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Article posted: 12/28/2013 8:00 AM

Weren't you the mayor? Former leaders talk about time since leaving office

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When hundreds of jubilant Arlington Heights residents gathered at North School Park for the town's annual Christmas tree lighting a few weeks ago, Arlene Mulder was among them.

But for the first time in 20 years, she wasn't there as the town's mayor.

She was just another face in the crowd, checking out the pretty lights with her grandkids.

"I got to see it from a different perspective," Mulder recalled. "I got to see what our citizens had been seeing. It was magical. It was just magical."

Mulder stepped down as mayor in the spring. So did Winfield's Deborah Birutis, St. Charles' Don DeWitte, Wauconda's Mark Knigge and Mundelein's Kenneth H. Kessler, among others. Some lost re-election bids; some chose not to run again.

The Daily Herald caught up with these five ex-mayors to find out what they've been doing since leaving office.

Several are still in government service, serving on local committees or with transit-related agencies. A few have launched new -- and very different -- careers.

All seem content.

Deborah Birutis

One term as a Winfield trustee and one term as Winfield's mayor were enough for Birutis. She didn't run this spring, citing an ongoing power struggle with the board.

She was replaced by Erik Spande, a trustee and a political ally.

The 57-year-old Birutis now works as the director of finance and administration for St. John the Baptist Catholic Church and school in Winfield. She took the job a few months before stepping down as mayor.

"I decided I wanted to help my community in other ways," Birutis said.

Working closely with the parish's head pastor, the Rev. Tom Cargo, and school Principal Mickey Tovey, Birutis oversees the parish administration, finances and human resources issues.

She loves it.

"I am very blessed to be working with people who have the same spirituality as I do," she said. "And I'm learning more about spirituality and God than I ever (have)."

Birutis left behind a village board that's deeply divided and has been chastised by DuPage County prosecutors for violating the Open Meetings Act twice in the last year.

When asked if she misses the mayor's office, she responded with a quick "no."

"I like doing new things in life," Birutis explained. "My path in life has always been an adventure, and I never know where it may lead."

Don DeWitte

After he stepped down as St. Charles' mayor this spring, folks occasionally asked DeWitte how he spends his Monday nights, now that he doesn't have to attend city council meetings.

"I tell people I finally get to see the kickoffs on 'Monday Night Football,'" DeWitte said.

DeWitte was the city's mayor for eight years. Before that, he served 12 years as an alderman.

That's a lot of missed kickoffs.

DeWitte opted not to run for re-election this year, paving the way for Alderman Ray Rogina to succeed him.

"As the old saying goes, change can be a good thing," said DeWitte, 59, a vice president with Wine Sergi Insurance in Naperville. "After 20 years, it just seemed like a good time to step away from municipal government."

But he wasn't done with government work.

In September, DeWitte was named Kane County's latest representative to the Regional Transportation Authority.

"That has proved to be a very interesting challenge," DeWitte said. "The dollars are significant. You're talking billions of dollars being funneled (through the RTA)."

Not to mention a constituency that grew from less than 34,000 to millions of public-transportation users.

"It can be a little bit overwhelming," DeWitte said.

He's also enjoying time with his wife, Diane. Plans to visit family in the southern U.S. and a trip to Europe are in the works.

"We are just now starting the process of spreading our wings to take advantage of this newfound free time," DeWitte said.

Mark Knigge

Knigge hasn't dropped out of the public spotlight since losing his bid for a second term as Wauconda's mayor in April.

He can usually be found at village hall on Tuesday nights, sitting in the audience as his successor, Frank Bart, leads the village board through their agenda.

Often accompanied by his wife, Monica, Knigge occasionally asks questions about village issues when it comes time for public comment. More often than not, he shakes hands with residents who still treat him as if he's mayor.

His decade of elected service is over, but working a crowd still comes naturally to the 65-year-old Knigge.

"It was very exciting," he said of his political career, which included stints on the park district and village board. "I enjoyed every minute of it."

Knigge has continued serving the public, just not in an elected capacity. He remains active with an advisory panel that's been planning the long-awaited extension of Route 53 north in Lake County.

He's also a member of a Fremont Township committee that's trying to identify old wells and to ensure they're properly sealed to protect drinking water supplies.

Lately, his attention has been on grandson Conner Knigge, who was born Nov. 13.

"It's been a while since we've had a baby in the family," Knigge said.

Arlene Mulder

Mulder, 69, elected not to seek a sixth term as Arlington Heights' mayor. She was succeeded by Tom Hayes, who had served on the village dais as a trustee since 1991.

Mulder wrestled with whether to retire for 13 months before announcing her decision in September 2012. She doesn't regret it.

"My husband is getting to see me," she said of the very understanding Al Mulder. "I've never seem him smile so much. He's just happy that I'm home."

The former Niles West High School teacher and athletic coach isn't done with public service, however.

Mulder is a member of the Metra board, although she's said she'll step down when her term ends in June 2014.

She continues to lead the O'Hare Noise Compatibility Commission, a group dedicated to reducing aircraft noise in the neighborhoods surrounding the busy airport.

"I've learned more than I ever wanted to know about aircraft," she said.

Kenneth H. Kessler

Since leaving the mayor's office in Mundelein, the 49-year-old Kessler has continued working as a clinical psychologist and a professor of psychology at Roslyn Franklin University in North Chicago.

He's also added "farmer" to his resume, having acquired acres near Harvard. Teaming with his wife, Elizabeth, Kessler grows hay on part of the site and is restoring the rest of it to natural prairie.

It's a particularly fitting activity for Elizabeth Kessler, the executive director of the McHenry County Conservation District.

"We've always wanted to be more in the country," Kenneth Kessler said. "This is a way of being in the country but still being close enough to tend to family business."

Kessler served two terms as mayor and didn't pursue a third. He was succeeded by Steve Lentz, who had been a trustee.

Kessler said he didn't want to be one of those mayors who stagnates in office or overstays his welcome and gets voted out.

"Quite frankly, after the eight years, I had gotten my list of things accomplished and then a few (more) things," Kessler said.

Still, he admitted missing public service "a little bit here and there."

"But quite honestly, I've been so busy since then," Kessler said. "It's freed me up to do a lot of things that otherwise I wouldn't have been able to do."

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