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Lynn Green

Lynn Green, director of the Dane County Human Services Department, will retire this year from her 50-year career in social services, which began at the site where the department's offices are now located. The former tuberculosis sanitarium, rear right, now houses her department, and the facade of the sanitarium's nurses' quarters, left, which was Green's first workplace, still stands.

Dane County Human Services Director Lynn Green will say goodbye to a social work career spanning half a century when she retires this year, leaving behind a legacy of early-intervention programs and compassion for children, families and people struggling to get by.

Green’s career started in 1969 with the state Division of Family Services, where she placed children under state guardianship with adoptive parents. Her office was in the former tuberculosis sanitarium’s nurses’ quarters.

She will end her career on the same campus. The former sanitarium, now owned by Dane County, was converted to the Human Services Department’s main office. Green’s fourth-floor office overlooks the remaining facade of the nurses’ quarters and has a sweeping view of Lake Mendota and the Isthmus.

Born and raised in Milwaukee, Green moved to Madison to attend UW-Madison, where she earned a bachelor’s degree in social work in 1968. She had come to the city to follow her high school sweetheart, Mike Green, who would get a Ph.D. in nuclear physics from UW-Madison. They married in 1967.

Green worked for the state for three years before her first child, Rebecca, was born, and she went on maternity leave. Her son, Kristian, was born eight years later.

While on leave after having her first child, Green took a part-time, limited-term job with Dane County offering single-parent counseling. The job was supposed to last only through the summer, but she continued working, accepting a permanent job in child protective services that fall.

Green worked her way up through the hierarchy of the county’s Social Services Department, which merged with other programs to become the Human Services Department in 1989. She was promoted to supervisor, field office manager and head of the Children, Youth and Families Division.

Though Green said she never aspired to lead the entire department, she decided to apply for the director position in 2002. All of the previous directors stayed in the position for just a few years, but Green kept going for 16 years.

She attributes her lasting tenure to a few things: her willingness to work more than 60 hours a week, her family’s willingness to accept her long hours and her experience in social work rather than public administration.

“I don’t know if this is a good thing, and I don’t encourage my kids to do this, but I’ve essentially devoted my life to this,” Green said of her job. “My kids were grown and settled, and my husband is a saint, but most people don’t want to work from 7 a.m. to 9 p.m. everyday and come in on weekends.”

Green said she’s most proud of the programs that provide early intervention, keep families together and address mental health problems in children and adults. Those include Joining Forces for Families launched in 1992, which focuses multiple programs to aid families raising school-age children; Early Childhood Initiative and Early Childhood Zoning, which assist parents of infants and children up to age 3 by teaching parenting skills and securing employment; and Children Come First, which tailors services to children and families to keep troubled youths out of jail and mental institutions.

“I really believe that early-intervention and prevention is where work needs to happen,” Green said.

After retirement, Green said she wants to spend time outdoors, potentially travel around Europe and try other new activities. She doesn’t quite know what those other activities might be though, she said, because for so long, her life has had just two focuses: social work and family.

How did you decide it was time to retire?

I’m 72, and I’m going to be 73 in May. You know, there’s a limit there. People kept saying, ‘Don’t worry about it. You’re just going to know when it’s time to retire.’ You know what? That’s not going to happen. I’m convinced I probably will not wake up one morning and decide I don’t want to come here and do this job. Every day I come here, and the adrenaline just flows. ... I really based it upon my department being in a good position for somebody to come in and have a chance and not come in during a crisis. ... It felt like for this department, it’s about as stable as it’s going to get.

Why did you want the job?

The staff here do such amazing work, and what I wanted to do was to be able to support the work that they did. Transfer my social work skills from doing consumer work to trying to support and clear the path for our staff and for our purchased contractors to be able to do the work that they need to do.

What’s a regret you have from your career?

This is a crazy answer because it’s not my personal failure, but what I regret is that in some ways, the condition for children and families nationally and in this state and in Dane County, overall maybe hasn’t improved in the 50 years I’ve been doing this. Poverty has become such an issue in this country, and certainly an issue for families in Dane County, that I just wish that in the 50 years I’ve been doing this that we could have made more headway.

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Shelley K. Mesch is a general assignment reporter for the Wisconsin State Journal. She earned a degree in journalism from DePaul University.