Like the job he took over Monday, they say those qualities are something steadfastly and patiently earned.
It sounds clichˇ, but it's true: Public service in a place called Jackson is in Gist's blood.
he grew up in the northeast Alabama town of Scottsboro, Gist's father
was the chairman of the Jackson County Board of Revenue. His brother,
Roy, was one of the youngest state legislators in Alabama history.
as young man, Gist had few plans to cull that service out of his veins.
Early on, he said, he eschewed politics - and responsibility.
was all boy, understand," Gist said. "At the time, (what his father
taught) meant very little to me. But as I matured, a lot of what he
showed me both in work ethic, integrity, honesty and faith, taught me a
He dropped out of Jacksonville State University in 1961 after a freshman year marked by play, not study, he said.
he went to work at his father's behest, helping make missiles at
Redstone Arsenal in Huntsville. After that, he served as a military
policeman during the Vietnam War.
When he returned to
Jacksonville State in 1966, work and the Army had carved responsibility
into him. A "C" student in his first stint, he became a diligent
straight-A pupil, he said.
It was then a YMCA director told him
that he should consider becoming a public servant, a suggestion that he
followed through. He moved to Massachusetts and earned a master's
degree in public administration from Springfield College.
two degrees in hand, Gist would have the tools he needed to become a
public servant. The real world would test them first to see if he would
The 1970s brought more responsibility for Gist. He was married, his
wife was pregnant and he needed work. He became student activities
director at private Massey Junior College in Atlanta - now The Art
Institute of Atlanta.
Then life took a turn.
month into the job, Massey declared bankruptcy. Gist and his wife found
themselves existing off his wife's savings while barreling perilously
"We never got to the point where we were completely and utterly destitute," Gist said. "Looking back now, I don't know why."
never confessed the situation to their parents - directly. They would
eventually get their parents' assistance, but only after friends of
their folks read an Atlanta Constitution story using the young Gists'
struggles to frame the tough times at Massey.
After five months,
Massey reached a settlement to pay its unpaid employees a portion of
what they were owed. Soon after, the Gists moved to Gainesville, Ga.,
where Jerry would become the director of parks and recreation for Hall
There he would pave the road to 30 years of public service in a place that, at the time, he didn't know existed.
But first Hall County would cede him some small, but sweet delights, he said.
"It made me appreciative of the fact that I was finally getting paid," Gist laughed.
He was too good to be true, Langford remembered. It was a job for his taking.
But he had to find place the first.
"I said, 'Jackson, where?'" Gist laughed.
getting directions in Florence, Ala., Gist finally found Jackson in
1977, when Langford, then a city commissioner, was looking to hire a
new recreation and parks director. Gist made the top 10.
to the top of the water," he said. "His rˇsumˇ was a superb rˇsumˇ. I
kind of had doubts about how good his rˇsumˇ might have projected."
Those doubts evaporated after the interview, Langford said, and Gist was hired.
melted into years and Gist weathered a conversion to a mayor/city
council form of government after a January 1988 court order killed the
city commission. Along the way, Langford and Gist became close friends.
he retired in 1991, Langford said he learned that there was something
very special about Jerry Gist, who Langford said became like a brother
"He just happened to be one of those great ones,"
Langford said. "He's low key, and I can't recall of hearing or knowing
about him chewing out an employee."
Part of that reputation Gist
owes to a management style that is detailed, effective but hands-free,
not to mention ever-present faith and spirituality, Langford said.
"No one's ever regretted the day we brought him to Jackson," he said.
Councilman Johnny Dodd has known Jerry Gist since he was a teenager
working for the city's recreation and parks department. He said Gist is
the type of guy whom he could call about a problem and soon find
himself riding around the city looking at the issue and figuring out
ways to solve it.
He is a man of ideas, Dodd said, and someone rarely handcuffed by assumption or circumstance.
would be, 'If I could make it happen, it's gonna happen,'" Dodd said.
"I can't think of a time when he really turned me down."
He added, "If he runs the city like he ran the Parks and Rec Department, I think we're up for some great things."
years after first finding Jackson, Gist has taken its reins for a
four-year term supporters believe is ripe for good things.
there, though, he first served almost five years as Madison County
mayor, a job that some, such as Commissioner Fred Birmingham, don't
believe fits his city-honed style of addressing problems directly.
you want to be county mayor and put your stamp on the county, that's
not going to happen," Birmingham said. "You just don't have the
resources to do that. It has to be a joint effort on the county side."
such as Commissioner Katie Brantley, say Gist was just a victim of a
powerful voting bloc that dominates the Madison County Commission.
"He was outnumbered anytime he wanted to do something," Brantley said. "I think he held it well."
But both agreed that they thought Gist would be a great city mayor.
agenda has an aggressive first 100 days, planning to examine the city's
use of public buildings, install permanent leadership at the city fire
department and hold a conference to figure out ways to address
Jackson's crime problem.
It is a lot of work, but if he did not want to serve people, Gist said, he would not have wanted the job.
That is something he hopes - and plans - to carry over to his staff.
got to realize every issue that comes from a resident is extremely
important to them, even if it seems mundane," Gist said. "That's why
they make mayors, 'cause that's where everybody calls."
See story at Jackson Sun Web site.