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Know Your Madisonian: Cancer survivor, mountain climber rises through Police Department ranks

December 16, 2018

Paige Valenta could be assigned many titles: cancer survivor, mountain climber, Ivy League graduate.

Now, after more than two decades of moving up through the ranks of the Madison Police Department and barely half a year as captain of the South District, the 43-year-old Valenta has been designated for promotion to assistant chief. Pending approval of the Police and Fire Commission, she will be the second woman to be named an assistant chief in the department — following Assistant Chief Sue Williams, who retired this week.

Academic pursuits took Valenta to Columbia University in New York City to study political science, with an interest in how it intersects with law enforcement.

But a battle with non-Hodgkins lymphoma derailed Valenta’s college plans, causing her to drop out and pursue a career in policing. She started as a patrol officer, became a member of the Police Department’s community policing team, and served as a detective, sergeant and detective lieutenant before moving to the South District as captain.

Valenta eventually earned a bachelor’s degree by taking classes at UW-Madison and transferring the credits to Columbia.

More recently, Valenta and her wife, who is a lieutenant with the Madison Fire Department, conquered Mount Whitney, a 14,505-foot mountain in California. Valenta grew up in Middleton and lives there now.

What drew you to law enforcement?

As a kid there was some draw naturally watching TV and seeing the exciting nature of police shows, and then going on to school, at Columbia studying political science, understanding, I think, the important role police play in society.

When did you join MPD?

Freshman year, I went out to Columbia and as you do at an Ivy League university, you join the crew team, and I did and had wonderful days of waking up at 5 a.m. to go out rowing with the crew team. But freshman year and a couple of years after that, I was diagnosed with cancer. I went through several rounds of very strong chemotherapy. I eventually had to have a bone marrow transplant when I was out there, and a doctor told me, “You have less than a 20 percent chance of surviving the next five years,” and I thought, “What do I want to do with my life if I only have a short period of time left and how do I make a difference in this world?” I thought, “This is the time to do what I always wanted to do,” and I actually dropped out of school and was very fortunate to be hired by the Police Department. I’ve never looked back.

What are some of your hobbies?

I enjoy hiking. In fact, my wife and I recently successfully climbed Mount Whitney, which is the highest summit in the lower 48 states. It was a very adventurous vacation. We trained for a couple of months. A lot of time on the treadmill with packs at Princeton Club, and it took us about 20 hours, but we managed to do it.

What is your approach to policing?

When people call the police, it’s usually because it’s the worst moment in their life, and that’s the chance and the opportunity to help the people the most is when they’re at their worst. You have that chance. That’s kind of how I’ve tried to go about my career here, one call at a time, one person at a time, one relationship at a time, to try and make this a better community, a better place to live.

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