No. 2: Mayor Tom Rowland retirement, elections share spot

Top 10 Newsmakers of 2018

Posted 12/31/19

The decision by longtime Cleveland Mayor Tom Rowland not to run for re-election after serving as the city's mayor for almost 28 years, was selected by the editors and newsroom staff of the Cleveland …

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No. 2: Mayor Tom Rowland retirement, elections share spot

Top 10 Newsmakers of 2018


The decision by longtime Cleveland Mayor Tom Rowland not to run for re-election after serving as the city's mayor for almost 28 years, was selected by the editors and newsroom staff of the Cleveland Daily Banner as one of two  stories taking the No. 2 position on the "Top 10 Newsmakers" list for 2018.

The story tied with the Banner's coverage of the three Bradley County elections that spanned the calendar year.

The mayor announced his intent not to seek re-election during a January joint press conference held with then-Tennessee state Rep. Kevin Brooks, who then announced his mayoral candidacy. Brooks defeated challenger Duane Schriver in August.

Rowland's decision to retire from public life resulting in several honors, including a reception held for him at the Museum Center in recognition as the longest-serving mayor in city history.

It was a joyous but bittersweet night at the museum, as Rowland was greeted with hugs, backslaps and lots of handshakes.

Inside the museum, the longest line was not for the table spread with hors d’oeuvres, but to greet the mayor and his wife, Sandra. Both beamed as they posed for photos and greeted longtime friends and supporters who visited the reception to wish the couple well. Just above where they stood, a video screen showed a gallery of photos from Rowland’s public life, the first as a popular radio host and station owner, as well as mayor. Photos in the video gallery including photos of Rowland rubbing elbows with senators and presidents.

It had been a long road from Rowland’s beginnings as a the son of a hotelier, helping greet tired business travelers as they checked into his father’s hotel after a long day on the road. 

And it was a job that shaped his personality and extraordinary ability to connect with people – a characteristic tailor made for a career as a popular radio host, philanthropist and, later, as a politician.

“I was born in a hotel,” Rowland said. “I was 4 or 5 years old and already carrying luggage. My dad told me to ask traveling salesmen, ‘How’s your day been?’ Rowland recalled. “I didn’t really know what I was asking, though.'”

Shepherding the city through its massive growth and economic development, Rowland left office with several notches in his belt including low unemployment, establishment of a jetport, constructing a system of popular greenway connections and the establishment of the Museum Center at Five Points, the venue for the reception.

“I feel bittersweet, and I’m humbled by all the people that are here,” Rowland said.

Rowland said his radio and political careers meshed, stating that covering city government as a radio reporter helped him gain insight into the job.

“My broadcasting career prepared me for this one,” Rowland said. “My slogan when I ran the first time was ‘I’m In Touch’ because I had attended so many city council meetings that I knew what to do from day one.”

Sandra Rowland, who has been married to the mayor for 50 years, has been a constant presence during his many public appearances. She said she was happy seeing so many of his supporters at the reception.

“This is very touching,” Sandra Rowland said of the reception. “It’s so great to see that he’s loved. It’s like adrenaline.”

The mayor, who was born in Safety Harbor, Fla., moved to Cleveland many years ago to take a job at WCLE, where he established a career that included breaking several national news stories. He said crosstown radio rivals WCLE and WBAC battled each other daily to break news stories.

“It was very competitive,” Rowland said. “Both were members of The Associated Press. We would get a little bit of a pat on the back if we got a story for the AP.”

One day, Rowland was in the right place at the right time to break a big national news story.

“I was making rounds in the morning at the police department to get the overnight news,” Rowland said. “I walked into the police department, and they told me Sheriff Buford Pusser had just been killed. They showed me the Teletype. I tipped the AP on that one, and got a nice pat on the back for breaking that national story. I was always looking for stuff like that.” 

Another time, Rowland said employees at the radio station informed him of the pending release of some American prisoners of war, one of whom was from Cleveland.

“We had a night crew working at the station and they called me and said they had just gotten a call that a Cleveland man, who was a prisoner of the Viet Cong, was being released with four others,” Rowland said. “And I said, ‘Have you got his name?’ And they said, ‘Yes, we just talked to his mother.'"

“So I called the AP, and I said there were rumors these people were going to be released. They didn’t know who they were and said they couldn’t find out from the Pentagon who they were. So I said, ‘Let me get back to you.'"

"I called the guys at the station, and they said they had just talked to the mother of the man who was from Cleveland. He was Coy Tinsley.’” 

The Viet Cong captured Pfc. Coy Tinsley on March 9, 1969. He was released Nov. 5, 1969, after spending 242 days in captivity. He was later promoted to specialist. Tinsley left active duty in 1971, and was honorably discharged in 1974.

“I flew to Clarksville and interviewed him while he was on a cot on a gurney after they took him off the plane,” said Rowland, who noted that U.S. Army Gen. William Westmoreland and Vice President Spiro Agnew, who was there to represent the president, were also at the base. 

Rowland also broke a story about the childhood of a major country music star.

 “We had some country music folks come over for a concert while we were building the Melisha Gibson Child Shelter Home. They came in for a fundraiser. One of them was Hank Snow,” Rowland said.

Rowland said Snow told him of his difficult upbringing.

“I was an abused child,” Snow told Rowland.  Snow then gave Rowland permission to break the story.

Reflecting on his tenure as mayor, Rowland said he was proud of his accomplishments, as well as the opportunities to network with state and national leaders who could help Cleveland.

“The mayor is the chief lobbyist for the city,” Rowland said. “They should be able to pick up the phone and ask for help. The mayor should be able to call someone and ask for help with a grant, or legislation.”

Rowland said having connections is vital to looking after the city’s interests, and said attending the signing of the 1994 Crime Bill at the White House was another example of being in the right place at the right time. 

“The city had applied for funding for four police officers for the crime bill once it was signed into law, and we were turned down,” Rowland said. “I got back from Washington and got a call from U.S. Sen. [Jim] Sasser who said because we showed interest and were present for the signing, they were going to approve the request.”

One of Rowland's proudest achievements is the construction of the Museum Center at Five Points.

I put together a committee of city and county residents with a charge to build a new museum," Rowland said, assuming that everyone's first thought was to locate the museum at the old National Guard Armory, similar in fashion to the museum in Athens which is located in an old school.

"Never did I dream that we would build a brand new facility," Rowland said. "It has really turned out well."

The mayor's dream of building a new airport also became a reality, helping to attract businesses to the area.

"The general aviation airport was probably one of my top dreams," Rowland said. "We desperately needed it, and it was hard to convince the public how important it was for industrial development."

Rowland said the airport has been a success.

"Executives can come in a do business quickly, and if you can make it easier for that person to move quickly, he's providing hundreds of jobs," Rowland said. "We also make money on fuel, and that's important too."

He also was inspired by Maryville's Greenway and gathered a group to work together to improve and expand Cleveland's walking trails.

"The only walking trail we had was through Tinsley Park, and it was  a gravel walking trail," Rowland said. "We took a trip with some local folks up to Maryville, which had a state-of-the-art Greenway, and we walked it and put together some folks for that Greenway and you can see what it is today."

Rowland said the people of Cleveland should take credit for the city's success.

"It's not me, but the people who responded here in Cleveland. I just got them together," Rowland said.


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