Life as a City Manager’s Child with Mary Van Milligan

This is the second post in a new series about growing up with a parent who is also a City Manager. We will interview a current local government professional who followed their mother or father’s footsteps into public service. For the first installment we interviewed ELGL Co-Founder and City of Tigard Senior Management Analyst, Kent Wyatt. Today, we hear from Mary Van Milligen, Woodbury (MN) assistant to the city administrator.


Mary Van Milligan

Assistant to the City Administrator at City of Woodbury

Connect: LinkedIn

Background Check

Mary is currently the Assistant to the City Administrator in Woodbury, Minnesota. Her duties there include assisting with budget development, performance measurement reporting, collective bargaining, administering the citizen survey, cross departmental projects, and other duties as assigned. She has been working with the City of Woodbury for over two years and prior to that she served as the Management Intern for Downers Grove, Illinois. Mary received her undergraduate degree from the University of Iowa and went on to complete the MPA program at Northern Illinois University.

Mary is the daughter of Michael and Nancy Van Milligen, Dubuque (IA) city manager. Michael C. Van Milligen has served as City Manager for the City of Dubuque since January of 1993. Van Milligen served as the assistant village manager for the Village of Skokie, Ill., from May 1987 to January 1993.

He holds bachelor’s degrees in Fire Science Management and Administration of Justice from Southern Illinois University, where he earned a master’s degree in Public Affairs. Additionally, he completed the Harvard University’s John F. Kennedy School of Government Program for Senior Executives in State and Local Government and the Kellogg Management Institute at Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management, described as “The Essence of an MBA.” He also completed the U.S. Army War College National Security Seminar.

Van Milligen was named Manager of the Year in September 2007 by the Iowa City/County Management Association. This annual award honors chief administrators whose accomplishments and superior work performance represent the best possible application of management principles and whose creative contributions to professional local government management increases public awareness of the value of professional management to the quality of life in Iowa communities.

staff_nancyvanmilligen2011_125x162Nancy Van MilligenPresident and CEO of Community Foundation of Greater Dubuque has compiled an impressive record of community, state, and national leadership experience in a variety of settings. Her education, work experience, and volunteer activities have afforded her a unique perspective that drives her passion for community building and making a difference in the lives of others.

Among her many leadership experiences are service as vice president for institutional advancement at Clarke College, area administrator for the Iowa Citizens Foster Care Review Board, chair of the Iowa Commission on Volunteer Service, and chair of the State of Iowa Empowerment Board. She is the president and CEO of the Community Foundation of Greater Dubuque.

Q & A with Mary

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Describe what was it like growing up with a parent who was a city manager? Advantages? Disadvantages?

In all honesty, growing up with a parent who is city manager does not have any tangible advantages or disadvantages. Although, I do understand that I grew up in privilege being in a middle-class family, with a highly educated, compassionate and caring father (and mother) who took the time to read to us every night, except Mondays when he was on the most boring television show on TV. If I think really hard, maybe I got more candy at the city expo.

City management is a transient profession. How many times did you move as a child? 

We only made one big move and it was motivated by a job change for my father.

When I was eight, we moved from Skokie, Illinois – where my father was Assistant City Manager – to Dubuque, Iowa. My father has had a very long tenure in Dubuque, Iowa. He has been City Manager in Dubuque for 21 years. Looking back, the move was not difficult for me at eight years old. I have three brothers and a sister, one of them older and I do believe he would report the move being much more challenging at the age of 12.

How did having a parent who is a city manager influence your career choice? Was there pressure to follow in their footsteps? 

literature major

Growing up, I had no intention to follow in my father’s footsteps and there was never any pressure to do so. After graduating with my undergraduate degree in literature (a choice in major that my parents hoped I would grow out of…), two terms with AmeriCorps and some serious soul-searching I decided to get my Master’s in Public Administration at age 26. I chose to pursue a Master’s in Public Administration, not because of an interest in being a city manager as much as a passion to pursue my inherent passion for public service, which was instilled in me by both my parents. Both my Mother and Father have MPAs, my Father’s led him to City Management and my Mother’s to be President and CEO of a Community Foundation.

