The sermon nearly five years ago is etched in Mike Desmond’s mind and on his heart.
“I was at church one day at Viterbo (University), and Father Tom O’Neill — I swear he was looking right at me — said, ‘What have you done to help people in this community this week?’” Desmond recalled in an interview.
“I thought, ‘What have I done this week?’”
The late Rev. O’Neill’s question pricked Desmond’s conscience as he pondered whether to quit his job as a development officer for the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse to become executive director of the Boys and Girls Clubs of Greater La Crosse.
“My initial reaction was no — I was 55 and on state benefits. I could ease into retirement,” he said.
“But I was pulled here with the idea of making a difference in kids’ lives,” Desmond said as he sat in his office just off the gym at the Terry Erickson Club. “I believe God gives us the power to change what’s wrong in the world, and that’s how I ended up here.”
The Boys and Girls Clubs position has been a “perfect fit,” Desmond said. “People and experiences have showed me there is more joy in helping others. I have more joy, more happiness and more fulfillment than I’ve ever had in my life.”
Desmond has made many other contributions to his native La Crosse — from his 25 years of coaching at his alma mater, Aquinas High School, to the litany of boards and commissions on which he serves.
Desmond’s decades of selfless service earned him the title of the Tribune’s Person of the Year.
“Mike Desmond would be a strong candidate for Person of the Year just for his work with the Boys and Girls Club,” said Tribune Executive Editor Chris Hardie. “But it’s his willingness to take leadership roles in other important community issues that pushed his nomination to the top.
“It’s one thing to talk about the challenges in our community, but it’s another thing to do something about it. Mike is willing to invest the time and energy to do something about it,” Hardie said.
Desmond is a reluctant honoree, but believes it may help spread a message that community involvement is important.
“That’s a huge transformation for me,” he said. “There might have been a time I’d have enjoyed the hoopla, but getting recognition is inconsequential now.
“Experiences in my life and people in my life have taught me that it’s not about me,” said Desmond, a member of the Wisconsin Basketball Coaches Hall of Fame.
The two people who nominated Desmond to be the Tribune’s 12th Person of the Year — Jane Klekamp and Keith Belzer — wanted to make it about him just this once.
“I think what makes him especially worthy this year is that he has taken personal and professional aspects of his life and connected them to evolve into a very compassionate, effective policymaker,” said Klekamp, Justice Support Services manager for La Crosse County.
Klekamp has gotten to know Desmond since he began serving on the county’s Criminal Justice Management Council in 2008.
“He didn’t volunteer just to be on the council, but he works at it,” she said. “He goes beyond.”
Desmond applies the same work ethic on the county’s heroin task force, which was formed in 2013 and which he co-chairs, said Belzer, an attorney and member of the justice management council.
“He is an interesting combination of having strong ties to the business community and an astute awareness of the vulnerable population of La Crosse,” Belzer said. “He is very aware of their needs and can convey them to the business community.”
Desmond has played a key role in developing the Second Chance Program, which Belzer said will be unveiled soon, to help people who have been in the criminal justice system get jobs.
Desmond explained his dedication to that project: “One of the things we have learned is that, when people are released from jail, nobody will hire them. If they can’t get a job, they’ll go back to the same behaviors, and it becomes a revolving door.
“We think we can turn lives around” with the program, which he said has gained wide support from businesses such as Festival Foods, Inland Label and Marketing Services, River City Steel, McDonald’s, LHI and Kwik Trip.
Belzer also cited Desmond’s dedication to mental health, as a member and past chairman of the board of the Mental Health Coalition of the Greater La Crosse Area.
The issue is personal for Desmond and his family — wife Karen, son Mike, 29, daughter Katie, 27, and granddaughter Kaileen, nearly 5.
Katie has grappled with depression, mood swings and anxiety since high school.
“I speak openly as an advocate for mental health because I learned firsthand through my family the devastating effect depression and mental illness can have,” Desmond said. “It can shatter dreams if you let it.
“We have a real epidemic in this community regarding mental illness, and people are not aware of it,” he said. “We have to get over the stigma and the idea that they chose it.
“My daughter didn’t choose this,” Desmond said. “It led to some bad decisions, but she’s choosing to fight — and we’re choosing to fight with her.”
Katie said during an interview that the depression began when she was a teen, while the anxiety hit in her mid-teens and spiraled from there.
“After graduating from high school, I got into trouble,” Katie said. “I’ve been in an intense therapy program for three years, and it’s really working.”
She and her daughter, Kaileen, live with her parents, and she is looking for a job.
Her parents’ resolve to help Katie through the ordeal “means the world to me,” she said. “Without their support, I don’t know where I’d be, especially my dad.
“My dad is a supporter, a motivator and such an inspiration and so strong. Without him, I wouldn’t have made it through that part of my life. He cared and never gave up on me,” she said.
Echoing that is Patti Jo Severson, who has experienced mental health issues in her own family and serves with Desmond on the mental health coalition.
“There’s something about the strength of family and community that bind us together,” said Severson, chairwoman of the coalition board and a nutrition and health educator for behavioral health at Gundersen Health System.
“When Mike and I make a presentation together, the audience really listens to him. You can hear a pin drop,” Severson said. “It’s rare that a father shares about his struggles. He does it in coach fashion, that nobody can do it alone.
