Ronnie Marks has just been elected to the position of Mayor with a landslide victory, and true to form has both “hit the ground running,” and is anxious to “put the election behind us and get back to work.” There is much to do in our town, even while things are going well over all, his time is necessarily divided between the tasks at hand and planning for what is ahead.

When I asked him about his thoughts on the election, he paused, and made the point that he was “so grateful for Athens’ vote of support.” He explained that all at once he felt “honored, humbled, challenged, and excited.” He added, “Lots of emotions, lots of work to do.” Although we often chat about what is going on in the national political scene, I was struck by the fact that at the time after the local election, the national race was clearly in second place in comparison to all that was needing to be addressed on the city scene here at home.

The love of the Mayor for this town, his understanding of its history, its people and its potential has always been a comfort to me. He says, “I love this job, the people, and the project management. I want to put the period after project management, and getting the job done well.”

Most of the time when we finish an interview, I feel as though I have received an education, and this time I learned about some of the challenges of retail recruitment vs. industrial recruitment. We in Athens are both blessed by and aware of the fact that in the past year there have been some significant victories in courting industry and bringing more of it to our town. We also know that we need more. Some of the reason why it is easier to get industry interested in setting up shop here is that the regulations and tax incentives for industry are much more regulated and uniform than those of retail. Things that would attract retail businesses in terms of incentives are more nebulous, and fall under the purview of private investors, and while it is a reasonable thing to want to offer incentives to potential retail prospects, it is also complicated. There ends up being a gap between the two, one that is going to be spanned by people working together in an equitable manner.

Several situations are before the Mayor and City Council, and prayerful, responsible solutions are being sought. For example, in places where City and County government overlap, what is the best way to streamline? “The people don’t want a growing government, and we need to ask ourselves how we can streamline without compromising services or cause a loss of jobs.” One of the examples he mentioned is that of garbage. Is it the best approach to go to single stream recycling? “It certainly has worked in other cities, and we are looking in to it.”

As always, we prayed at the end, and he reminded me to tell you that his belief in building Athens from the inside out through using the team approach is an idea that he both embraces, and about which he is unwavering. “People expect us, the city government, to do the right thing,” he said. So, I guess it’s time to “git ‘er dun,” and pray for blessing and wisdom upon our leaders in the days that lie ahead.
By: Ali Elizabeth Turner

It’s back-to-school time, and everyone, from kids to parents and grandparents, or anyone that has kids in their lives look upon this time each year with a mixture of anticipation and trepidation. Mayor Ronnie Marks remembers all too well what it was like to be the “skinniest kid in school” and then, later on, the “skinniest teacher in school.” He moved from Clements to Tanner High School, graduated, went to college at UNA and then in TN, and while he was at it, faced down the Viet Cong. That’s some serious “fear-facing.”

“I have nothing but respect for teachers,” he said, “and I’ll tell you, I have never come home more exhausted than when I spent a day in the classroom.” He spoke of the anxiety expressed recently by one of his granddaughters while shopping for school clothes, wondering if she would have any of her friends left from last year. And on it goes—kids worried, adults worried, and meanwhile, there’s an education to be gotten if Athens is going to continue to be an excellent place to live.

“It’s the responsibility of the community to provide the best possible environment in which students can learn,” said Mayor Marks, “and some of what has been helping to build our students’ confidence has been the implementation of the Seven Habits Of Highly Effective People program especially designed for the public schools and used by the Athens school system.” He also wanted teachers and students alike to know that “We believe in you, and understand how important education is for you and the future of our city.”

To that end, there are some “pet projects” of the Mayor and the Chamber of Commerce that are starting to take shape and are designed to help our kids “find a seat at the table.” For quite awhile the Mayor has wanted to have a Mayor’s Youth Commission, whose purpose would be to select students from various schools as well as homeschoolers in learning about how city, county and state government work. These students would come from a broader range academically than just the top of their class, and the question put to them would be, “What do you want your city to look like?” By “look,” he means far more than its outward beauty. He means, “What do you want Athens to be like, and how are you going to get it there?”

