Ronnie MarksAnyone who knows our Mayor knows he’s nuts about kids, and spent the bulk of his career doing everything he could to protect them and see to it that they got justice if they had been preyed upon. I have watched his eyes light up when a kid, tiny or tall, enters the room, and so it was with special joy I listened as he regaled me with the tale of his recent “reading adventure,” which constituted visiting kids at Creekside Elementary School with the intention of “being” the local personification of Dr. Suess in mayoral form.

He wore his special tie as an ice breaker, the one which shows kids upside down in a roller coaster, and dived straight into the tale at hand. However, it wasn’t long until he was on an “improv roll,” and made up the story he felt the kids needed to hear, to the delight of all.

RainbowAfter it was all done, he returned to “the real world,” and all things associated with running the City of Athens. Then, on Monday, December 3rd, there was the official ground breaking ceremony for the new City Hall building. I have seen the plans, and they are beautiful. There will be a number of uses for the building, and the old green marble from the previous building is going to be recycled and re-purposed, something that should make “greenies” glad.

He has showed me the old letters to the editor that appeared in the News Courier back in the ‘50s when the former City Hall building was built, and not surprisingly, the same kinds of objections were made as to cost as well as questioning the necessity of the building, which one writer described as “looking like the backs of several garages.”

Some things never change, I thought, and then listened to what had inspired him over the weekend. Church had been about reclaiming Advent, and making Jesus the real reason for the season. He talked about the unsung heroes of Athens, the most recent example being the women who decorated the old Athens Cemetery with wreaths, never expecting to be thanked for it. He added that the benefit concert for Vicki Bedingfield, which had been held at the Senior Center, was another example of what makes Athens such a wonderful place to live.

He talked about “the spirit of Athens,” not in reference to the organization, but as to the concept. “What is the spirit of Athens?” he asked. “It’s teamwork,” he said, answering his own question, “and it is what gets me up in the morning.” He talked about the fact that he told his own kids many times when they were growing up, that “the hardest thing you’ll ever do in life is have a relationship.” And, seeing as teamwork is the only way that things get done, then doing the hard work of building and maintaining relationships is the price that must be paid. “It’s the coach, or teacher, or preacher or parent that always has to ask, ‘how do we do it together’?”

That’s a tough question, with answers that can change from moment to moment, but the key is to tackle the challenge with joy. And, I think a little kid named Zoey best summed it up (in her carefully written note to thank the Mayor for coming to Creekside,) by saying, “You make me think of rainbow.” [sic] And having the goal of making people dream about what Athens can be, making it a reality by making folks “think of rainbow,” is one of the many things that makes Ronnie roll.
By: Ali Elizabeth Turner

Martin Luther King What Makes Ronnie Roll

Mayor MarksThe election is over, thankfully, and irrespective of whether your candidates won or lost, I think most thoughtful folks are concerned about the deep divide that has emerged in our country as a result. Mayor Ronnie and I met at LuVici’s for breakfast, seeing as City Hall was closed for Veterans’ Day, and this was one of many topics we discussed.

We talked about the fact that for many folks, disagreeing has come to mean being disagreeable, and what could be done to heal the divide? For Ronnie, some of it meant refusing to buckle under the burden of post election “doom and gloom,” irrespective of the source. The rest of it had to do with exploring the concept of allegiance to Athens.
Mayor's Youth Commission
“Last week I saw the sparkling eyes of the new members of the Youth Commission, he told me, and these kids have dreams, for themselves and for Athens. You should have heard their questions, the clapping, their answers to my questions.” I could tell the kids had recharged his batteries, and he said, with resolve, “You know, I really can’t focus much on what is going on in the national scene. We’ve got to make sure this town is the best it can be for the future of these kids.”

27 students from Athens Bible School and Athens High School chose to become part of the just commissioned Mayor’s Youth Commission. “Jackie Warner was instrumental in keeping after me to make sure I did this,” he said, and he is also thankful for the help of Holly Hollman. The kids were sworn in at the City Council Meeting on Tuesday night, November 13th. They were of all colors, both genders, and I could see what he meant by the sparkle in their eyes.

