Dane County Coroner Clyde “Bud” Chamberlain, who always tipped his cap to Fullmore when he saw her, and county secretary Eleanor Townsend. “It made me realize how fleeting life can be,” she said. “It could have been me. I changed my mind that day and went out to get something to eat. It was so sad.”
And she treasures special moments, like meeting and being photographed with President Barack Obama before he spoke to a huge crowd on Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard on the eve of the 2012 election. Rather than offering Obama a bouyant “babe” or “honey,” Fullmore admits she got nervous and just said, “Hi, Mr. President.”
It’s always been hard to change mayors, she said, especially if one has been in office a long time. It was particularly difficult when Cieslewicz was defeated in 2011 after eight years, while Soglin’s return was bittersweet, she said. “I knew (Soglin) when I was a teenager and now I’m a middle-age adult. How many people can say that?” she said.
With a laugh, she declined to name a favorite among the mayors she has served.
But she insisted on acknowledging the city’s rank-and-file employees. “I want to thank them for helping me and making my job easier,” she said.
After she leaves, Fullmore intends to travel, spend time with family and friends, volunteer and relax. She’ll have more time for her practice of sending people handwritten cards simply to keep in touch. “I think it’s more personable. I think it brings a smile.”
“Friendship is important to her,” Henderson said. “It’s important for her to be there in times of need. She’s been there for me for every major thing in my life. She is a true special person and an anchor in the mayor’s office and with friends. She gives it all.”