Leader Blues

Friday, June 26, 2009

TOP STORY >> End of an era

Jacksonville says goodbye
to Mayor Tommy Swaim


Story by
RICK KRON

Photos by
DAVID SCOLLI

Hundreds of people from around the state gathered Thursday night to see Jacksonville Mayor Tommy Swaim and his wife Judy off into retirement.

The event, sponsored by the chamber of commerce, was at the Jacksonville Community Center, which was one of the first major building projects tackled by the mayor 15 years ago and still considered one of Jacksonville’s jewels.

The evening of food, fun, hellos and goodbyes included speeches from old bosses, local politicians and even the vice mayor from Fort Smith, a hilarious videotape of Swaim looking for work at Walmart, Wendy’s, Little Caesar’s and other areas about town after he retires on Tuesday, and the presentation of a fishing boat, motor and trailer for the mayor to enjoy during his retirement.

Banker Larry Wilson—who was on the city council with Swaim before he became mayor and stayed on the council for about 15 years afterward—told the crowd that when Swaim took over the mayor’s office, the city “was in dire financial straits.”

“Let me you tell you, every payday around here was exciting,” Wilson said.

“And a new evil entered in the name of Vertac. Tommy thought he could have it licked in two years. He missed,” Wilson said, laughing.

It took Swaim and the city 12 years to clean up the Superfund site that put Jacksonville on the national stage in a negative light.

Activist Ralph Nader came to town to stir up everyone into “a lather with misinformation.”

“We even had misguided citizens march on the governor’s mansion carrying a casket and implying we were killing people,” Wilson said. “It was a very difficult time. But Tommy remained steadfast and went toe-to-toe with state and federal agencies to get the cleanup done in a safe and complete manner.”

Wilson said the key to the mayor’s success is his leadership skills. “His greatest attribute is the example he sets for other employees. He is usually the first one in the office, hardly takes a lunch and then its usually just a candy bar at his desk, took very few days off and hardly went on vacation. He wanted to be a good steward for the city,” Wilson said.

Wilson said the city is completely opposite from what it was when Swaim first took office.

“Many cities in the state are now suffering financially, and we are in great shape. Thanks to the mayor,” he said, adding, “Enjoy your retirement, but when you get tired, we’ll find you a job back here.”

Realtor Doug Wilkinson, the mayor’s boss before he got into politics, said he remembered back in the late 1970s that he and Swaim would be sitting around griping about the city’s problems and wondering what could be done. That’s when Swaim decided to run for the city council and then for mayor.

“I was losing my best salesman, and I had mixed emotions when he decided to run for mayor, but the city needed him more than I did. So I was the first to jump on his bandwagon,” Wilkinson said.

Alderman Bob Stroud said Swaim was not a politician, but a technician. “A technician,” Stroud said, “is a person skilled in the technique of an art or work—and Tommy was skilled in using the office of the mayor to make this city better for you and me.”

Don Zimmerman, executive director of the Arkansas Municipal League, gave the crowd an example of how much Swaim loved Jacksonville.

“He could have been president of the National League of Cities. We wanted him to be, but he opted not to run. He said, ‘I don’t want to be away from Jacksonville that much,’” Zimmerman recalled. “That’s how much he loves this city and this state.”

Mike Gaskill, mayor of Paragould and a good friend of Swaim, read letters of support and congratulations from Rep. Vic Snyder, Sen. Mark Pryor and Gov. Mike Beebe.

George Sturgill of Lockheed-Martin came all the way from Washington to present the mayor with a model of a C-130J.

The air base has more than 20 of the new cargo planes and more are coming.

Other speakers included Alder-man Kenny Elliott, Fort Smith Vice Mayor Gary Campbell, former North Little Rock Aldermen Martin Gibson and Phillip Carlisle.

What caught the mayor speechless was when his son Shane got up and told his dad that a group of businesses had a surprise for him behind the stage. When the stage curtain opened, there stood a 14-foot fishing boat loaded with the mayor’s granddaughter, a great-granddaughter, a motor and trailer.

“Being a mayor has been a blessing to me and my family,” Swaim told the appreciative audience. “Your friendship means so much to me.”

He said if he had a chance to do it again, he wouldn’t change anything. “If I did, I might have missed each and every one of you, and I wouldn’t want that.”