When did you become interested in pursuing this career path? Did your siblings also follow in your parent’s footsteps?

Although I refer to my passion for public service as inherent, I am fully aware I was not born with this trait. Rather my parents, by example and reinforcing with their expectations of each of us, made it a priority to raise my siblings and I with a few key values:

  • The world does not revolve around us as individuals, rather we are part of a larger community and our choices and actions affect those around us. It is our duty to make that affect have a positive impact.
  • Everything is a choice, make good ones.
  • Hard work and a good attitude lead to a happy and fulfilling life.

My siblings are all amazing and successful but did not enter public service. I have three brothers; a fabulous chef, a finance guru and a wildly successful young brother who is climbing the ladder working in trucking logistics. My sister is the youngest and is searching for her path.

Give us three takeaways from growing up around city management

I doubt these takeaways would be too different if my father chose a different career but…

  • Don’t try to be the smartest person, rather surround yourself with smart people and respect and utilize their input.
  • Partnerships are how true success in community is reached.
  • Integrity, humility and the ability to work with people are the three most important traits in a leader.

Talk about your career path. Has it been similar to your dad’s?

acw2008_posterMy career path in public service probably started before I actually had a career. My parents always encouraged community involvement and giving back. Their encourage led me to graduate a year early from high school and spent a year working as an AmeriCorps volunteer, in Dubuque. My volunteer work was very rewarding and helped me realize some of my strengths; specifically my empathetic nature, ability to lead and the ability to communicate well with a wide-range of people.

While earning my undergraduate degree at the University of Iowa, I spent two summers on the East Coast teaching at a leadership camp for gifted high school students. After completing my undergraduate degree in English literature, I moved to Denver, Colorado and volunteered for a second AmeriCorps term. I found my volunteer work very rewarding and looked for a job in non-profits for a few years after completing my term but it was 2008-2009 and finding entry-level work was very challenging due to the recession. I supported myself managing at local restaurants until I decided to return to the Midwest to get my Master’s in Public Administration and work in local government.

My career path is similar to my parent’s in that it was not a direct route to a defined goal. My father started as a police officer before completing his MPA and moving into City Management. My mother worked at various state agencies, universities and non-profits before becoming the President and CEO at the Dubuque Community Foundation. Both my parents have always encouraged us to set goals but also acknowledge that we never know what life is going to bring, but as my father says (over and over again…) luck is when preparation meets opportunity. All we can do is set ourselves up for success, who the heck knows what is coming our way!

Do you have a professional relationship with your parent? Do you exchange work related advice?

This question made me laugh. No, I do not have a professional relationship with my Father – he’s my Dad. I am incredibly lucky because even as an adult, I respect my Dad more than any person in the entire world but my respect is because of his compassion, humor and integrity – which are characteristics he would have regardless of his career choice. With that said, my Dad is my number one professional role model and I often think, ‘what would my dad do in this situation?’ And, sometimes I may ask him for some advice.

What does your parent think of you following in their footsteps?

I am going to forward this question to my father for response…

“Mary is a tremendously talented young lady. I would have supported her in any profession she chose, but I am particularly pleased she chose professional local government management. Communities across the country have unique challenges and we need more people like Mary in this profession. I am very proud of her!”

Most normal people think a city manager is either a planner or mayor. Describe what your friends thought city management was when you were growing up.

They had absolutely no idea what he did and really, I didn’t either.

Give three tips for kids growing up with mom or dad as a city manager.

Honestly, I don’t have any advice because it would be superficial. Relationships between parents and their kids are complex and have little or nothing to do with the career of their parent. I am lucky that I have an incredible Dad, some kids might have parents that are city managers and not so incredible – being a city manager does not someone else’s parent anything like my dad.

I guess the only thing I have to say is….Unless you are winning an award or a sports/spelling bee champion, stay out of the headlines.

Would you encourage your children to pursue a career in local government?

If I have children, I intend to encourage them to do whatever their heart desires and hope that they choose to somehow contribute to community in a positive way; city management is one of a million ways to build community.

Supplemental Reading



Growing Up in City Hall: Life as a City Manager’s Child with Kent Wyatt

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