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Exit Interview: Wayne Bowers

From the Editor: During a two-week period in mid-January, three of Greenville’s key municipal managers announced their resignations: Police Chief William Anderson on January 13; Public Works Director Wes Anderson (no relation) on the 27th; and in between, on the 20th, City Manager Wayne Bowers.

With interim appointees now in all three positions, it is expected to be July or August before the national search for Bowers’ replacement is complete and his successor is announced. Appointments to the two other open positions are not expected until at least August or September (police chief) and September or November (public works director).

Bowers’ nine years as Greenville’s top manager – the post responsible for the day-to-day administration of all city services, with managers of each city department reporting to it – brought his lifetime experience in city management and administration to 39 years. He has served in college towns throughout the Southeast, including Gainesville, Fla.; Huntington, W.Va; Spartanburg, S.C.; and Tallahassee, Fla.

Given The Greenville Guardian’s focus on long-form journalism, an extensive talk with the departing city manager seemed a logical beginning. So, on February 28, one day before his resignation took effect, Bowers sat down with Anthony Noel. Bowers looked back on his experiences here and elsewhere, and offered his thoughts on where Greenville is and where it might be going.

The Guardian will present this exclusive interview in five parts over the next two weeks. Click here for the publication dates of each installment.

– Lisa Wilbourne

GREENVILLE GUARDIAN: I think it’s interesting that you started your training at Western Carolina and are finishing up here in the home of ECU.

WAYNE BOWERS: Yeah, purple and gold, both [schools’ colors] are purple and gold. My three degrees are from Western Carolina, North Carolina and South Carolina. The only point on the compass I hadn’t gotten to was East Carolina.

I’ve really enjoyed being in the community and getting to know it. But I grew up over there in the upstate of South Carolina – in Greenville – so I’m an original Greenvillian. I’ve had a lot of fun with that; when I go around speaking to city groups and tell them I’m a Greenville native they say, “I never remember you being around here!” (laughter)

But growing up in Greenville, South Carolina, it was natural to go to Western Carolina because it’s just right across the mountains. So I got my undergraduate there [cum laude, political science, 1969], and thought I was going to be a historian, so I went to Chapel Hill and got my first master’s, in American history [1971]. But I really didn’t like it as much; it wasn’t, wasn’t out, getting things done – it was more like the background type stuff. So that’s when I went to South Carolina and got the P.A. degree [master’s in public administration, 1973].

GG: I have to ask, just because I think the first thing that anybody thinks of, when they get into an undergraduate program, they’re thinking, “Okay, I’m going to take something that’ll lay the foundation for what I’m going to do,” and obviously that served you well. But were you thinking more about a political career at any point, or did you always have this interest in administration?

WB: (unhesitatingly) Always had the interest in administration. I don’t think I’m cut out to be a politician. There’s certain characteristics you need for that – for that pursuit.

Wayne Bowers

As an undergraduate I didn’t know whether it’d be state government, federal government or local government, so when I went to graduate school I took the MPA degree, which you can do, you know, any level of government, [and] I got involved in a research assistantship. I was working in small towns in the Appalachian part of the state of South Carolina. So, as a graduate student, I helped them do their budgets.

GG: Good training.

WB: Yeah, it was good training. We had six counties in the upstate of South Carolina: Greenville, Spartanburg, Cherokee county, Anderson county, Pickens county, Oconee. It was some small towns. There’s several big cities there, but it was small towns we worked in.

We were able to go out on this project to towns that did not have city managers and put their budgets together. We worked with police departments, fire departments, recreation departments, public works departments, and I said, you know, this is the level of government I want because you can see the results much better than at the federal level, although it’s intriguing. State level you can see a little bit of the results, but at the local level you can actually see a road that you get paved. Build a new road, build a new park, and you say, you know, I was part of that.

GG: I couldn’t help noticing on your resume – it jumped out because my wife went to Marshall – that one of your assignments was Huntington [W.Va.].

WB: That was a great experience. That’s my shortest tenure, I was only there about 15 months [May ’83 – September ’84]. But it was a great community, a beautiful city right there on the river, and fortunately when I was there we got a bunch of grants to build a riverfront park right there on the Ohio River.

And Marshall – that was my first real exposure [as city manager] to a college town. We really enjoyed it, and of course they had a tie to ECU because of the football team, when the plane crashed. Even though I was there in ’83 and the plane crash was in ’70, they were still kind of recovering.

