Vergennes manager Hawley bid adieu amid praise, laughs, memories
VERGENNES — Just retiring City Manager Mel Hawley’s longevity in his position has been remarkable, said Vergennes Mayor Renny Perry at a Tuesday evening gathering honoring Hawley in the Vergennes Opera House.
Perry should know. He worked as one of two city managers in Vergennes when Hawley left for 10 years, between 1998 and 2008, to work for Country Home Products, and Perry has also served as a city manager and mayor in New Hampshire.
Perry summed up Hawley’s tenure in Vergennes City Hall, which includes manager from 1981 to 1998 and 2008 to 2018, clerk/treasurer from 1977 to 1981, zoning administrator from 1981 to 2018, and a number of other hats over the years — health officer, delinquent tax collector, representative to the county planning commission and solid waste management district, and driving force behind the creation of the Vermont League of Cities and Towns insurance branch.
“You just don’t stay around that long because it’s hard to last that long,” Perry said. “Obviously Mel must have been doing a lot of things right or he wouldn’t have lasted that long in this one place.”
Hawley on Tuesday added one more city hall job to that list. He said former mayor Dick Burke in 1975 recruited Hawley, then living at home with his mother after graduating from the University of Vermont and working as a clerk at the former C&F LeBeau grocery store, to serve on the city’s planning commission and board of zoning adjustment.
Burke told Hawley not to worry, he’d figure things out. But Hawley said he didn’t catch on immediately when as a 22-year-old kid he arrived at a crowded and heated meeting at which lawyers in suits argued about a right of way and a subdivision.
“I couldn’t follow any of this. I left and went home. My mom said, ‘How did it go?’ I said, ‘I ain’t cut out for this,’” Hawley told the crowd. “So here it is 50 years later … Maybe I was cut out for it.”
Hawley added Burke “saw something in me” and not too long afterward recruited him to become the city’s clerk/treasurer. Hawley said Burke joked about what it was he saw.
“He said I could be a good clerk and treasurer because nobody counts bottles faster than you,” Hawley said. “That’s how I got the job. Tell your kids to work at the redemption center. It’s a real springboard.”
Three-a-half-years later then longtime manager Ken Thiess had major surgery, and Hawley had learned enough to step in as acting manager and eventually earn the job on a permanent basis.
On Tuesday a series of speakers told about four dozen of Hawley’s family members, co-workers and friends, plus many city residents and business persons there to pay their respects, how Hawley did last so long, succeed in his job, and, in their opinion, benefit Vergennes.
On Tuesday Perry concluded his remarks by emphasizing how Hawley’s love for his hometown proved to be a benefit, a statement that drew a standing ovation:
“You get a person who has a loyalty to the community that can’t often be found from an outsider. You get an individual who always has the best interest of the community as a priority. That individual is Mel Hawley. Vergennes has come a long way, and in no small measure because of Mel Hawley.”
Friends of the Vergennes Opera House President Gerianne Smart recalled how in the early 1990s Hawley’s support — which she said was far from a given after the theater was shuttered early in Burke’s tenure — proved to be crucial. The theater’s rebirth, in turn, is credited by many in the city for sparking a wider turnaround in the Vergennes downtown in the late 1990s.
Smart pointed out that two earlier efforts to renovate and revive the theater had failed, but that Hawley bought in and helped this group earn council and citizen backing, in part by making sure taxpayers were not on the hook.
“What we did was say we were going to fix the problem, not the blame, and that was the difference,” Smart said. “And Mel went along with that just fine. And if he hadn’t can you imagine what this place would look like today? It took a cultural shift in the people who love this community and lived here for so many decades to allow this building to be restored the way it was. And I always say a community can only go to where its leadership comes from. And Mel was one of those leaders. And he decided to shift. And we all followed.”
Vergennes Police Chief George Merkel touched on both Hawley’s legendary thrift and his leadership.
“Mel is a straight shooter. And I think people appreciate that,” Merkel said. “And something I’ve heard many times throughout the city is if there’s anybody that’s going to be watching after my tax dollars, it’s going to be Mel Hawley.”
As for leadership, Merkel said, “I’ve worked for some great bosses over my time, either in the military or in police work, and I have to say that Mel is right at the top.”
Philosophically, Merkel said he and Hawley are in tune.
“Mel and I agreed right off the bat that one of the primary focuses of any public servant, especially in a police department, is customer service. And Mel embodied that and backed up that theory. He always took the time to spend with people,” Merkel said.
Hawley’s longtime friend Tim Ryan, a Waltham selectman, described his unsuccessful attempts over the years to win financial arguments with Hawley, including a fire department billing dispute about a lightning strike that sparked a fire in Waltham. Hawley did not buy Ryan’s argument that the expense should be shared because the lightning was an act of God, Ryan recalled.
“Mel said, yes, it was an act of God. But the lightning struck Waltham,” Ryan said.
Despite coming up short in those debates, Ryan concluded that Hawley had acted in the best interests of Ferrisburgh, Panton, Waltham and Addison as well as Vergennes.
“You put your heart and soul into this town, including the other four communities,” Ryan said.
Another who said she came up short arguing finances with Hawley was planning commission member and city representative to the Addison County Solid Waste Management District Cheryl Brinkman. Then a school board member, Brinkman said she and Hawley butted heads about the tax implications of an initial Addison Northwest Supervisory Union unification proposal.
“I learned very early on it is better to sit on the same side of the table as Mel Hawley,” Brinkman said.
Since then she and Hawley have sat together on waste management district committees and at annual district meetings, where she has seen Hawley make his presence felt and said she has learned from him to do the same.
“You know when Mel Hawley is on a committee,” Brinkman said, adding, “I actually have learned a great deal from you.”
Hawley got the last word, of course, first reminding everybody he would still be working a few hours a week until the end of August to allow the city council time to complete its search for a replacement.
“Thanks a lot, and this isn’t a funeral here,” he said. “Hopefully in those 40 days the city can get a shining star in here, and the city can move on.”
Hawley thanked the members of the public works, police, sewer and fire departments; his city hall co-workers; and the members of the city boards with whom he works.
“I want to thank all of you in here,” Hawley said. “I’ve just been blessed with such solid people around me, and that’s really the whole secret.”
He introduced his wife Laurie, their son Aaron, and their daughter Amy and her husband and their children, Spencer and Camille.
“One of the main reasons I have to step away from here is I really want to spend more time with family,” Hawley said.
There might be other items on his agenda. After the meeting Hawley was asked how many strokes he might be able to knock off his golf handicap.
“Two or three,” he said. “Not a lot.”
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