Jennifer Whitaker (R) is retiring as the city of Warsaw human resource director. Her final day is Friday. Denny Harlan (L) is taking the position over and has been learning the job for the last several weeks. Photo by David Slone, Times-Union.
Jennifer Whitaker (R) is retiring as the city of Warsaw human resource director. Her final day is Friday. Denny Harlan (L) is taking the position over and has been learning the job for the last several weeks. Photo by David Slone, Times-Union.
Whoever does something first sets the bar for whoever follows.

The city of Warsaw’s first human resource director is retiring after almost two decades on the job but three decades as a city employee.

Jennifer Whitaker’s last day is Friday, the 13th - a day she picked “on purpose” - and she is being replaced by Denny Harlan, who has spent the last few weeks learning the ropes of the job.

In an interview with Whitaker and Harlan Tuesday, Whitaker said she originally was from Indianapolis, grew up in Michigan and came to Warsaw with her parents in the 1980s. She went to college at Vincennes University.

“I originally started my endeavor at Vincennes because I really wanted to be in the funeral services. Back then, I was told by several professors there that girls just don’t do that,” she said.

As she worked at other jobs, she was able to have good employers and mentors that taught her a lot about supervision and people skills. She was hired on by the city of Warsaw in 1992, transitioning to different departments but eventually was taking care of the personnel at the Warsaw Public Works Department.

In the early 2000s, it was a trend for municipalities to hire human resource directors to handle personnel matters.

Ernie Wiggins, the Warsaw mayor at the time, said on Tuesday, “She had been down at the street department for years. And then we finally got to the point where we needed to have an HR person to manage all of the employees. The clerk-treasurer was trying to do it, but I made the decision at the time that we needed to have someone full-time. She (Whitaker) interviewed for the position and I had experience with her, knowing her so (I hired her). Then she got involved with the HR association. She self-taught herself. She’s doing a good job. They will miss her.”

Whitaker started as the HR director in January 2004.

Wiggins said he “really appreciated” the work that Whitaker did when he was mayor.

“It took some of the work off the clerk-treasurer ... it was needed at the time,” he said.

Warsaw Mayor Joe Thallemer said, “Jennifer Whitaker was appointed the first human resources director in city of Warsaw history.  Prior to that, in her work for the city in other departments, she developed an understanding and compassion for the needs of city employees. This was demonstrated over and over in her work developing wellness programs and activities, her advocacy for fair wages and benefits, and compassion for employees and their families when they needed it. Human resource director is a very demanding job. Jennifer was a great problem solver and will be missed!”

Her favorite part of her job and the most challenging aspect of it are one and the same - the people.

“The employees. Definitely the employees,” Whitaker said. She recalled that at a recent pizza party Thallemer had for her - a small event as Whitaker is a shy person by nature and doesn’t like a lot of attention - they started retelling and remembering employees and the fun times they used to have. “It kind of brought it all back together. My fondest memories are the employees. They kept me going.”

The city has 13 different departments and each department has a separate and very important function, Whitaker said, elaborating on the challenges of a HR director. “So you are hiring a different set of skill for this position as opposed to something else. The airport is completely different from wastewater. You constantly have to keep up with that skill set. ... Just making sure that the employees are taken care of. It’s the employees that make it (fun),” she said.

Whitaker - and soon Harlan - is the sole person in the human resources department for a municipality of 225 full-time employees, 30-35 part-time employees in the summer plus the board members and elected officials.

As people have asked her what she’s planning to do in retirement, she’s been telling them she doesn’t plan to do anything other than enjoy the summer.

“I’m just going to spend time with family and friends and just kind of reconnect with everything,” Whitaker said.

Of course, if she doesn’t answer her cell phone or check her email, don’t be surprised.

“I have 30 years in. I’m very fortunate to be in a position where I can spend time now - I have a grandson I spend a lot of time with. My daughter. My family lives relatively close,” Whitaker said, noting she has several grandchildren and great-grandchildren.

Whitaker said retiring was on her mind since at least the first of this year. Her father died in 2021 “and it was a little bit of  a transition with my mom and other family members. I just kind of really got to thinking about, I’m working a lot of hours. I need to kind of take it back a notch and do some fun things.”

She gave Thallemer notice of her retirement in January, but she said he wouldn’t talk about it for several days. After 10 days of it being put off, Whitaker said she finally got Thallemer to start talking about her retirement.

She posted the job at the end of March before going on vacation for a couple weeks.

“I’ve always enjoyed human resources, so it was just kind of natural that it was something I would search for,” Harlan said. “It popped up. I know that I had heard in the past that - the last places I worked - I’ve heard Jennifer’s name and how great she was. I applied and it was a pretty quick process.”

He said he and Whitaker met a couple of times and everything just fell into place.

His first day was April 25.

Harlan was born in Warsaw and grew up in Liberty Mills, just outside of North Manchester.

He spent 26 years in the military, having signed up while he was still in high school. He deployed in 2003 with the National Guard to Iraq. After returning from there, the Guard offered him a position in recruiting.

“I was full-time National Guard for 14 years in Recruiting Command,” he said.

After retiring from the military, Harlan worked at Wildman for about three years, getting his feet wet in human resources there. He was recruited from there to a place in Elkhart where he spent two years as a general manager overseeing a factory operation.

“And then made my way back home. (My) kids are starting to get more active so I wanted to be closer to home and this was a perfect opportunity,” he said.

Harlan has five kids, with three still living at home, and five grandchildren with one on the way.

In his first three weeks with the city, he said, “I’ve been telling everyone that you can’t replace a legend. Jennifer is a legend. I learned a ton in three weeks because public sector HR is definitely different than private sector.”

Whitaker said that’s because the public sector has different laws and state statutes that have to be followed than the private sector.

“As much as I’ve learned, there’s still a lot to learn and I know that I can rely on Jennifer to answer any questions in the future,” Harlan said. “I don’t think there’s anybody that cares more for the employees of the city than Jennifer and Mayor Thallemer. Everything that they’ve talked about is to benefit our employees and take care of them the best that they can. The culture of the city, the group of employees is phenomenal. It really is.”

He said he’s excited about the challenge.