They raised their right hands and swore, as had their Council Member counterparts, to, amongst other things, uphold and protect the Constitution, both of America and Alabama. Mayor Ronnie is teaching them all about city, county, state and federal government, how bills get passed, and more. “We need to help the kids of Athens have dreams,” he said, and I think that was at least part of what he meant by having allegiance to Athens, to pave the way for a bright future with bright eyed kids.

Tuesday night he also gave a Power Point presentation entitled “Facts About Tax,” that showed in simple, clear terms both the tax rates of our city, as well as those of Elkmont, Decatur, Florence, Madison and Huntsville. The focus of the presentation, he explained, “was not to be adversarial, or to defend the recent tax increase, but to show what is going on in relation to surrounding cities.” He also illustrated the fact that Huntsville is marching west, essentially unhindered, and already owns 38 square miles of Limestone County. He dispelled the myth that Athens has the highest taxes in the state, and reiterated that as long as he was mayor, he would do everything he could to protect the City of Athens from being swallowed up by Huntsville, Madison, or Decatur. And that is what he means by allegiance to Athens, and is some of what makes Ronnie roll.
By: Ali Elizabeth Turner

T & T Auto The Shoe Gallery

Ronnie MarksThings have been somewhat testy lately in Athens, Alabama. Recently, the City Council voted to raise taxes, and folks turned out in droves to attend the meetings. For some, it was the first City Council meeting that they had ever attended. There were some tears and harsh words, some decent points made from several perspectives, and thankfully none of it came to blows and fisticuffs. Conflict is never enjoyable for anyone, and conflict that involves money especially

I am not here to weigh in on my opinion as to whether or not I agree with the tax increase. I am as annoyed as the next American with what has become of our country in general as a result of taxes that are either poorly spent, or are procured from a premise that would make the Framers go over in a dead faint. I also know that the decision to raise the sales tax in Athens was not made capriciously, and it personally
affects those who voted for it. They will be paying, literally, for that which they chose.

“No one takes this lightly,” said the Mayor. He knows, as do all of us that there is a “general mistrust of government,” and that “the timing for a tax increase was especially tough.” People have hugely different opinions as to the role of government when it comes to land, services, and infrastructure. But, at the end of the day, the question that must be asked is, “Who are we when we disagree?”

In other words, if a decision has been made that is controversial, how do we handle ourselves? Good question. I was a bit taken back when I heard about some of the calls made and emails that were sent to City Hall after the vote. And, as I know that the Mayor is no stranger to conflict, either in Vietnam, Montgomery, and most recently in City Hall, what I find most important is observing how someone behaves when under fire.

So, I asked my own set of tough questions and waited to see what he would say. Thankfully, I found that per usual, his concern for the total well-being of Athenians eclipses that of his own, the principles that have always guided him, guide him still, and he challenged me with the following question: “Do we pray, come together, come up with ideas, get creative where it hurts, or do we allow ourselves to be divided?”

And, he added, “No matter what happens as a result of the tax increase, we still face the same issues. We must find a way to increase the level of retail recruitment, we must improve the quality of life, we must protect the public, and see to it that our kids’ educations and futures are secure.”

I know he doesn’t want to see us overtaken by Huntsville or Madison. I know that comparatively, we have some of the lowest taxes in the area. I know that the State of Alabama allows for municipalities choosing to raise local sales taxes. No one likes any of it, including the Mayor. I also know this, that one of the things that makes Ronnie roll is searching for good ideas that are not short sighted, and are equitable even when they are not perfect. And I would also add, if we put some prayer and passion into getting wisdom that exceeds our own, honorable solutions can indeed be our daily bread.

