The littlest incidents sometimes have the biggest consequences.
John Hawley applied with the town of Pulaski for a summer job between his junior and senior years at Virginia Tech. What he almost got was a stint working at Highland Memorial Gardens; the paperwork was being processed in front of him when the person helping him asked a passing coworker if there was anything else available.
Because of that idle question, he ended up spending the summer in the town engineer’s office as an aide. A project planning relocation for the water and sewer lines on Memorial Drive occupied much of his time – and afforded him a lesson. The plans, submitted to VDOT in the state capitol before school started, left him proud to have finished them well and on time.
“I came back to work for the town during Christmas break,” he recalls with a smile, “and the first thing they laid on my desk was that set of plans, coming back from Richmond for a revision. I’m still in the college mentality. Then you finish a term paper or you finish a class, and it’s gone.”
But in the real world, he notes, things have to be redone. Still, the initial disappointment outfitted him with an understanding of what a job in town management would entail: unglamorous, often thankless work, but with the best of the community at its center.
Since June 10, 1974, he’s put that into practice, first as an assistant to the town engineer, then as engineer in 1979. “I was department head at 27 years of age,” he says. “At that time I think I was the youngest department head we had.” He says this in a matter of fact, slightly bemused way. He doesn’t brag about anything he’s done, speaking with the quiet, slightly self-effacing tones he’s known for.
Later he was asked to help in another capacity, albeit temporarily. “In 1999, I served as acting town manager for about six months between two other managers. As far as we know, I’m the first town manager to retire,” he joked. “We didn’t have an assistant town manager, so I served as acting town manager.” In 2002, council gave him a chance to be town manager and he accepted.
Now, after 38 years and 4 months, he’s about to leave the office for good. October 18 is his last day in the office; he’ll be on leave until his actual retirement in April of next year, but he’ll serve as a liaison to new Town Manager Shawn Utt, per the arrangement worked out with town council in March. “In essence using leave I’ve accumulated over the years,” Hawley said. “It works out so it takes me all the way to the end of my contract.” He said he will not maintain office hours during this time.
While many can’t imagine Pulaski without him, he made a conscious decision to stay here when he first started. “When I graduated from Tech I had three job offers, the Environmental Protection Agency in Philadelphia, the city of Danville utilities department,” he says, “and the town of Pulaski actually created a position of assistant to the town engineer and offered it to me in ’74. I liked what I was doing, I guess, when I worked my senior year. It really felt like this was where I needed to be. It just felt like, this is something I could do to help the community. I’m from Draper. I’ve lived in three places my whole life, all within a quarter mile of the same spot in Draper.”
After a lifetime of working through community troubles, he can identify the most daunting problems he’s faced without having to overthink it.
“I think the economic downturn,” he says. “And that’s kind of strange to think after we’ve seen 400 houses damaged by a tornado in about a five minute span. So I think the tornado and the economic downturn were really the two biggest things we’ve had to deal with. I’m not sure we’ve overcome the economic downturn,” he says, but adds he’s hopeful that it’s coming. The solution in the meantime is “being willing to work with our staff in the economic downturn, trying to keep things positive, saying things are going to get better. We’ve got a job to do, we’re going to do it the best we can.”
Who’s been his biggest source of strength throughout the years? “Obviously my wife has been pretty supportive of the time I’ve been away from her. My church family has been supportive of the time I’ve been away from them.” He pauses. “I think it’s been the whole community. I think whenever we’ve had to do something, whether it’s been recovering from a tornado or 30 years ago putting water and sewer in on southside, everybody was always willing to try to help. Most of the people in the community have been willing to help us do what we’ve got to do.”
In addition, Hawley says, “I think you can talk to about any administrator or manager around, if you don’t have an administrative assistant or clerk that’s worth her weight in gold, you’re not going to succeed.”
He sums it up thusly: “In the last 11 years, I’ve had to give up some of my church life and my personal life but I feel like this is where I’m supposed to be.”
After his story is told, he has time for a small talk and to dispense a little advice when asked for it. His interview barely over, he soon has another person sitting in his office, asking for help. He listens, quietly but intently, seeking the best solution to a problem he can’t help but adopt as his own.