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3 July 2007

JSU Alum Jerry Gist New Jackson TN Mayor


Madison County Mayor Jerry Gist took the title of Jackson city mayor on Monday. With the help of Madison County Building Engineer Jim Bassett on Friday, Gist moves the last few things out of his office in the Madison County Courthouse to City Hall. The City Hall framed art was given to him by the city staff when he retired in 2002; now he moves it to hang in his office as Jackson city mayor.

Reprinted here in its entirety.

City Welcomes Gist

Residents have many good things to say about Jackson's new mayor.

"I ain't never had a single employee say anything but great things about him," Langford said. "He's the most unusual person - thankfully we recognized that when we saw those applicants."'

What friends, colleagues and Gist himself say he brings to his new job as Jackson mayor is an acute sense of responsibility and perspective.

Like the job he took over Monday, they say those qualities are something steadfastly and patiently earned.

'All boy'

It sounds clichˇ, but it's true: Public service in a place called Jackson is in Gist's blood.

While 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.

But as young man, Gist had few plans to cull that service out of his veins. Early on, he said, he eschewed politics - and responsibility.

"I 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 great deal."

He dropped out of Jacksonville State University in 1961 after a freshman year marked by play, not study, he said.

So 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.

With 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 break.


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.

A month into the job, Massey declared bankruptcy. Gist and his wife found themselves existing off his wife's savings while barreling perilously into parenthood.

"We never got to the point where we were completely and utterly destitute," Gist said. "Looking back now, I don't know why."

They 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 County.

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.

Finding Jackson

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.

After 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.

"He came 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.

Months 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.

Before he retired in 1991, Langford said he learned that there was something very special about Jerry Gist, who Langford said became like a brother to him.

"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.

Coming home

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.

"It 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."

Thirty years after first finding Jackson, Gist has taken its reins for a four-year term supporters believe is ripe for good things.

To get 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.

"If 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."

Others, 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.

Gist's 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.

"You've 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.

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