[The plane carrying the Marshall football team and many members of its booster club home after a game against ECU in 1970 crashed on approach to Huntington’s airport. There were no survivors.]

GG: I don’t think they’ve ever gotten over it, you know?

WB: It still has an impact on the community. There were a lot of people on that plane who were community leaders, I think there were a couple of members of the city council, chamber of commerce. It sort of wiped out a whole piece of the leadership.

Red Dawson, a member of the coaching staff, he and I were friends. His kids and mine went to the same school. He was supposed to be on the plane. He traded off with another guy who went to see his granddaughter. And this is way before cell phones and all that kinda stuff. Red’s wife thought he was on the plane, she thought he was dead. And he comes back to life.

Red told me a story – he was a recruiter – and he said when he went into parents’ living rooms he told them, “You send your son to Marshall and I’ll take care of them.” It’s – it was just devastating. That’s the kind of experience you get –

GG: Dropping into these different towns –

WB: Yeah. I went to Gainesville after the student murders. Very tragic. I went there five years later and talked to the police chief who investigated those things. They’re things that just stick with you.

[In a four-day period in August of 1990, five college students were killed in Gainesville, home of the University of Florida. Bowers was named city manager in July 1995 and served until October 2004, when he took the same job here in Greenville.]

GG: Going back a little further, and I know we’re kinda jumping around here, but if I’m doing my math right, you were the assistant city manager in Tallahassee at age 27. So when the manager was out of town, you were in charge. That’s got to be a little daunting, at 27.

WB: It was a very interesting thing. I was working there, it was about three weeks after I took the job, on a Friday afternoon, and I looked around the office. I was the only person there. So I called my wife. I said, “Betsy, you know, I’ve been working here three weeks, and I’m in charge of Tallahassee! The whole thing!” (laughs) It was a wonderful experience.

They had changed managers while I was there. When I went in I was just [the original manager’s] administrative assistant [1973-1975], and then they changed managers and made me his assistant, so when the manager wasn’t in town I was in charge. Got to hobnob with the governor of Florida and all this kinda stuff. In fact, there’s a story about Jimmy Carter.

“Jimmy [Carter] of course became

a great deal more successful after that,

and I probably wouldn’t have gotten

30 minutes with him.”

When Jimmy started running for president, he announced in Atlanta, and then flew to Tallahassee because Florida was obviously a key state. And he was endorsed by a guy named Don Tucker, who was speaker of the Florida House of Representatives. Well, Jimmy started out kinda slow, so Don Tucker called the office – city hall was right across from the state capitol. So Don Tucker called and said, “Jimmy Carter’s coming to town and we need some people! We need some people at a reception I’m having for him.”

I didn’t take the call, the city manager took it, and then he called me and said, “I’ve got a conflict, my daughter’s doing something at school, and I’ve got to be there, and you’ve gotta represent us.” So I went to this reception, and Jimmy Carter was kinda standing in the corner by himself, and I went over and talked to the guy for about 30 minutes.

GG: Wow.

WB: (laughs) What a wonderful conversation, he’s a great guy.

Things like that, they’re just great, great opportunities; a lot of professions you don’t get that kinda thing. Jimmy of course became a great deal more successful after that, and I probably wouldn’t have gotten 30 minutes with him. (laughs) But to sit down and talk with a future president.

GG: That’s something else.

WB: But Tallahassee was a wonderful place to be. I got a lot of good experience.

GG: Another college town, too.

WB: Yeah, two – Florida A&M and Florida State. Two big universities.

We did a project that built the civic center. I was the city’s representative on that, the Tallahassee-Leon County Civic Center [since renamed for former state house speaker Tucker]. Florida A&M, they put some money in, Florida State put some money in, the city put some money in, the county put some money in, the state of Florida put some money in. [The project finally broke ground after Bowers took his first city manager’s post, in Jacksonville Beach, Fla.]

Tallahassee is a full-service city. It does everything. They run the airport, they run the bus system, run the electric system, generate their own power – so if you were training to be a city manager, that is the place to be. So as assistant city manager I had a lot of practice, got a lot of experience.

Look for part two of the discussion with Bowers, “BMW Comes to Spartanburg,” on Thursday, March 22.

One Response

  1. Rick Smiley says:

    Great idea – I look forward to the next installment.

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