“If there is anything Mike brings to our community it is he brings a face to mental illness and mental health,” she said. “We are fortunate to have him to be heard. He gives us voices and takes away the shame and the stigma.
“Because of Mike, lives have been changed,” Severson said.
More than just coaching
Desmond excelled as a teacher and a coach at Aquinas, said Principal Ted Knutson, also the school’s athletic director.
“Much of his work was in development, but his biggest contributions were as an educator and coach — all of the lives he’s touched,” Knutson said.
Former basketball players attest to Desmond’s impact beyond his accumulation of a 402-173 record in nine years of coaching girls and 16 of coaching boys at Aquinas, including a state boys championship in 2003. Desmond was named the Tribune’s basketball coach of the year in 2003.
Desmond counts that championship as “one of my greatest moments — not just winning, but because of the way we won.
“We weren’t the biggest, or the strongest, or the most talented, but we were the best TEAM,” he insisted.
That’s because the players followed his preaching of the gospel of Duke University Coach Mike Krzyzewski, Desmond said.
That message is to teach the whole person, not just basketball, said Desmond, who touts Krzyzewski’s book, “Leading with the Heart: Coach K’s Successful Strategies for Basketball, Business, and Life,” and his other leadership tomes.
Desmond said he met Krzyzewski, read his books and adopted his philosophy.
“It’s coaching the whole person, not just the athlete. I made the decision to teach as much on people skills as basketball skills — and had better teams.”
More than any other, the 2003 team “bought into the idea that you can’t become whole as a person until you become a part of something greater than yourself,” he said.
The selfless concept left a lasting impression, said A.J. Halverson, who was a junior on that team.
“Every other coach I had was all about X’s and O’s, but Mike Desmond is not like that,” recalled Halverson.
“A half-hour before games, we got together and just talked about things, about each other, about things that were happening in our lives,” he said. “We’d talk about basketball, too, but he told us it didn’t matter who gets headlines and makes points.“
Acknowledging “struggles in my life” later, Halverson confessed, “There was a time I turned my back on Mike. It was no big thing that caused it, but he’s always supported me.
“My dad passed away last year, and Mike was there for me. He’s been my father. He’s been a big supporter of me and my family,” Halverson said.
“He gave me a job,” said Halverson, whom Desmond hired as an athletic director for the Boys and Girls Clubs.
Desmond’s leadership with the clubs has proved he was the right pick for the job, said Scott Mihalovic, who was president of the clubs’ board at the time and persuaded him to take the job.
“We had interviewed six or seven candidates but hadn’t found the right fit,” said Mihalovic, who is principal at Logan High School near the Terry Erickson Club.
“Mike Desmond’s name kept coming up,” Mihalovic said, leading to an impromptu meeting over dinner that sealed the deal shortly after the Rev. O’Neill’s eyes pierced Desmond’s at church.
“I’ll have to admit that, in that conversation, he got me very excited about what we could do here,” Desmond recalled. “He convinced me.”
Desmond funnels accolades toward staffers at the Boys and Girls Clubs, saying, “There’s an unbelievable group of dedicated young people here. I feel as good about this team as I did any basketball team. They’ve given up personal things for the good of the organization and the good of the kids.”
Desmond applies the same Coach K standards to himself as he did to his basketball players and club workers.
“He doesn’t care who gets the credit for things,” said Festival Foods founder Dave Skogen, one of Desmond’s recruits to co-chair the nearly $20 million UW-L campaign to build the Veterans Memorial Field Sports Complex, including a new stadium.
Desmond dubbed Skogen and the other two co-chairs in the mid-2000s drive — Dyanne Brudos of U.S. Bank and Duane Ring Jr. of CenturyLink — as his “Triple D” team.
“That was a very stressful time,” Desmond said. “People say I’m a bit on the competitive side. Well, on this, we weren’t going to lose. That’s why you have others like the Triple D.”
Despite the pressure, Skogen remembers Desmond’s inspiring a sense of camaraderie to generate support the complex, which was dedicated in September 2009.
“Raising money isn’t always fun, but he made it fun,” Skogen said. “He kept us focused and passionate about the project.”
Desmond “understands his higher purpose is to serve people and improve their lives,” Skogen said. “He has friendships and relationships with people on both sides of the spectrum — with affluent friends and families in poverty — but he treats everybody the same.
“He’s not full of himself, and he’s never looked at himself as too big, even with the successes he’s had,” he said. “The best word to describe him is humble.”
As for Desmond, he is quick to credit Skogen and others, including the Franciscan sisters who taught him at Blessed Sacrament Grade School and Aquinas, with molding his values and actions.
“When I was a young teacher at Aquinas, they (the Franciscan sisters) kinda took me under their wings,” said Desmond, the second-oldest child of John and Mary Desmond’s seven boys and one girl.
Desmond has managed to balance his community activism with his home life, said wife, Karen.
“He’s fabulous — he really is,” she said. “I don’t know where he gets the energy to devote his time all over the community and still have time for us. He’s like the Energizer Bunny.
“Our granddaughter lives with us, and you know how demanding a 5-year-old can be — it can drain you,” Karen said. “He finds time for me and my daughter and our granddaughter.
“He’s always been driven to do his very best,” she said. “He thrives on making a difference.”