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Carol Toussaint: Meet Madison's First Woman
 
By Teresa Peneguy Paprock
 

Carol Towers Toussaint was first elected to office in fourth grade.

 

It happened in her elementary school in Bruce, a village in Rusk County in northwestern Wisconsin, where her teacher Lillian Smith had an fascinating idea: to teach Robert’s Rules of Order to a class of 9-year-olds.

 

Young Carol just happened to be the daughter of Claire Towers, who had been elected to the Village Board on the very day she was born. Providence was at work. Something clicked for Carol during that lesson. She became president of her class, the first of a remarkably long list of honors and distinctions – a list that continues to grow to this day.

 

Toussaint would try to have you believe that she’s achieved so much simply because she’s lived a long life. In fact, one of the most remarkable things about her is that she seems somewhat unimpressed with her own achievements. The first woman appointed to head a cabinet-level agency in Wisconsin government (1977), the first woman member of the Board of Directors of Wisconsin Power and Light Company (1976), president of the Wisconsin League and vice president of the National League of Women Voters, Toussaint has been a role model for women for more than three decades. Yet she is as unpretentious and warm as your favorite aunt, and quicker to compliment others than to call attention to herself.

 

As the chair of the Madison Cultural Arts District Board, Toussaint is “the spiritual glue that holds the entire enterprise together,” says Michael Goldberg, vice president for programs at the Overture Center. “She’s had to make order out of variety.” Indeed, unlike many boards that are made up of individuals with similar backgrounds, the Cultural Arts Board is made up of 13 individuals appointed by the Governor, the County Executive, and the Mayor (Toussaint herself is a Mayoral appointment). The board is diverse and complex, but that doesn’t faze Toussaint. “If you’ve got a meeting to conduct, you need order, and a process to make sure the playing field is even,” she says. “I know how to do these things.”

 

A graduate of the University of Wisconsin-Madison School of Journalism, Toussaint has been involved, either professionally or as a volunteer, in a remarkable variety of enterprises, on governmental and non-governmental boards and commissions, in public policy studies, and as a consultant for non-profit organizations. She earned the respect of the Madison arts community when, in the mid-1980s, she served as deputy director of the Wisconsin Strategic Development Commission and directed a study that demonstrated the economic impact of non-profit arts in Wisconsin. “(We showed) that a strong and vibrant non-profit arts industry directly contribute to the economic health of a state,” she said. “It got me more interested in the arts – and it got other people thinking about me.”

 

Toussaint’s work on the study led to some professional work and a great deal of volunteer work for Madison’s arts community. In the 1990s the Wisconsin Foundation for the Arts asked her to facilitate the Commission on Madison Arts Facilities; findings from the Commission study would eventually play a role in the Overture project. She had earlier been appointed to the President’s Advisory Committee on the Arts, Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts. “I would never hold myself up as any kind of expert in the arts,” she says, “but what I am expected to do is to be deeply engaged in what it takes to run a first class center for arts in our city.”

 

While Madison had been “performance rich and facilities poor,” according to one study, the Madison Civic Center’s stability and success over 20+ years paved the way for the eventual Overture Center. “It wasn’t perfect, but it helped us grow as an arts community,” says Toussaint. “Performers now are just going to blossom when they get into this space.”

 

Those who will perform in Madison will finally have a venue worthy of their performance. “I am confident that all the organizations that will use these extraordinary spaces will surprise the audiences – and themselves – with the extraordinary quality of work they will do,” she says. “I just expect we will be overwhelmed. I really believe that five years from now, there will be local organizations presenting and performing in the Center that I don’t even have names for now.”

 

Toussaint’s husband John, a neurologist, retired in 1991 from the Wisconsin Center for Developmental Disabilities, where he was medical director. Like Carol, John volunteers: he works at book sales for the Madison Public Library and the Friends of the University of Wisconsin Libraries, tapes books for the visually impaired through the Volunteer Braillists and Tapists organization, and helps serve meals to those in need. A member of the Madison Symphony Chorus, he will be on stage several times in upcoming weeks.

 

The couple’s older son Gregory graduated from the Air Force Academy and the Medical College of Virginia. He is an Air Force medical doctor who has served in Asia and the Middle East. Gregory lives in Beaver Creek, Ohio, with his wife Susan and daughters Jennifer, Rebecca, and Bridget. The younger son Todd and his wife Kim live nearby in Fitchburg. A graduate of the University of Arizona, Todd has an MBA from Oklahoma State and works in computers at The Widget Source. He’s also a lieutenant for the Fitchburg Fire Department.

 

While Toussaint continued volunteering, she was able to stop working to raise her boys. “I had the flexibility as a volunteer,” she says, adding, “We ran a pretty cooperative household.”

 

Toussaint’s passion is travel. She’s visited Russia six times, and she and her family have been all over the world. Carol and John went to Europe several times with young boys in tow. And Toussaint’s not afraid to get her hands dirty. She and her husband travel with Earthwatch, volunteering for archaeological digs. “We’ve done digs in Switzerland, England, and Easter Island,” she says, adding, “We are still doing Earthwatch projects but not archeology. At age 75, I find that I can still get down on the ground but it is a lot harder getting back up.”

 

An active member of the First Congregational Church of Christ, Toussaint was a trailblazer there, too. “I was the first woman moderator (lay leader) there,” she says. “It had to happen sometime!” Both Carol and John play in the English Handbell Choir there, and “everyone knows I don’t ever schedule meetings on Wednesday evening because bell choir rehearsals are a top priority for me,” she says. In addition, John is a substitute organist at the church and sings in the choir.

 

Regarding her history of so many times being the “first woman,” Toussaint attributes much to timing. “I was extremely fortunate,” she says. “I was at the right age and had enough community experience when people were starting to say, ‘Duh, women can do these things!’”

 

Her advice to young women? “You have to make sure you are well-prepared to do what you want to do,” she says. “You won’t get a free ride. The first thing is education. And you have to be willing to work at a variety of tasks and not expect things to be handed to you – whether you are a woman or a man.”

 

Toussaint recently heard a rather interesting rumor: that Carol Towers Toussaint was planning to retire. She laughs. “My son Todd says, ‘My mom can’t retire until someone figures out just what she’s been doing all these years,’” she says. “I have absolutely no intention of retiring!”

Teresa Peneguy Paprock

This article originally appeared in ANEW Magazine. Teresa Peneguy Paprock / words & stuff freelancing retains the copyright to this article and it may not be reproduced, in whole or in part, without express permission. For reprint rights, contact Teresa Peneguy Paprock at words@chorus.net or P.O. Box 5207, Madison, WI, 53705.

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