By: Ali Elizabeth Turner

The Colossians Project Shoe Gallery II

Ronnie MarksI had the chance to speak with Mayor Ronnie just on the heels of Governor Bentley’s visit to Athens on Monday, October 15th. Mayor Marks attended the event, which was held at the Center for Lifelong Learning, and sponsored by the Chamber of Commerce. The purpose of the Governor’s visit was to discuss the importance of passing Amendment 2 in the upcoming election. Amendment 2 would change Alabama’s constitution so that if interest rates go down, debts carried by the state could be refinanced at a lower rate, much like one’s personal mortgage. Amendment 2 would free up revenue for economic development.

Yesterday was the day our Mayor had us “Paint The Town Pink.” He made a proclamation setting October 18th as the date we would all wear pink, say the word pink, or mention the Pink Elephant Mammogram Scholarships to show support for those who have been afflicted by breast cancer. By doing so when we went to Chick-fil-a, the franchise on Hwy 72 donated part of its proceeds to help in the fight. There was also a Pink Elephant Day luncheon held at the Limestone County Event Center, and in all, Athens is turning out in force all year long to fight cancer.

Most folks are aware that Mayor Ronnie is a Vietnam veteran, and active in the local veterans’ community. He is hoping that there will be a solid showing of support for our vets of all branches by attending the Veterans’ Day parade to be held on Saturday, November 3rd.

Most often when we get together every two weeks for his interview, he tells me about something that inspired him at church, or a book, scripture or devotional that spoke to him in his ongoing quest to become a better man and a better Mayor. This time he had two things. One had to do with the concept of interdependence. It says the following:

“Interdependence is a choice only independent people can make. Dependent people cannot choose to become interdependent. They don’t have the character to do it; they don’t own enough of themselves.”

Daily Reflections for Highly Effective People, pg 290

I thought about that for a while, and normally I would think that owning oneself would stand in the way of moving toward interdependence, but then we concluded that if you don’t have yourself in the first place, there’s no way you can give yourself away in the right way for your own good or the good of others.

Then he moved to another reflection on pg 31 from the same book. Ironically, it was a quote by Thoreau, and a good one, no less. It said:

“For every thousand hacking at the leaves of evil, there is one striking at the root.”

Covey went on to comment on Thoreau’s statement by saying:

“We can only achieve quantum improvements in our lives as we quit hacking at the leaves of attitude and behavior, and get to work on the root, the paradigms from which our attitudes and behaviors flow.”

Whether the “leaves” are the evil of cancer, or effects of our immaturity or lower nature, I for one am glad that we have a Mayor who wants to go for the root, and that is one of the many things that makes Ronnie roll.

By: Ali Elizabeth Turner

Shoe Gallery

We have just come away from a successful 1st annual Grease Festival, and Mayor Ronnie and City Council President Jimmy Gill spent a long, happy day frying up bologna sandwiches and greeting folks. I asked him why he felt that right out of the gate “Grease” seemed so wonderfully “slick” for a first time event. “Everybody did their part,” he said. “It was really well organized,” he added. Then he told me the following story. “Back in 1961, the night before his first space mission, Alan Shephard went out to the launch site because he couldn’t sleep. He saw a light on, and decided to see if anyone was around. There was, and it was just one guy who was working. Essentially they asked each other why they were there in the middle of the night, and the guy, who never became a household name in Huntsville, let alone Athens, simply said, “I’m here to make sure my part works.”

Mayor Ronnie, as he always does, poured that lesson into his granddaughters later in the weekend. One of them is on a cheer squad, and he encouraged her, (and through this article, us,) to “make sure your part works.” If we are going to keep our city “alive,” we need to have new blood, and new life pouring through town in the form of both ideas and involvement. Otherwise, we’ll go stagnant.