Jackie Warner, City Hall PR Director and Grant Coordinator Holly Hollman and others are going to be involved in helping with the Youth Commission, and on August 16th Holly gave a presentation at Athens State University to introduce the concept. The Chamber of Commerce is also working on a mentoring program. All of this is to make sure that, as Holly Hollman put it so well during this interview, there’s more than enough room, chairs, and benches for our kids to “come take a seat in our city.” Let’s all of us make sure they can do so comfortably and without fear.
By: Ali Elizabeth Turner

Jimmy Gill, President of City Council of Athens and Mayor Ronnie Marks

The term “servant leadership” gets bandied about these days in everything from business publications to the pulpit. I asked Mayor Marks if he would invite Athens City Council President Jimmy Gill to join us for our interview time, because I wanted to get an idea of how these guys work together to serve our community, and specifically how they viewed leadership styles and their roles as leaders.

Jimmy Gill has been serving on the City Council since 1992, and is in his 6th term. A lifelong resident of Athens as well as a Class of ’66 Trinity High School graduate, Jimmy has seen some “wild times,” especially during the ‘60s and the Civil Rights era. .Jimmy is also a cancer survivor and works part time at People’s Funeral Home. He’s a master BBQ-er, and according to Mayor Marks, “gives back to the community like few people do.” Jimmy has actually been Mayor of Athens, (serving when Dan Williams was out for health reasons,) involved in Relay for Life, the Birdie Thornton Center, and Ronnie says, “He’s sharp, works hard, and knows what’s going on.” I myself have seen him stand up for the truth when it would have been way easier to lay low and let things just pass over, and have admired him for his courage in doing so.

“Jimmy, how would you describe your leadership style?” I asked. He thought for a minute and said, “I listen, think it through, go to prayer with God, and then make what I think is the right decision.” I liked the fact that the first thing on his list is that he listens, and also that he prays. Jimmy and Ronnie have been friends for years, having met through Ronnie’s brother Claude when Jimmy and Claude worked together for the same company. I have wondered, knowing that they are both friends, colleagues, and men of deep faith, just how they
handle the inevitable disagreements that arise when trying to govern well or just maintain relationships in general. “What do you guys do when you disagree?” I asked them. Jimmy spoke first. “We agree to disagree, and then move on. We have disagreed, and we get over it.” Ronnie seconded him. Jimmy added, “If you are doing things for the right reasons, things have a way of working out.”

We talked about the need to be able to trust each other’s hearts, even when we didn’t see eye to eye, and to stand strong on principles. Jimmy talked about how important it is to remember that every City Council member, any public servant, for that matter, “takes an oath on the Bible, and it don’t matter if you are black, white, red, or green, you gotta do the right thing.” Ronnie added, “It’s one thing to talk, and another to talk and walk.” Talk and walk, I think, is an excellent way to describe what makes for good leaders. And one thing I know, that’s the only way Ronnie and Jimmy desire to roll.
By: Ali Elizabeth Turner

Mayor Ronnie Marks grew up in Ripley, and graduated from High School in 1962, the year, some say, signaled the end of innocence in our country. He, as is the case with so many folks I have met here in Athens, did his chores and homework, played baseball, (2nd base,) pickup basketball, (mostly from the bench,) worked the cotton fields alongside people of any color, and his memories are that “folks were happy. We just all came together and helped each other,” much like what we saw after the 2011 tornadoes.

It was a time that if you were “cool,” you put several Mickey Mantle or Roger Maris baseball cards or playing cards on the spokes of your one speed Schwinn, using your mama’s clothespins to do so. That way you could get your bike to make the unique clicking sound that could only be generated by cards, and everyone could hear you coming. These days said trading cards are worth thousands of dollars, and most kids don’t even know what you are talking about when you tell them that was one way to “strut your stuff!”

Ronnie knows, however, especially from his many years working for the Alabama State Department of Human Resources, “happiness was not the experience of everyone.” He spent several years working for DHR dealing with truancy and helping abused people of all ages. “It paved the way to my learning the concept of servant leadership and how to work with people.”

