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Meet 2022 Forward Award Recipient Anthony Heddlesten ’07

A Minnesota native, Heddlesten initially studied aerospace engineering. But inspired toward an environmental career, he transferred to UW–Madison, where he also found a new home team.

August 02, 2022
Forward Award
Anthony Heddlesten '07

Riverdale, Iowa
Mayor,
City of Riverdale
Environmental Engineer, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers
UW Major:
Civil and Environmental Engineering

Riverdale, Iowa — population nearly 400. But only from dusk till dawn.

“The town just totally changes from day to night,” says Mayor Anthony Heddlesten. “There’s lots going on that a normal little city wouldn’t have to worry about.”

Elected mayor in 2021 after four years as a city councilman, Heddlesten knows all about his small town’s big-city problems.

There are few visitors overnight, but he says daytime goings-on here attract more than 20,000 people who are on their way to high school, community college, railroads, one of the nation’s largest aluminum rolling mills, and federal research at a nearby landfill system.

“I know landfills aren’t super exciting to most people, but I’m a civil engineer,” Heddlesten says.

Serving as mayor is Heddlesten’s part-time gig. His “real job,” he says, is serving the nation as chief of the civil and environmental engineering department for the Rock Island District of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. He’s on point when local communities face environmental challenges they can’t solve on their own.

“If it’s a really, really big problem, that’s when you come to the federal government,” Heddlesten says. “The Corps gets to deal with the biggest, scariest, craziest things.”

Since 2008, Heddlesten’s duties have included levee repairs, management of hazardous waste, and environmental stewardship, such as restoring riverfront habitats and retrofitting a dam with hydroelectric power.

Over the last decade of devastating U.S. weather disasters, Heddlesten has also responded to calls for help. He built emergency levees in Fargo, North Dakota, and distributed meals, water, and ice to people in Louisiana following Hurricane Isaac. He’s also served as an emergency-management chief and lead engineer for levee repairs across the upper Midwest, where river towns are still recovering from damage caused by record flooding in 2019.

A Minnesota native, Heddlesten initially studied aerospace engineering. But inspired toward an environmental career, he transferred to UW–Madison, where he also found a new home team.

“I said, 'I’ll tell you what, guys, whoever wins this game between Minnesota and Wisconsin, that’s who I’ll root for from now on,'” says Heddlesten, recalling his big bet on the 2004 Border Battle, which the Badgers won 38–14. “I picked the absolute best time to make that decision.”

Today, he’s “100 percent a Badger fan” and a proud Quad Cities representative of the WAA: Heart of Illinois Chapter. As a UW student, he interned for Chippewa County, helping to restore the Duncan Creek watershed (the source of water for Leinenkugel’s beer, he notes), and discovered his calling to public service.

“Profits didn’t matter; you didn’t have to sell anything,” Heddlesten says. “You’re just working in your community to try to make it a better place.”

In hopes of making Riverdale a better place, Heddlesten has literally moved listening to the top of his mayoral agenda — city council meetings now begin with time for public comment.

“Our goal here should be how we can all work together to effect positive change,” Heddlesten says. “You can come in here and talk about whatever you want, but you’ve got to be polite and respectful of other people. Maybe that’s my legacy.”

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