Brent Smith typically starts his days early.
A lawyer, active volunteer and public servant — not to mention a father, husband, mentor and friend — there’s rarely a pattern to the 68-year-old’s day. But showing up early gives him a chance to return calls and emails promptly before he jumps into the rest of his day.
“I don’t know if there is a normal day,” Smith said.
Smith’s nearly four decades of service in La Crosse has led him to many causes, and community members describe him as a steadfast and passionate leader, a guiding light in bumpy situations.
His years and years of work in the community culminated in a very visual way in 2021 with the completion of a $42 million expansion to the La Crosse Center. The massive project, which is expected to spur economic growth in the region, came to completion in no small part thanks to Smith.
For his leadership and what many have called a tireless dedication to service, Smith is the Tribune’s 2021 Person of the Year.
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“I really feel like it’s overdue,” said former La Crosse County Board chair Tara Johnson in an interview.
La Crosse Center Director Art Fahey wrote in his nomination, “We are a better community because of Brent Smith.”
The ‘big picture’
Although Smith wears his love for La Crosse on his sleeve, he’s not a native. And ending up here was something of a chance encounter.
Smith grew up in Madison. He studied journalism and history as an undergrad at UW-Madison and received his law degree from the UW Law School in 1978.
At the time, Smith said he wasn’t sure he wanted to practice law, instead thinking he might use his law degree to go into government. He interviewed for jobs in Washington D.C., but eventually decided that practicing law was a better place to start.
In February 1978, Smith interviewed with the law firm of Johns, Flaherty & Collins and has been there ever since — still working in the same office he interviewed in more than 40 years ago. He currently holds the title of managing partner and has been honored as a “Super Lawyer” 13 times, marking him as one of the top lawyers in the state.
From the get-go, community involvement was a given for Smith. He said he saw his parents volunteer their time often. While interviewing at the law firm, it was clearly a place that encouraged its staff to be involved in the community, with the slogan: “Good Neighbors. Great Lawyers.”
But more than that, Smith described volunteering in the community as something he simply had to do.
“If we have the ability to give back then we should give back. And that’s always driven me from the beginning,” Smith said.
“People who give time,” he said, “that is sometimes the true measure of a community.”
Of the many causes he has championed, education has special meaning.
His own experience in school helped inspire his passion for what he calls the “big picture” of higher education.
This encompasses not just specializing in a certain field or area of expertise, but also access to a wealth of general knowledge, whether it be at a technical college or four-year university.
“For me it wasn’t only about law, but politics. It was about history, it was about journalism. It was about a number of things that were important to me and shaped me,” Smith said.
UW-La Crosse Chancellor Joe Gow said in an interview that education had played a “transformative role” in Smith’s life, helping him understand the importance of accessibility and affordability.
Smith served on the Wisconsin Technical College System (WTCS) Board from 2003 to 2012 and the UW System Board of Regents from 2004 to 2013. He served as president of both boards during his tenures — the first and only person to have held both titles, which gave him “unparalleled experience,” Gow wrote in his nomination.
Local leaders said Smith has been instrumental in revitalizing higher education in the region and around the state, and that his love for La Crosse often bled through in his statewide roles.
“The campus had an ardent admirer and advocate in Brent,” Kevin P. Reilly, president emeritus and regent professor with the UW System, wrote in his nomination.
At UW-L, Smith played a particular role in helping launch the Growth, Quality & Access (GQ&A) program, which essentially increased tuition in order to help shrink the student-faculty ratio on campus.
The initiative received some pushback and hit some bumps in its infancy, but Smith, Gow said, encouraged officials to bring the program to the Board of Regents and kept the “momentum going.”
Charles Pruitt, who served alongside Smith on the UW System Board of Regents, said he remembers being hesitant about the initiative, but Smith reassured him that it was “the right thing to do.”
“Even when there were complications and delay, he insisted that we stay the course,” Pruitt wrote in his nomination. “He was right, and UW-L was transformed because of it.”
Gow said the impact of the GQ&A initiative has been “very dramatic,” dropping the student-faculty ratio from 24-to-1 to 18-to-1. He said there was “no doubt” that Smith played a key role in getting it off the ground.
“As a result of his efforts, La Crosse has higher education options that few Wisconsin communities can match,” Gow wrote. He said in an interview that it was “no exaggeration” to say that Smith is a “singular figure in higher education in our state.”
‘Calm, cool and collected’
Understanding Smith’s success requires understanding him as a person.
Some of the descriptors his nominators used include selfless, calm, generous, persistent, friendly, kind, balanced and earnest. In one package, all of these qualities make for a much-admired leader.
Former La Crosse Mayor Tim Kabat wrote in his nomination that Smith is a “calm, cool and collected” leader who “focuses on solutions and bringing people together.”
Johnson, former county board chair and the Tribune’s 2015 Person of the Year, said Smith became an “instant and indispensable mentor” to her when she first moved to La Crosse in 1993. She described him as undisturbed during calamity, someone who is always able to keep sight of the common goal and keep pushing for it.
“He is relentlessly tenacious in pursuit of progress. He is calmly patient in allowing processes and politics to play out. He personifies service above self,” she wrote.
