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Storytelling: Mayor Charlene Klein, City of Lake Geneva [Part One]

Updated: Feb 26

"I grew up on a farm in Illinois. When the Chicago suburbs started developing, it kind of forced all the farmers to either retire or move west. My parents moved west to a little town called Burlington, Illinois. Descendants of my great grandparents are still farming, so we’re on the sixth generation of farmers. I’m the only city slicker.

In the 1950s, my parents had a dairy farm. They transitioned to cattle and grain crops and then my father became a grower for Campbell Soup Company. We grew tomatoes. That evolved into a produce business which is still running today: Klein’s Quality Produce.

When I was little, I loved all the kittens, the puppies, and the little farm animals that were born. It was a great life. I wouldn’t trade it for anything. Being born in 1949, I saw the transition from some of the old ways of farming with horses to modern technology. I really feel fortunate, growing up in the era that I did, not only with farming but everything else. I remember when the first jet flew out of O’Hare Airport. We all ran outside to watch it go overhead as our original farm wasn’t far from the airport.

Later, I had a job as a sales manager for a big resort in the Caribbean. One of my accounts was in Lake Geneva and we went to lunch at the Geneva Inn. I lived in suburbia, near Gurnee, Illinois, and it was getting very congested. At one time I thought about moving to Washington State. It’s so pretty out there. Then I thought it’s really far from everybody. My family is mostly here. So I was at the Geneva Inn and thought, ‘this would be a nice place to live'.

This area is scenic and beautiful, but I also have realized over the years that Lake Geneva drives the most interesting cast of people and ‘characters’. From playwrights to cartoonists, inventors, and average everyday people like me. It's a really interesting dynamic of people.

When I first moved here 20 years ago, I went to a Maple Park Homeowners Association meeting. I met an elderly woman by the name of Mary Tanner. She used to live right across from the library. She had a little antique shop. My mother had passed away shortly before that, and Mary and I struck up a relationship. She became my surrogate mother of sorts. She would always say, ‘You need to be the mayor of Lake Geneva’. I would tell her, ‘Don't even suggest such a thing. It’s never going to happen’.

Then, along came the shutdown of the Hillmoor golf course property. A group of us got together, because we were adamant that the property should be preserved. We talked until we were blue in the face for 15 years and finally convinced the city that they should save it. Last year, the city bought it. It was really Hillmoor that propelled me into local politics." - Charlene Klein, Mayor, City of Lake Geneva, Wisconsin

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