Editor's note: This is the seventh in a nine-part series of stories on candidates for the Lawrence City Commission.
City Commissioner Boog Highberger is pretty sure Lawrence is exactly where he belongs.
His body told him that long ago.
It was the early 1980s and Highberger was set to graduate from Kansas University with a degree in electrical engineering. He had already accepted a job with computer giant IBM as a programmer. He was packing his bags to move to Poughkeepsie, N.Y.
Then the fever came. Doctors had no idea what was causing it, but it zapped Highberger's energy and kept him out of the classroom. It lasted for weeks and ultimately caused Highberger to miss enough class to not graduate that semester.
When Highberger called IBM to let them know that he didn't have the degree and that he wouldn't be able to take the job, the fever soon disappeared.
"I think something inside me told me that is not what I really wanted to do with my life," Highberger said. "I'm not one of those people who wanted to go to school and then move far away."
Highberger - who is one of nine candidates for the Lawrence City Commission - has been here ever since. And he's certainly done his share of activities that observers may call classic Lawrence. For example: As mayor, he chose 13 random days and officially proclaimed them as International Dadaism Month to honor the art movement that embraced chance, randomness and nonsense. As a KU student, he successfully ran for student body vice president as a member of the "Costume Party," a political organization that grew out of a street theater group. Then there was the REAL Dollar project, a system of Lawrence currency that Highberger was urging Lawrence residents to spend at local businesses rather than U.S. currency.
"I was raised to do what you think is right, no matter what other people may think," Highberger said. "My dad was pretty insistent about that. Plus, I think you've got to have a little fun."
Name: Dennis "Boog" HighbergerAge: 47Address: 1301 Vt. Profession: Attorney for the Kansas Department of Health and Environment; chief executive for GEM Farm Center, GarnettEducation: Undergraduate degree in electrical engineering from Kansas University in 1986; law degree from KU in 1992Family: Single, no childrenPast political experience: Elected to a four-year term on the City Commission in 2003. Served a one-year term as mayor beginning in April 2005.
These days, though, Highberger is working on more mainstream issues. He spends much time talking about his efforts to get Lawrence to adopt development codes that would make the city more walkable and would make it easier to build old-style neighborhoods with front porches, alleys and corner stores.
The concept is sometimes called New Urbanism. Highberger has been among its louder champions in Lawrence, even though he comes from a nonurban background.
Highberger grew up in Garnett, an agricultural community of about 3,000 people about 50 miles south of Lawrence. His family operated GEM Farm Center.
"I grew up in a place where you knew most of your neighbors and got a lot of positive feedback," Highberger said. "I learned the value of strong community there."
He also learned some tougher life lessons there. At 15 years old, Highberger broke his neck while diving into a snowbank. The accident paralyzed him from the neck down, and doctors believed he would remain paralyzed for the rest of his life. But his father came to his bedside everyday to work and massage his muscles, and Highberger eventually regained feeling. Today, he walks and moves with difficulty but does so unassisted.
Highberger, 47, eventually went back to KU and received a law degree. After a brief time in private practice, he began working as an attorney for the Kansas Department of Health and Environment more than a decade ago. He also continues to serve as the chief executive of his late father's farm implement dealership, but he said he is not actively involved in the day-to-day operations of the business.
Highberger was first elected in 2003 as part of a trio of candidates that ran under the umbrella of the Progressive Lawrence Campaign, an organization that promoted better planned growth. He brings definite philosophies on growth and government to the table.
"Although some people may not believe this, my preference is for limited government," Highberger said. "But I think there are things that the market, if left to itself, can't do or can't do right."
Sometimes, Highberger said, that includes development.
"The market is geared toward short-term individual gain, and my job as an elected official is to make sure decisions are made that give long-term values to the community," Highberger said. "There is a tension there."
Dennis 'Boog' Highberger discusses his goals as a city commission candidate
Highberger, though, insists that the anti-growth label shouldn't be applied to him.
"I'm certainly not for wild, uncontrolled growth, but I don't think we can build a wall around the city, like some people may like, and still keep the city that we all want," Highberger said.
On other issues, Highberger said:
l He would support a well-thought-out plan for a new downtown public library. But with the library's cost projected near $30 million, Highberger said, he's only comfortable moving ahead on the project if it is put to a citywide vote.
l He believes the city has made progress on improving the community's street maintenance and sewer capacity during his tenure on the commission.
The primary will be Feb. 27, when voters will narrow the field from nine candidates to six candidates. Voters will elect candidates to fill three at-large seats on the five-member City Commission when they go to the polls in the general election April 3.
Other candidates in the race are James Bush, a Lawrence minister; Jake Davis, a local musician and data entry operator; Rob Chestnut, chief financial officer for Allen Press; Mike Dever, owner of a Lawrence-based environmental consulting firm; Sam Fields, a Lawrence bail bondsman; Carey Maynard-Moody, a retired school social worker; Michael Limburg, a Lawrence forklift operator; and Commissioner David Schauner, general counsel of the Kansas National Education Association.
City commission race 2007
City commission race
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- Chamber Vision & Election 2007
- Retail stance divides field (03-27-07)
- Dever, Chestnut still hold lead in campaign finance (03-27-07)
- Candidates split on domestic registry (03-27-07)
- Outlooks on retail issues differ (03-27-07)
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- More on the 2007 City Commission race Â»