Home Academy From Dropout to Drummer to Dane County Exec, Joe Parisi Rises Above

From Dropout to Drummer to Dane County Exec, Joe Parisi Rises Above


Academy Sponsors Spring2017He was a high school dropout. He was a drummer in a band. He is Dane County Executive Joe Parisi. “I never had a grand plan to be involved in politics,” says Parisi, “but then sometimes life unfolds in ways you don’t see coming.”

As Dane County Executive, Joe Parisi’s responsibilities include managing 30 departments such as the airport, the zoo, the parks, highways and human resources. He focuses on human resources, helping senior citizens, people with disabilities, and helping people find employment. Within the human resources department, Parisi places an emphasis on the community’s access to opportunity to succeed.

A bearded Joe Parisi, second from right, in the 1980s
A bearded Joe Parisi, second from right, in the 1980s. Photo courtesy Wisconsin Historical Society.

“When I was younger, high school just never grabbed my attention or my imagination,” says Parisi, “But I also didn’t think I was very smart.” With his desire to “be out in the world,” he dropped out of high school and established a career as the drummer in Madison’s longstanding local band, Honor Among Thieves.

“It was something I enjoyed very much but it came to a point that I just…wasn’t interested in doing it anymore,” recalls Parisi. Regretting his choice in dropping out of high school, he reached out to Omega School, a program designed to help individuals obtain their GED/HSED. Parisi said the patient and caring people at Omega School believed in him and showed him that with a bit of focus, he could do well. “And then I did very well in college. Kind of to my surprise,” says Parisi.

With the support and encouragement from Omega School, Parisi continued his education at Madison College. He questioned his own ability when he entered Madison College, but found the one on one environment accommodating. Parisi recollects having an english teacher who took the time to give him constructive feedback on his papers. “And I learned, because he gave me a chance. He showed me he cared,” states Parisi.  

At the age of 28, Parisis was going to Madison College part time and working. With the equivalent credits of a college junior, he transferred to UW-Madison, which he then graduated at age 30 with a Bachelor’s degree in Sociology.

Following his passion for different issues, Parisi got a job at the capital working as a legislative aid. “I always thought I’d be working behind the scenes,” says Parisi, “and (then) the Dane County Clerk office…was open and some friends urged me to run for it, and I did, and I won a county wide office.”

During his first term as Dane County Clerk, Parisi began volunteering with Operation Fresh Start, a resource to youths and young adults needing a second chance at education and job training. His decade long devotion to Operation Fresh Start helped him see the potential in “kids who maybe a lot of people had kind of written off and it really grew (his) passion for working with people who were in similar situations,” Parisi says. He ran for state assembly to work more directly on issues he cared about, holding office from 2004 to 2010. Parisi was elected as county executive in 2011 and is currently focused on providing mental health services to local schools.

Joe Parisi’s challenge to stay engaged in a traditional high school environment did not stop him from pursuing a college education. He found a community that was dedicated to helping him succeed, and now he’s dedicating himself to helping the community have opportunities to succeed. Parisi states, “Don’t look at how you came up or what you’ve been through, if it’s been challenging, as a detriment…see your challenges as strengths…Use what you know and what you’ve learned to help other people, because the ultimate reward in life is being in a position where you have the ability to help other people.”

This profile was produced by a student journalist in the Madison365 Academy. To learn more and to support our educational programs, visit madison365.org/academy.