Posted noon Wednesday, July 20, 2022

Jeri Baller, a longtime dispatcher with the UW-La Crosse Police Department, is the recipient of the 2022 University Staff Excellence Award. “When you pick up the phone, you never know what it’s going to be,” Baller says of her job. “That’s what I like about it.”

Jeri Baller, longtime campus dispatcher, recognized for outstanding service

When people are lost, stuck or in trouble, the first voice they hear is often Jeri Baller’s.

For 16 years, Baller has been a dispatcher with the UW-La Crosse Police Department, responsible for answering emergency calls, nonemergency calls and every kind of call in between.

“When you pick up the phone, you never know what it’s going to be,” Baller says. “That’s what I like about it.”

Accidents. Locked doors. Dead car batteries. Baller has seen and assisted with it all — that nameless, faceless voice that helps people through difficult times, but that people often forget to thank.

That is why Baller was so moved this spring when she received a surprise visit from Chancellor Joe Gow, who announced that she had been selected for the 2022 University Staff Excellence Award. The award is given annually to a university staff member who has made outstanding contributions to campus and the broader community.

“I truly cannot express what this means to me,” Baller says. “Typically, dispatchers don’t get noticed. People don’t even know our names. To know that my coworkers nominated me for this award is extremely humbling. It is such a great honor to be recognized for the work that I do.”

Those who work closely with Baller, as well as those who have spoken with her on the phone, can attest to her cool, collected demeanor no matter the situation. In a profession that demands composure, she is a natural.

But Baller has not always been a dispatcher.

Before coming to UWL, she worked in human resources at a private company and as a teller and bookkeeper at a bank.

When it came time for a career change, she wasn’t sure what she wanted to do. All she knew was that she wanted to help people.

Countless phone calls later, there is no telling how many lives Baller has touched.

“The job of a dispatcher is unique,” says Lea Butterfield, dispatch supervisor for the UWL Police Department. “Their best work is answering the phone but also how they handle that call. This can be in times of great stress and fear but also in a simple question about who to talk to about something on campus.”

Baller's colleagues say she goes above and beyond not only with her job responsibilities, but with creating a positive work environment. “Jeri,” says Sgt. Paul Iverson, “has one of the biggest hearts I have ever seen.”

“Jeri reaches our community with her knowledge, her care and her voice,” Butterfield continues. “It is powerful and subtle. There are days people cover breaks or even the whole shift, and callers will ask, ‘Where is Jeri?’”

Scott McCullough, former chief of police at UWL, says he never received a complaint about Baller’s performance in the many years they worked together — despite the challenging and public-facing nature of her job. (In addition to police matters, Baller handles all calls to the general UWL phone line, meaning she creates many people’s first impression of the university.)

Baller is also a favorite among her colleagues, known for fostering friendships, mentoring student workers and boosting morale in the office. Last year, for example, she brought her student workers a giant Easter egg cookie.

To Baller, a family atmosphere in the workplace is not an empty cliché.

“Jeri,” says Sgt. Paul Iverson, “has one of the biggest hearts I have ever seen.”

Much has changed during Baller’s time at UWL.

Best practices evolved. Paper records became digital. Thousands of students, employees and community members have come and gone.

Through it all, Baller has begun each day by coming to work, sitting in front of the many monitors at her desk and, without fail, picking up the phone.

She loves the instant gratification of helping someone — whether it’s a first-year student trying to find their way, or a parent who simply misses their child.

“For a lot of people, I’m that mom away from home,” she says.

On days when the phone will not stop ringing, Baller admits that it can be nice to step away at day’s end and take in the silence. But it is never long before the helpful maternal impulses kick back in.

Come morning, she is back at her desk, back at her phone.

“I enjoy my job,” she says. “I enjoy talking to everyone.”