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Incoming DeKalb city manager Nicklas ‘excited’ to take job he has had before

December 14, 2018

DeKALB – Although Bill Nicklas, 70, looks for leadership inspiration from larger-than-life historical figures such as Winston Churchill, his own figure strikes a more humbling tone, quiet but confident.

“Success is never final; failure is never fatal. It is the courage to continue that counts,” reads the Churchill quote adorning the wall in the president’s office at Kishwaukee College in Malta.

Nicklas looms a little taller than the 5-foot-6 Churchill, but his self-restrained demeanor contradicts his assurance that he’s ready to take on the task at hand, a decision he said he “felt called to.”

No ‘I’ in team

Nicklas put his historian hat on Thursday as he gave an interview in the wake of his impending new (and old) role as DeKalb’s city manager.

Nicklas served in that capacity from November 1992 to August 1997, and was city manager in Sycamore from 1998 to 2011. A Thursday news release from interim City Manager Raymond Munch announced Nicklas as the selection to be formally voted in Tuesday. The announcement comes after a tumultuous year for the city, during which the manager role has been occupied by four people.

“None of us are perfect,” Nicklas said, “When you fail, what do you do? Do you retire? Do you go away? I think if you have the courage, you continue.”

Sitting next to Kishwaukee College President Laurie Borowicz, whom he called “a dear friend,” Nicklas emphasized more than once during the interview that success cannot stand alone, and hopes to be a part of a team of individuals who will drive the city of DeKalb forward.

“Service is the core that connects my work in my adult life,” Nicklas said. “I see some challenges before the City Council in DeKalb, and I’ve had experience in helping to wrestle with similar challenges in the past, so I think I can bring those skills to bear pretty quickly.”

Nicklas will finish his role as special assistant to the president and executive director of the Kishwaukee Foundation through the end of the month and is set to jump into his new city manager role Jan. 1, after the City Council votes to approve his hire Tuesday.

Mayor Jerry Smith said he expects the vote in favor to be unanimous. He said the decision to name Nicklas as city manager was “frankly, an easy one,” and Nicklas comes with “a proven track record.”

“I don’t think anybody expects a quick fix,” Smith said Thursday. “But what [Nicklas] is going to quickly be able to do is have a working knowledge and grasp of what this city faces. I have every confidence he’ll be able to lead us forward.”

Peeling back the curtain

A fiercely private person who prefers to talk shop over life, Nicklas calls himself a “workaholic,” and said his late wife was one, too. She died of pancreatic cancer nine years ago, but Nicklas was able to become close to her three children while they were married. Although they all live in different parts of the country, Nicklas said he enjoys being “Pop Pop” to his seven grandchildren.

“I don’t have anything to keep me home,” Nicklas said. “But I still have an engine in me. DeKalb is where I grew up; it’s in my heart. I see some things that can be changed, and I want to participate in that process.”

Although he grew up in Pennsylvania, Nicklas moved to DeKalb when he was 21 to go to graduate school at Northern Illinois University, where he received a master’s degree and a doctorate in history. His extensive executive-level experience also extends to NIU leadership, where he worked from 2011 to 2014.

Nicklas said he put his name in the hat “late in the game,” and came to the decision to take on city manager with “very mixed feelings,” because he has developed a close working relationship with Borowicz.

“[Nicklas] has really been beside me all the way,” Borowicz said. She said Nicklas’ departure leaves a hole that she won’t easily be able to fill.

“He’s really been a champion for the cause, and is a very dedicated and loyal employee.”

Let’s talk shop

Nicklas looks at his city of DeKalb task-at-hand as exciting, rather than being wrought with pressure.

“I feel excitement,” Nicklas said. “There are challenges to be sure, but these are going to be wrestled with our partners. It’s not possible to have good policy if you’re fighting other taxing bodies.”

He will hit the ground running in his old stomping grounds in January, and has already identified a few specific goals, including addressing the budget deficit. As city manager, he said he will be held the “most accountable.”

“I have to very quickly get to know the council, what their interests are, what their priorities are,” Nicklas said, who hopes to give a public and detailed report on city manners within the first 30 days as city manager.

“I think most people would agree, we need to get away from the death of a thousand cuts that seems to happen on the last couple months of the calendar year,” Nicklas said. “It dulls morale internally. Externally, it raises questions about does the council know what the next best step is? Especially as there is occasionally conflicting information, as reports and numbers change, that doesn’t inspire confidence.”

Contract terms

As a stipulation for taking on the role, Nicklas will be moving from Sycamore and is already planning on having a house built in DeKalb. He’s required to live in DeKalb within a year of his Jan. 1 start date.

He will make $150,000 a year, with another $3,000 in annual allowances, and the city will pay $8,600 toward his insurance each year.

The contract is at-will, and Nicklas will get 20 vacation days and 12 sick days each year.

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