Johnson said this was particularly true while they both served on the La Crosse Promise Board during a time of transition. She said Smith stepped in and helped the group keep its “mojo,” helping circulate donors lists and continue raising money for the program.
Others said Smith is a leader who doesn’t go it alone, always finding ways for the entire group to succeed, and someone who volunteers not for glory, but to simply make an impact. He is also a “process guy” who knows when to wait it out.
“His genuine earnestness enables him to reach across political divides and ‘herd the kittens’ in the good causes he has been immersed in, even when they have big-cat egos — like regents, chancellors and University System presidents,” Reilly said.
Story after story paints a similar picture of Smith: the calm one in the room, the reassuring voice in moments of uncertainty.
He describes his own leadership style as focused on listening, building relationships and remembering the long-term goal while remaining adaptable.
“I’ve built relationships with those board members and they know that I’m listening, they know I respect their views, and they know I’m trying to reach a consensus — and even though it’s difficult at times, that’s so important,” Smith said.
Johnson said Smith’s leadership reminded her of trying to navigate a long, icy driveway.
“When the driveway is icy, I’ve got to keep my foot on the accelerator. I’m not slamming it, I’m not spinning my wheels, but just steady pressure on the accelerator to get up the icy driveway — that’s Brent. He just keeps at it,” Johnson said.
Smith’s unrelenting leadership has manifested perhaps most tangibly in the La Crosse Center’s latest renovation, which wrapped up at the end of 2021.
The project has been in the works for nearly a decade and faced financial hurdles, a veto, redrafted plans, a pandemic and many more bumps along the way.
Smith said its completion was a symbol of compromise in the community.
“But it always felt like everyone was behind it,” he said. “There was a consensus that this could and should be done.”
It’s the second expansion the city-owned convention center has undergone since Smith was first appointed to the La Crosse Center Board in 1990. He has served as chair since 1993.
The facility’s growth in those three decades includes a push for diversification, Smith said. While the center started out largely as a vessel for the arena, it has now expanded to host a larger number and wider variety of events.
Since 2000, with Smith at the head of the table, the La Crosse Center has remained fiscally sound. Though most convention centers lose money, it has operated at a profit or broken even each year (even during the pandemic).
Now, with its latest expansion complete, the center is poised to be “unmatched,” Smith said. It’s an accomplishment local leaders said was only possible with Smith’s help.
“At the time, the initial expansion proposal seemed to be a long shot,” wrote Lee Rasch, executive director of LeaderEthics-Wisconsin and retired Western Technical College president. “But throughout the process, Brent’s calm and yet determined persistence kept the project alive.”
Kabat wrote that Smith “continued to work toward solutions, even when there were some differences of opinion,” adding that Smith’s “leadership is a big reason why we are cutting a ribbon on this much-needed and gorgeous addition.”
Smith said the expansion was on his plate weekly from the time it was approved until the groundbreaking, and called it the most “intense” project or issue throughout his work at the La Crosse Center.
“It was something that was constantly there and that you had to keep nudging,” he said.
But of course, Smith doesn’t feel right taking all the credit.
“So many people in the community have been involved in this project. It’s certainly not just the Center Board or me,” he said. “The biggest, really, is the people of La Crosse.”
At an unveiling ceremony for the La Crosse Center on Dec. 15, Smith was chatting in the hallway near the new rooftop terrace — which he said is his favorite new feature of the facility — when he spotted a familiar face.
“Oh my God, there’s my younger daughter,” he said. His daughter, Anna, had flown in from Colorado to surprise him at the unveiling.
As the two embraced, surrounded by shouts of “surprise” and “congratulations,” it was clear his family is the foundation of Smith’s work.
He said his family has been “tremendously supportive” of his career and service. And although his community involvement means he sometimes misses things, sometimes it keeps him at home.
That’s been true with Smith’s philanthropy work for the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation, which began after his daughter, Erin, was diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes when she was 12. He has helped raise hundreds of thousands of dollars for research.
“Of all the things I’ve done, that’s probably been the most personal,” Smith said.
The list goes on for Smith, who a nominator said was once dubbed “Brent on too many boards.” He has also been a board member for the Gundersen Health Plan, 7 Rivers Alliance and United Way.
And in addition to the La Crosse Center Board, Smith currently serves on the boards of LeaderEthics-Wisconsin, the La Crosse Community Foundation and the UW-L Foundation.
He still finds time for himself. He said he’s an avid baseball and football fan, and he enjoys traveling. He’s been to Australia and South Africa, though New York City remains his favorite place. He’s also a James Bond fan and hopes to get his golf game in shape.
Smith said being honored as the Tribune’s Person of the Year wasn’t on his “radar,” and called it humbling after nominating some of the past years’ honorees.
“To be in that group is very, very special,” Smith said.
"If we have the ability to give back, then we should give back. And that's always driven me from the beginning."
Brent Smith, 2021 Tribune Person of the Year
"(Brent Smith's) genuine earnestness enables him to reach across political divides and 'herd the kittens' in the good causes he has been immersed in, even when they have big-cat egos — like regents, chancellors and University System presidents."
Kevin P. Reilly, president emeritus and regent professor with the UW System