Donna Knaus settles into her chair at Vevay Town Hall. Along with the usual and customary daily tasks of her job as Town Clerk of Vevay, there are also the other duties and meetings and events that she participates in because, along with being a town employee, she just loves Vevay and the people who live here.
So much so that she’s served the community for the past 36 years — but as January 1st approaches, she also sees the end of this journey. She chose not to run for a 10th term this past year, and at the beginning of the new year she’ll turn her post over to Brandi Bear, and Donna will simply begin a new journey.
A native of Patriot and a 1980 graduate of Switzerland County High School, Donna grew up on the family farm of her parents, Donald and Lulu Belle Thomas.
“I lived in Patriot for the first 18 years of my life, on a farm,” she said. “Worked harder physically the first 18 years of my life, physically, than I have the rest of it. Hard work. Wouldn’t trade it for anything, though.”
She then moved to Vevay shortly after graduating, living in an apartment just off of Main Street.
“I worked at Bakes Insurance for Jerry Smith and Bob Smith, down in the west end of town,” she said. “I actually lived in the apartment behind Bakes and rented off of Jerry and Bob. They were getting the Federal Crop Insurance when it came out, and they needed to hire someone for that. So they came knocking on my door back there and said, ‘Would you like a job with us?’ And I said, ‘Sure’. I just had to go through the back door to get to work.”
In 1983 the Democrat party asked me to run for Clerk, and I won the caucus and was elected and started in 1984. I’ve been here ever since.”
“Jeff Harsin was involved in politics here in the county, in the Democrat party, and he came and asked me if I’d run for Clerk-Treasurer, so I did,” she said.
Knaus said that Donna Hughes was the Clerk-Treasurer prior to her taking office, and Hughes has been the assistant clerk for Mary Roberts, who held the Clerk-Treasurer post for many years prior to that.
Along with that, Rhonda Griffin, longtime assistant clerk, came on board in April of 1984, and she’ll leave her post when the new year comes, as well.
“I had about the same thing,” Griffin said. “Jeff Harsin came and talked with me and said that they wanted to hire an assistant in the office. Donna hadn’t hired an assistant at that point. The town board actually hired me as the utilities clerk. I was here for 17 years, then left for 13 and then came back five and a half years ago.”
“When she left, Vicky Allen worked for me, and Vicky was here for quite awhile, and when she left, Rhonda came in one day and told me that she’d heard I was looking for somebody and she’d like to come back, so I said yes. The rest is history.”
When Knaus began her career, Vevay Town Hall was on Ferry Street, but on the west side, in a building that stood where the parking lot across from Haskell and Morrison Funeral Home is now.
“A little bitty white building,” she remembered. “It was us and the police department — which we’ve always been together — and we had a Vevay Fire Department then. They were there, too. They had their trucks in the bays in a big building that sat right next to it.”
“And there was a playground out back where the library is now,” Griffin said.
So how’s the job changed over 36 years?
“I don’t know if it’s really changed a lot,” Knaus said. “The town has grown, but as far as this office, we used to do everything by hand. We wrote out the water bills by hand, and now everything’s computerized and everything is on the computer.”
“And the people,” Rhonda said. “We used to be able to tell you pretty much where everyone lived, we pretty much knew everybody on a first name basis. No matter how old they were or young they were, we knew them.”
“It’s because of the riverboat,” Donna said. “Since the gaming casino came in in 2000, well — there’s people that we don’t even see, because a lot of people move in and they pay their bill over the phone and we never their face.”
But new residents moving in still get references to past years.
“When somebody moves into a house and I call Terry (Brindley, town utilities superintendent), I give him the address and I’ll say, you know, where Christine and Dwight used to live. That’s how we identify where places are at, because Terry has lived here all of his life. We talk about where so-and-so used to live.”
Being in the office for so long, Knaus has been the rudder that has steered the town over more than three decades, remaining the steady and experienced office holder while town council members came to office and left; as major and minor projects started and were then completed. As businesses and residents came and went.
“I’ve always been there to keep it going,” Donna said. “But I just love everybody in town. I have people who come in here and talk with me, and they don’t have anybody to talk to, so they talk to me. We hug before they leave because they need a hug.”
Along with her Clerk’s position, Knaus has served on the tourism board, the Vevay Main Street board; was one of the founding board members when a group of residents worked to restore and reopen the Historic Hoosier Theater; and when her children were in school, she was very involved in all aspects, including the PTA at different levels. We always helped Kirk down at the Wine Festival, and she’s also volunteered her time during the festival.
And it’s the Paul Ogle Riverfront Park, the site of the annual festival, that is a project that is one of the things that Knaus feels most proud of.
“The biggest and best project to me was in 1990 when Tim Swango was on the park board and we got the first Community Focus Fund grant and were able to build the park down at the river,” she said. “I think that’s one of the best things that we ever did for the community, because that park gets used all the time. It’s such a great asset to the whole county, not just the town. Everyone uses it.”
And there’s plenty of other projects that she’s proud of assisting with.
“There are so many,” she says. “When the riverboat came in, it brought the money that we needed to provide matching funds to get grants. We’ve been able to upgrade storm sewers and the sewer lines, a lot of things that have really helped the people of the town that you can’t really see, it’s all underground. We’re getting ready to do sewer upgrades next year on the west end of town, and that will involve the schools; and the east end is getting a new lift station.”
So what comes next?
Donna said that her plans are to help husband, Barry, with his delivery business — and she smiles when she says she’s going to enjoy not having to get up everyday and come to town hall by 8 a.m.
Brandi Bear, who will take over on January 1st, has been in the office learning from Knaus as she works on the transition. Donna says that it’s appropriate that the new clerk will get a new office, as town hall will move to the former Jack Sullivan Senior Citizens Center on Walnut Street sometime early in 2020.
And, as she prepares to leave, Donna Knaus feels both pride and emotion. She is proud that in the nine elections that she’s won, only once has she had an opponent in the general election, noting that she’s proud that she’ represented all people of the town.
“I guess it’s because I’ve done a good job,” she said. “I’m not bragging on myself, but I’ve always given 110-percent and I’ve always went above and beyond. If you called me and told me that you needed me to pick your water bill up, I would. I just love this town and the people. It’s emotional. I’ve cried several times in the past couple of weeks, but it’s time to start something new.”