2011 Distinguished Alumni Award Honoree
Carol Toussaint ’51 has racked up so many professional and volunteer accomplishments that even she gets a bit overwhelmed when listing them all.
She’s been a tireless advocate for women, for civic leadership, and for community service. An independent consultant, she’s also had several stints in Wisconsin state government, including serving as secretary of the Department of Local Affairs and Development and as deputy director of the Wisconsin Strategic Development Commission. Long interested in judicial system reforms, Toussaint says that the opportunity to work with Wisconsin Supreme Court justices and with two of the state’s governors were highlights of her career.
Since 1988, she’s owned Vantage Point, a lecture business that promotes networking for area women.
Toussaint was the first woman elected to the board of Wisconsin Power and Light and was the first woman president of Madison’s Downtown Rotary. And she’s lent her expertise to women’s advocacy groups as far afield as Russia. In 2004, the Madison Rotary recognized her with the Manfred Swarsensky Humanitarian Service Award, saying:
"From a time before women's lib, for organizations too numerous to mention, she has been the leader — the one who organized the organizations, found funding for great causes, sought new leaders to take over when she moved on — all in an unassuming yet powerful way — always with a positive vision for the future. This amazing skill set and personality has elevated Carol to the highest levels of business, government and community as a volunteer."
"Perhaps we might all regularly reread the 'sifting and winnowing' statement so we never forget the underpinnings of our alma mater."
At UW-Madison, Toussaint serves on the board of the University Research Park, the College of Letters & Science Pathways to Excellence program, and the Center for Journalism Ethics; and she was a founding member and served for 20 years on the UW Foundation’s Women’s Philanthropy Council.
She also served on advisory boards for the Institute on Aging, the La Follette Institute of Public Affairs, the School of Journalism and Mass Communications, the School of Business, and the Memorial Union Building Association, and as a director of the Wisconsin Alumni Association and convener of its Cabinet 99 women’s initiative. She’s been very active with the League of Women Voters and with Madison’s Overture Center since its inception.
These activities and a host of others have led to numerous awards, including an honorary degree from Edgewood College and a Distinguished Alumni Award from the UW-Madison School of Journalism.
Toussaint, who grew up in the small village of Bruce in northwestern Wisconsin, says she was first inspired to embrace civic involvement during a fourth-grade class on parliamentary procedure. She also had an “incredible” teacher for ninth-grade civics class and a role model for community service at home.
“My father was elected to the village board on the day I was born,” she said. “With the exception of a couple of years in the early 1960s, he remained engaged in local government until his death at age 85. I don’t think you’ll find too many teenagers who, as I did, read the League of Wisconsin Municipalities magazine on a regular basis!”
A further influence was Toussaint’s time working on The Daily Cardinal. As she got to know students from all over the country, she said, “I was exposed to a whole new way of thinking. In a very real way, that prepared me for [later] opportunities that came along.”
Toussaint says she is often asked if she has ever considered elective office. While “the short answer is yes,” she believes that there are other ways to make a difference in society, and she sings the praises of serving on boards.
“There are valuable skills to be learned by serving on boards and committees, whether they’re at your children’s school or [are geared towards] building a world-class arts center,” she said. “Through board service, I not only get to know faculty, staff and meet students, but strong friendships have developed with terrific alums I would not have known any other way … I am inspired by how much they care.”
Perhaps a quote from Madison historian David Mollenhoff MA’66 best sums up Toussaint’s philosophy and unique impact. Writing to thank her for meeting with someone who was seeking advice on a community project (something she does frequently), Mollenhoff said: “Over the years, you have provided sage advice to so many on so many topics that I think your company should be called ‘Community Leadership, Inc.’ and your title ‘Of Counsel.’ You have played this role for as long as I can remember, and with a splendid confluence of great skill, objectivity, and deep experience. As you look back over the career, you should realize that you nudged countless community leaders to make better, wiser, and more far-sighted decisions.”
In the fall of my sophomore year, I signed up for a session for would-be reporters for The Daily Cardinal. One of the things I learned about was the “Sifting and Winnowing” plaque and the importance of posting it on Bascom Hall. I was also instructed to memorize it. The only time that came in handy was playing charades against a zealous group who thought they would stump their opponents by “acting it out.” When, to their surprise, our team guessed it, they added the requirement that someone on the team had to be able to recite it. I could and did to the great annoyance of the person who made the suggestion, winning the game for my team and proving, once again, that you never know where obscure learning can take you.
I don’t mean to suggest that the statement is obscure, just my memorizing of it. I must have passed that class for reporters because I did become a staffer at The Daily Cardinal, where I remained through graduation. I worked with and learned from some terrific people. Many became close personal friends and colleagues in the broader community. I was proud to be asked to speak at the memorial service for John Patrick Hunter, one of those Cardinal staffers who taught me the value of “continuous and fearless sifting and winnowing by which alone the truth can be found.” I am grateful to the Board of Regents who used this statement in an 1894 report and to the Class of 1910 who had the bronze plaque affixed to Bascom Hall for all to see.
Recently I received a letter, a fund-raising letter, of course, from Emma Roller, the current Editor in Chief of The Daily Cardinal. She wrote that “I can sincerely think of no organization that has made me a critical thinker, a harder worker and an overall better person than The Daily Cardinal. I can’t imagine my college experience without it.” I agree. I sent a modest check but rather than write a letter to Emma, I chose to tell the story here where I have a larger audience.
I realize I am going to have to brush up on the famous statement as someone is sure to challenge me to recite it, with or without playing a game of charades. Perhaps we might all regularly reread the “sifting and winnowing” statement so we never forget the underpinnings of our alma mater.