WILMORE — As city clerk and treasurer of this small Jessamine County town for 33 years, Colleen Brandenburg was satisfied to play a supporting role to Mayor Harold Rainwater and the six-member council.
"I've always heard, 'Make your boss look good, and you look good,'" Brandenburg said. "And he's always been so supportive of me, too."
But Brandenburg, 79, has been getting some attention since she made it known that she intends to retire. A retirement party was held for her Friday, but the mayor has asked her to stay on a few more weeks during a transition period.
Rainwater was the state's youngest mayor when he took office in 1976; he is now the longest-serving mayor in Kentucky. When he became mayor, Rainwater said, his father gave him this advice: Surround yourself with people who are smarter than you, and get out of the way.
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He followed that advice in hiring Brandenburg.
"I'm really grateful I had the opportunity to bring her on board and get out of her way and empower her to do her job," Rainwater said.
That policy paid off with clean independent audits year after year, he said.
"I've never worried about the money being managed well," Rainwater said. "In fact, people say occasionally, 'If I had investments, I'd like for her to manage my money.'"
Wilmore, population 6,100, is best known for Ichthus, the annual Christian music festival, and its largest employers: Asbury University; Asbury Theological Seminary; and Thomson-Hood Veterans Center, the first nursing home for veterans in Kentucky. Some might compare it to Mitford, N.C., the fictional small town that Jan Karon described in a series of popular novels. Brandenburg said she wouldn't want to live anywhere other than Wilmore.
"I love Wilmore, and I don't want anybody talking (bad) about Wilmore," she said. "It's kind of like your family. You can fuss with your family all you want to, but you don't want anybody else to say anything."
Wilmore police Chief Steve Boven described Brandenburg as a wonderful friend to the city and its citizens.
"The mayor runs the city, and the council makes the fiscal decisions from week to week, but Colleen runs the day-to-day operation," Boven said. "She's the go-to person. She's the one who controls the finances, and if she says you can do it, you can do it, and if she says you can't, you can't. She's very frugal. She makes sure that whatever is spent is spent right."
During Friday's retirement party, Boven presented Brandenburg with a certificate that named her an honorary police chief.
"You've been telling us what to do for so long, you might as well have the honor," Boven told her.
Brandenburg has taken her job seriously, but she has on at least one occasion demonstrated a mischievous streak. This happened perhaps a dozen years ago, when Assistant Chief John Conway, who died in 2009, had a new police uniform delivered to city hall.
"So I got my needle and thread and sewed together one leg (of the pants), and I just put it back in the packet," Brandenburg recalled. "And he took it home, and when he went to put his trousers on, I think he fell all over the room."
Said Boven, laughing: "He just about broke his neck. He was a practical joker himself, and he got one played back on him."
Brandenburg was born in Fayette County, and her family moved to Jessamine County in 1941; they raised tobacco and corn. Brandenburg's graduating class from Wilmore High School had about 25 members.
During the late 1950s, Brandenburg worked at Wilmore Bank, which was in a building across the street from today's city hall. There she made it through two robberies (the culprits in both were caught). She still speaks vividly about how the robber in one "gave me a bag to fill it up, and it didn't take me long to fill mine up, because I was standing up there with the gun."
She joined city government in 1978, when the annual budget was less than $50,000 and there were only three employees. Today, Wilmore has a budget of $4.5 million and about 30 full-time employees.
About 15 years ago, someone asked Brandenburg to run for mayor. Her answer: "No way."
"I would never run against Harold to start with, if I even had any intentions to start with," she said. "But I didn't want that. I like government, but I don't like to be in a position where you have to make decisions. Of course, in my job, I have to make decisions, but nothing like him."
Brandenburg has no set plans for retirement other than to continue doing what she likes — reading novels, working in her yard and traveling with her three sisters.
As for her wishes for Wilmore, Brandenburg hopes the city continues to manage its growth.
"I hope we don't grow too fast," she said. "I don't want it to stay like this, either, but I don't want it to change a whole lot."