Building Bridges: An Interview with Mike Dampf

Jennifer Moore-Kerr

By Jennifer Moore-Kerr

In what seems to be a time of ever-increasing strife, this column is a small attempt to build bridges with our neighbors. The broken bridges and steel-clad social bubbles that keep us apart can begin to mend and thin as we get to know the stories that define each other. In this space I will be interviewing community members of all walks of life from throughout the Voice readership area … may you enjoy meeting them, and may this build bridges for us all. Thank you for joining me on this journey.

Mike Dampf, and his wife, Heather, met in high school in a small town, southwest of Chicago, when they were just 16 and 17 years old. His story is, in so many ways, their story. As high school sweethearts they went away to college together, having completed their first two years at a community college close to home. Going away was the first step toward building a life of their own, and they traveled many more steps together before calling Dodgeville home.

Mike Dampf and his wife, Heather

In the first 10 years of their marriage they had 11 different addresses. From their childhood homes (in Mokena and New Lenox) to Southern Illinois University in Carbondale, Illinois, to Union, Washington, they pursued their dreams, always checking in with each other, always taking care of the health of their relationship. Then 9/11 happened and it put their relationship in a broader frame. Coming back to the Midwest, to their families, seen within that frame, felt like the right thing to do. Heather’s parents were now near Minneapolis. Mike’s still outside of Chicago. The Midwest was where they needed to be.

Mike applied for Department of Natural Resources jobs in Illinois, Minnesota and Wisconsin and when he was offered the No. 2 position at Governor Dodge State Park in Dodgeville it seemed perfect: halfway between their parents (and not too close to either, he joked), and a good job doing what he loved — it was time to move again. This time, though, it was time to settle down. 

They had made the decision to be closer to family, Mike was 30 and Heather 31. On their 10th anniversary, newly settled in Wisconsin, they learned that Heather was pregnant with their first child. Dodgeville was where they would put down roots. They believed it would be selfish to raise their children thousands of miles away from their parents, even though they had loved the Pacific Northwest, and might have otherwise returned there. Throughout this interview I was struck by the apparent ease with which Mike made decisions with the best interest of others in mind. Doing the “selfish” thing was never an option. And, it seemed that always there was a joyfulness and a playfulness in making those decisions, even when others might have found reason to be unhappy or even resentful.

Dodgeville put Mike near work, and the community felt good, but what really struck him was the natural spaces everywhere. When I asked him what makes Dodgeville special, he joked, “They have a really nice Pizza Hut!” (Quips seem never far from Mike’s lips!) But, then, to hear him talk about the natural spaces around Dodgeville is to hear awe, and to hear love. He wasn’t being interviewed as a representative of the Department of Natural Resources. This is just a man who truly cherishes the abundance of public lands, available to everyone, which surround his town. In his enthusiasm he took out his phone, showing me the free DNR app called “Hunt Wild” and, pointing to a map of the area, said, with wonder and joy, “everywhere you see green, that is public land.” He went on to explain how that land is mine (and yours); that it is held in trust, not always developed like state parks, but that it is available to all of us to Be there. Many times throughout our conversation Mike would circle back to this beautiful resource as a large part of what keeps him here.

But it isn’t everything. The community of Dodgeville, from the welcome extended by Sara Lippert to Heather and Cal as a young mother and child that then led to a lifelong friendship, to the Midwest ethos of shoveling your neighbor’s drive, or dropping off a casserole for a friend who has come upon hard times, all of it has won Mike’s enormous heart. And, I imagine, having the Dampfs as neighbors might be better than winning the lottery.

That generosity of spirit, time and effort so apparent in Mike’s stories can be traced to his youth. As an 18-year-old he joined the Air National Guard. This gave him tuition for college where he would be the first in his family to graduate, but it also gave him another avenue from which he would give to others. After Hurricane Katrina he helped put together what would become the Air Force Fatality Search and Recovery Team. This team was created out of the awareness that locals should never have to undergo the agony of recovering the bodies of their neighbors. The team, instead, would come in and take over that burden when local responders were overwhelmed. He retired from the Air Guard after 24 years, but the honor he still feels for having served alongside his teammates shines through as he talks about that time and those people.

When I asked Mike what he wanted people to know about him he again joked, “I think I am a swell guy!” He then went on to say that he is the most conservative of his liberal friends and the most liberal of his conservative friends. He wants to hear what anyone has to say, and he wants others to hear what he has to say. Just don’t tell him he is wrong. And know that he will listen to what you have to say, and not tell you that you are wrong.

In terms of the future, he hopes that this area, which he calls home, can survive these times, hopefully coming out with good jobs, and a strong economy. He would love to see public transportation to Madison, and at the same time limit development, so that his home retains its small-town feel. He wants to see those natural areas he loves so much valued by others, and kept public. He hopes that more people come to enjoy them, and that new ways of funding them can be found.

When I asked what makes him smile, he immediately spoke of his kids, referring to them as “great little people” who are “so much of their mom, and a little of me.” I am reminded that early in our interview, when I was asking about how he and Heather had become involved in the community, he shared that he never wanted to go to any meetings that his kids wouldn’t be at. Time with them was too valuable. I imagine that that early decision has helped Cal and Zoey be the great little people they are today.

In response to my question about what makes him sad, he spoke of concern for the lasting psychological impact of coronavirus; the people at risk, and the challenges of raising kids in a pandemic. He, like so many, yearns for “normal.” In the end, this delightful, generous, funny man said that the whole world makes him sad right now … I can’t help but think that perhaps it will be people like him that bring us around, that help to heal the hurts of this world.

As a final note: Mike is a cancer survivor and a carrier of Lynch Syndrome, a genetic mutation that makes him vulnerable to multiple types of cancers. He never brought this up until after we were “done” with my interview questions, and then it was to advocate for more testing and preventative measures for others. And he got a little choked up. Not for himself. At the thought of his children, and his fear and grief for them if, at 18, they discover that they, too, are carriers of this syndrome. I imagine that he would want you, the reader of his story, to hold your loved ones close, and to be proactive about your health for the sake of those same loved ones. I thank him for the reminder he gave to me.

Jennifer Moore-Kerr is a mom, a free spirit and a barefoot dancer living in Spring Green where she can walk to the river and commune with friends. She can often be found welcoming locals and visitors alike to the Spring Green General Store where she tends the register most days. To suggest ideas for future “Bridges” columns, email jennifermrkrr2@gmail.com.