Steve Preston was between meetings in Puerto Rico when he called The Gazette for a pre-arranged interview Wednesday.

The former secretary of Housing and Urban Development and administrator of the Small Business Administration is a Janesville native, a graduate of Parker High School.

He’s consulting on a rebuilding project in the U.S. island territory through the Rockefeller Foundation. It’s a realm he worked in through his two government jobs during the George W. Bush administration.

Preston’s expertise in government, private finance and most recently running two companies has led him to a new job.

Starting Jan. 14, Preston will take over as CEO of Goodwill Industries International. It’s a job that combines his skills in business and government, and he seemed excited about it.

The local Goodwill stores are controlled by 160 member organizations around the globe, Preston said. He will head up an umbrella organization that works across this network of affiliates to support them and works with federal agencies and foundations, he said.

The affiliates have a common mission: to help people who have difficulties in joining the labor force, Preston continued.

“I’m a strong believer that employment gives us dignity, gives us purpose, gives us a sense of connection that all go beyond the basic financial benefits of having a job,” he said.

Goodwill’s programs are known for helping people with disabilities, but they also target others with job challenges, such as those coming out of prison, veterans, troubled youth and senior citizens who want to work, he said.

Preston still has one of his five children living at home. He’ll be moving the family from Chicago to Rockville, Maryland, near Washington, D.C., for the Goodwill job.

Preston said the special thing about working in government was using his business skills to focus on a clear mission and help people directly.

With Goodwill, he’ll have a similar situation, he said, in helping people find their ways to a sustainable future.

Preston maintains contacts with the federal government. He hosted a gathering of former HUD secretaries for the incoming HUD secretary, Ben Carson, when Carson began his tenure in 2017.

He did the same for President Barack Obama’s first HUD secretary, Shaun Donovan, he said.

Preston declined to talk politics, but he did talk about the political climate.

“I’m deeply concerned about the increasing polarization in the country. … I just wish very much that we would come together more as a country and realize we have so much more in common than what separates us. … We’ve got big problems to solve, so we need to come together. I wish we were doing more of that.”

Asked if he has any advice for fellow Janesville native Paul Ryan, who is leaving his government job next month, Preston said he applauds Ryan for taking the time to spend with his wife and children.

“And I applaud (him) for serving the country with all his heart and energy. … And don’t leave public life. We need him. He’s the real deal, he really is,” Preston added.

Preston said he attended his high school reunion a few years ago, and each time he visits Janesville, “I’m reminded about what a great place I’m from.”

“I couldn’t believe, after 40 years, I had an immediate connection with people I hadn’t seen. … They are such good, solid people who care about their community, their families, their relationships. That’s what the best communities in the country are about. It’s about supporting each other.

“We’re so divided in this country right now, we have to remind ourselves about being part of such a great community.”

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