Dedicated to Public Service: Valerie Salmons, '74, M.P.A. '77, Celebrates the 60th Anniversary of NIU's Master of Public Administration Program
By Tony Scott
Valerie Salmons, ’74, M.P.A. ’77, wanted to be a journalist when she first came to NIU, earning her bachelor’s degree in journalism before working for newspapers out of college.
But she soon felt that public service was her calling.
“Journalism, for me, was a passive activity,” she said. “You looked at what other people did and tried to write about it as honestly as possible. I covered local government exclusively, and I reached a point where I was asking questions like, ‘Yeah, but why wouldn’t you do it this way?’ or ‘If you did it this way, would you save money for the public?’ I wasn’t getting any kind of quotes from that kind of thing, so I just decided I wanted to do it myself.”
Salmons went on to have a decades-long career as a municipal administrator, including 35 years as the village administrator for the Village of Bartlett, Illinois, from 1982 until her retirement in 2017. She was also involved in government statewide as a member of the Illinois Law Enforcement Training and Standards Board for 32 years and its chairman in 1995 and 1996, appointed by six different governors.
Many of the lessons she learned from her professors in the Master of Public Administration program at NIU, including James Banovetz, she took with her and used during her lengthy career. The M.P.A. program marks its 60th anniversary during the 2023-2024 school year, and Salmons is one of the many leaders in local government it has graduated during its existence.
“The professors didn’t just talk about government structure, they talked about integrity, and they talked about good government, what makes good government,” she said. “So we all came out of those classes armed with the notion that we at least knew what our society and our citizens expected. They talked about citizen participation and gave us a solid grounding of that.”
Salmons grew up in Rockford, Illinois, the youngest child with two brothers. When she was looking at colleges, she knew NIU had a good journalism program and the campus excited her.
“It was a big school with lots going on, and I liked that there were diverse things happening on campus,” she said.
After graduating with her bachelor’s degree, she worked for Lakeland Publishers in Grayslake, Illinois, and then the DeKalb Daily Chronicle before deciding to change careers and applying to the NIU M.P.A. program.
“Northern had a great program, and I had the opportunity to study under some legendary professors,” she said.
Banovetz, who founded the M.P.A. program and was a leader in the department for decades, in particular was inspiring, she said.
Salmons also praised professor Kurt M. Thurmaier, the current chairman of the Department of Public Administration, with whom she worked with on a number of committees.
“Kurt has a real heart," Salmons said. "He is a really great person, so to be able to work with him as a professor and have him as a friend, I feel very honored.”
During her time studying in the program, she attained an internship for the Village of Deerfield, where she gained a variety of experience, including grant writing.
“The staff was so supportive of this poorly dressed college kid who came in every morning, and I just learned so much and worked closely with them,” she said.
After her master's graduation she was hired as assistant city manager in Decatur, Illinois. She credits the city manager at the time, Les Allen, for being an inspiring mentor.
“He was an amazing city manager,” she said of Allen. “He was tough, he taught me a lot and gave me lots of opportunities to go out and trip myself up if I needed to.”
Allen encouraged her to join organizations like the International City/County Management Association and its Illinois chapter, where she learned to network and gain insight from managers and administrators from all over the world.
At one point, she served as the international organization’s regional vice president. In 2017, she received the Illinois chapter’s Robert B. Morris Achievement Award, its lifetime achievement award.
“I really got to know the city manager community, not only locally but internationally,” she said.
In 1982 she was hired for Bartlett and enjoyed her time as village administrator there, as the town grew from 13,000 in population to more than 50,000 in the 35 years of her tenure.
“They were a great village board,” she said.
During her time in Bartlett, she said it was important for her to engage with residents, which is something she learned from her professors at NIU.
“I think we all understood that good government has a good structure, and that we talk to residents,” she said. “I think it’s important that we never forget how somebody’s cracked sidewalk is really very important and being able to pay attention to that. The citizens will not only come away feeling good about it, but feeling like they were heard.”
As an NIU alumna, Salmons continues to be involved at her alma mater, including as a member of the NIU Alumni Association Board of Directors.
Salmons has also been involved as an alumna of the M.P.A. program, serving on and chairing the program’s advisory board. Ten years ago, she chaired the program’s 50th anniversary committee, an experience she described as "such a wonderful way to celebrate 50 years of education that turned out so many fine professional managers."
“I like meeting other alumni and giving back to the university, helping the students, and continuing to improve the university and its operations,” she said. “I’m very proud of that.”