Each week, we offer a Q&A with a local personality. Today, 47-year-old Urbana resident KATE BRICKMAN LEVY, an executive assistant to the mayor and city administrator, chats with staff writer Paul Wood. She's also deputy local liquor commissioner. She's a deep believer in giving back to the city and also loves Buck Owens.
Where did you grow up?
I grew up in rural Wisconsin on a little 2-acre farmette about 9 miles from town; one older brother, my dad, a logger, and my mom, a bookkeeper at the Pamida.
Do you have any funny family stories?
In the '70s, the two channels on our TV were for watching "The Lawrence Welk Show" and "Hee Haw" on Saturday nights. They were on opposite stations at the same time, so we switched channels at commercial breaks. The TV broke by 1982 (probably by spinning the dial really super-fast to not miss a second of Buck Owens). My brother, Joe, and I then turned to our parents' record album collection and discovered the Smothers Brothers. We quickly learned all the routines — he being Little Dicky Smothers, me taking the part of Tommy — and started performing for our family and friends whether they asked for it or not. Pretty sweet that we got to take Dad and Mom to see them at Big Top Chautauqua in Washburn, Wis., about 10 years ago. Joe and I provided accompaniment from the audience once we got there, though we were not formally recognized.
What brought you here to Urbana and to work for the city?
Once I finished my master's work at the University of Illinois-Springfield, and an internship with Illinois EPA, I took a part-time position with the city. I was with public works from 2005 to 2018 as an administrative assistant at the front desk, and last year I was hired by the mayor as her executive assistant. Since then, we now have a city administrator who I also support, and I am designated as the deputy local liquor commissioner.
How do you like working for Mayor Diane Marlin and City Administrator Carol Mitten?
I am truly humbled to be involved in this exciting time of transition within the city and to work with two leaders who embrace and have empathy for the realities of the structural budget deficit that we are facing. I find it courageous and highly ethical to be so transparent about the situation, and to then act accordingly instead of taking the easy way out and either turning a blind eye to the problems or simply placing blame and never attempting to correct.
What does transparency mean to you?
When I use the word transparency, to me it means more than simply overwhelming the public with a bunch of information. That's not transparency; that's just busy work. These two women really put themselves out there by making a point to explain the information, to both employees and residents, behind the difficult decisions and choices they are making today for Urbana's future. And, that is only one of the reasons I hold them both in such high regard.
You continue serving the community outside of your work hours. What attracts you to volunteering?
I have always had a great desire to contribute to the common good, and the best part about volunteering is that most of the time you can just show up and help. I think we too easily fall into the habit of expecting that someone else is taking care of the problems, issues, concerns and hardships that our neighbors face. But, this is not the work of "the few," it is the work of many. You don't need a reason to help people, and I really think that extending a hand to others is one of the finest gifts you can give yourself.
You can mentor with C-U One to One. Clean out your closets for Salt & Light. Build a home with Habitat. Tutor at Dublin Street Church of Christ. Donate an auction item for Bunny's MDA Bash. Be a Scout Troop Leader. Make PB&J sandwiches for the CU Canteen Run. Help during Boneyard cleanup. Pass out food at the Stone Creek Church Big Give. Rake your elderly neighbor's yard. The opportunities are endless.
You spent 12 years in the Army Reserve. Where was the most memorable place you served and why?
Toward the end of the Guatemalan Civil War in 1996, I was assigned to Joint Task Force Timberwolf in Jutiapa to assist in construction of a base camp. Serving on that task force was memorable in two ways, the first being that I was given such a great responsibility as a lower ranking specialist to coordinate the convoy and delivery of all military equipment from Guatemala City, through the mountains, to basically a barren landscape with no infrastructure. More importantly, my time there helped me to learn and understand that the military has many missions. Often we think that it's simply to defend, fight and protect U.S. interests. But the military also provides rescue operations, medical assistance in impoverished areas, food and humanitarian relief, policing in volatile areas, and the list goes on. To be a part of that was so rewarding.
Do you have a favorite vacation spot?
Well, I get lonesome for the bayou and try to spend at least a week each year down in New Orleans. It's so much like a longtime friend at this point. My folks and my brother usually make the trip with me, and we try to stay in a different part of the city each time. See what's going on there, get a feel for the neighborhoods. We do have our favorite spots that we like to get to each time. There's a local bar in Tremé with an unforgettable jazz brunch. A favorite coffee shop over on Verret Street in Algiers. Always like to grab a bag of beignets (three-quarters of the bag full of powdered sugar) and walk the riverfront in the early morning when the fog is lifting. This last New Year's Eve we spent time at Mid-City Rock 'n' Bowl listening to Tab Benoit, a favorite blues musician of mine.
What is your favorite book ever?
"Poland" by James Michener. To humanize history the way in which Michener did is such a great gift. This was definitely the book that turned me on to historical fiction, my favorite genre. It was also a fantastic primer to read before I went to study and live in Eastern Europe and Poland in the early 2000s, and I have since re-read it at least a dozen times.
What would you order for your last meal?
My first answer to this question is always a sandwich made with crusty rye bread, braunschweiger and thick, cold butter, with a glass of milk. But, if I could bend the rules on that, I would choose a mid-1980s after-church Christmas Eve meal at my mom's childhood home, with Grandpa Floyd's stovetop cocoa, some fresh deep-fried rosettes, my Uncle Tom's homemade wine and 20 to 30 of us packed into that always-enough-room-for-whoever-is-there 850 square feet of love.
What's one of the happiest memories of your life?
I entered a regional songwriting contest when I was 14 or 15. I was just a few years into guitar lessons at that point and spent a lot of my time singing, writing and pressing play and record on my little tape recorder. I think I got an "honorable" mention for that Memorex cassette I sent in. I can't even remember the song. But, they played it on the local radio station, and my Grandma Lavon heard it and she made me feel like I had won record of the year. I still carry that feeling with me today.