One of the ways to keep our city alive is to keep our kids alive, literally. While we don’t like to think of the possibility of a lethal school event (such as what occured at UAH or Discovery Middle School) ever happening in Athens, the fact is, no community is immune. Last year Mayor Ronnie sent me to a seminar conducted by Phil Chalmers, who is considered the nation’s expert in teen/school shootings, and it was all at once chilling, eye opening, and hope giving. Phil has since trained some local people to be seminar presenters, and Cam Bucy of Self Defense Solutions is going to, (through a joint venture with the Athens Schools, Athens Police and City Hall,) bring training to kids, parents, first responders and school personnel. “An event like what happened at Discovery would be devastating,” said the Mayor, “and if we can learn how to prevent one by educating our community, it would be an excellent investment.” The next question he fired off at me, and symbolically, Athens, was, “How committed are you to making a change with and for our kids?” That question packs a punch, and is worthy of a prudent answer.

In addition to public safety, one of his ongoing concerns is quality of life, most specifically here in reference to leadership in the city. I know we have seen a long election season, and we aren’t through it yet, but I can tell you that folks not bothering to vote is a pet peeve of his. So, if you live in District 1, please take the time to vote on October 9th, and everybody please do so in November. Remember, if you don’t vote, you don’t get to complain!

Lastly, Mayor Ronnie has a real concern about future revenue streams, as does the team leader of any organization, civic or commercial. “I am doing everything I know to keep our taxes down and still provide the services that are expected of a well managed city,” he said. I don’t envy his position at all, and now that you know more of what makes Ronnie roll, perhaps you’ll remember him in your prayers.
By: Ali Elizabeth Turner

We are blessed, in this day of progressivism, relativism, socialism, humanism, collectivism, and any other philosophical “ism” you can think of, to be surrounded by people who have either put their lives on the line or spent time and energy to “protect and defend the Constitution from all enemies, both foreign and domestic.” Mayor Marks is such a person, as are members of the John Wade Keyes chapter of the Daughters of the American Revolution. On September 18th, through the help of Athens State University, there was an event entitled the Joint Celebration of Constitution Day, which marked the kick-off of Constitution Week.

The Mayor had just come from the event when we met for our standing appointment, and let’s just say it was easy to see that he had been inspired by it. “This year marks the 225th anniversary of the Constitution,” he said, “and we need to remind ourselves that ‘we the people’ is still the guiding principle of government.”

A little background on Constitution Week—In 1955, the Daughters of the American Revolution put a petition before Congress, essentially asking that each year the week of September 17th through the 23rd be set aside as a national time of defense and protection of the Constitution through remembrance of the most remarkable document of self governance that has ever been produced. On August 2, 1956, President Dwight D. Eisenhower signed it into law. DAR President General, Presley Merritt Wagoner stated, “We encourage all citizens across the country to take time this week to reflect on our heritage of freedom.”

The event at Athens State featured a Constitution trivia quiz, and students from the college competed for prizes from the college bookstore. It is no secret that kids are dear to the heart of the mayor, as he spent several decades helping abused kids during his career with DHR, and the little kids at the event dressed in period costumes had clearly made his day.

But as enjoyable as it was to have cute kids, along with the encouraging presence of smart young people who know their way around the document, the question has to be asked, “OK, it is wonderful that we have the national celebration of Constitution Week, but are we as a nation, in fact, ‘Constitution weak?’” In the ‘60s, when I was in school, civics was no longer a requirement for graduation. Much of the originalist approach to interpreting the Constitution had managed to stay intact, and we functioned under a fairly high level of constitutionality in our country.

Now it seems that we have lost our way on so many fronts, and thankfully groups like the DAR and Hillsdale College, the Tea Party and other patriotic groups are making it possible to return as a culture to a state of constitutional literacy, and not a moment too soon. It is thankfully no longer considered odd to have a pocket copy of the Constitution, and “we the people” need to get very familiar with it, especially if we are going to make reasonable choices in a critical election year.

The Mayor once again would like to thank ASU and the DAR for all their effort in seeing to it that our freedoms are protected through knowledge and education in general, and regarding the Constitution in particular. Celebrating our “guiding principal of government” is indeed one of the things that makes Ronnie roll.
By: Ali Elizabeth Turner

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