But what happened in between? “It took me awhile to know what I wanted to do. I majored in Chemistry and Biology, and graduated from UNA. I worked as a “lab rat” to get through school, and still worked cotton to help pay for my tuition. I taught school for a few years, some of which were at West Limestone High, and at one school I was the only white guy in the whole place. Then along came Vietnam.”

His Army tours in ‘Nam were in ’69 and ’70, and he came home to a different, not so happy America. Viet Nam made him more determined than ever to help people, and to that end, he got his Master’s in Social Work. He spent seven years working as a lobbyist in Montgomery, and as far as politics is concerned, he has seen the good, the bad, and the ugly.

Some of his most satisfying work came as a result of being appointed by former Governor Bob Riley to the task force that dealt with the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina down in the Gulf. He reported directly to the Governor, “and I was glad to be able to help people who had lost everything.”

He loves God, his wife, his kids and grandkids, (although on a recent vacation he was sorely tempted to take away the smart phone from one of his granddaughters because she wouldn’t stop texting,) and he loves to play golf. When we did this interview at LuVici’s on a Saturday morning, we had to hustle because he had a tee time at 9:30. Busy as he is, he makes a point to fill his mind with Scripture and other inspirational literature, and as is often the case, shared with me his current favorite saying. It is as follows: “We are all works in progress-green tomatoes ripening on the windowsill of life.” Indeed we are, and that, my dear town folk, is some of what makes Ronnie roll.
By: Ali Elizabeth Turner

Most folks are aware that in late June the City Council of Athens voted to appoint long time Fire Marshall Tony Kirk to the position of Fire Chief, a vacancy which was created by the recent retirement of Danny Southard. Tony, (who has had to endure being called “Captain Kirk” since he was a kid) was brought into our interview by Mayor Marks in order to introduce him to me as well as the community.

Tony was born and raised in Limestone County, and has been involved in firefighting since 1984.He started out as a volunteer firefighter with the Oak Grove/Thach Volunteer Fire Department and told me that “back then all we had for equipment was a 1952 aircraft crash fire truck.” As any good soldier, they learned to fight well using the equipment that was available, and were not deterred from doing whatever it took to save lives and put out fires.

Tony was hired by the Athens FD in 1986, and continued to volunteer as well. During his original interview he was asked, “Where do you want to be in 10, 15, 20 years?” His response at the time was, “Chief, if I am qualified.” It took a little over 25 years, but that is exactly what has happened, and the nickname “Captain Kirk” has never been more fitting.

Chief Tony is close to completing his Bachelor’s degree in Fire Service Management, and found that the two classes which have benefitted him the most have been Tactics and Strategies, as well as the study of Building Construction. As Fire Chief he has several goals, and they are as follows: the formation of a complete fire training facility here in Athens, to build more fire stations to accommodate our city’s growing population, to be out in the community more in order to foster trust, and to be able to hire more firefighters. (As of the date of this writing, there are two firefighter positions available with the Athens FD, and those qualified are strongly urged to apply.

For his part, Mayor Ronnie had just come back from a statewide Mayor’s convention, and was pretty fired up, both by what he observed to be admirable, as well as encountering situations where there was huge room for improvement. “We have several high level department heads that are going to retire soon, and we must begin now to find their replacements,” he told me. With specific regard to the Fire Department, Mayor
Marks would like to see a part-time paid reserve unit formed as soon as funds can be allocated to do so.

He also rattled off several “take aways” from the conference. The one about which he was the most passionate was the need to be wise and avoid letting your town get stagnant. “People don’t like to think this way, but successful cities have in part become successful because they have learned to market themselves.”

So how do you “market” a town” in order to keep people interested in living in it, travelling through it, and contributing to the well-being of its citizens?” His answer, which did not surprise me at all was “refusing to grow stagnant.” I didn’t even bother to ask him, “How do you do that?” I already knew the answer: you seek to synergize, no matter what it costs you personally. Only by building relationships will we build our town. You do that, and the rest will take care of itself.
By Ali Elizabeth Turner