The middle school student once tagged as “future mayor of Bassett” by his 7th grade teacher now holds the top two posts in Henry County.
Dale Wagoner assumed the dual positions of County Administrator and General Manager of the Public Service Authority (PSA) on July 1, following the retirement of Tim Hall.
Wagoner’s roots run deep in Henry County. He has spent his life in Henry County—he was born in the county, lives in the county, and has served it and its residents throughout his professional career.
Just as he is dedicated to the county, he is the first to admit that the county has given much to him along the way.
Days before Wagoner was slated to move into his new positions, he reflected on his history with Henry County, the place to which he owes and has given so much.
Wagoner grew up in Bassett, where his mother still lives, in his childhood home on the river.
“I had a special pair of shoes I wore to play in the river,” he recalled with a smile.
“My parents were hardworking, everyday folks … I didn’t know it at the time, but we definitely grew up poor. I commend my mother tremendously on how she raised seven children (six boys and one girl) on the income that we had.”
His mother, Wagoner said, ran a beauty shop in her home. “That’s where I learned a lot about the world growing up,” he said.
In fact, Wagoner said, looking back on his childhood, he realized, “you learn a lot about life, and you don’t even know it at the time.”
He learned from his father too. “My dad worked in a grocery store just up the street. He was the butcher, delivered groceries, and I got to ride in the truck with him,” meeting people in the community of various ethnicities and socio-economic backgrounds.
“We were delivering groceries to some of the most affluent people in Bassett and the ones who were paying with food stamps. I learned a lot,” Wagoner said.
Even as he was accumulating life lessons from a young age, so too did the young Wagoner begin developing a strong work ethic. He started working for his father at the age of 9 while he was a student at Bassett Middle School, walking across a field to bag groceries at the store after school rather that catching the bus to go home.
At the age of 13, Wagoner got his first paying job working at a gas station owned by a friend of his uncle.
“It was in the middle of winter, it was freezing cold, and somebody didn’t come in that day. He needed somebody to pump kerosene, and I said yes. I worked every day after school and got off the bus there. Sometimes I’d go in at 5:30 in the morning and catch the bus there to go to Bassett High School.”
Wagoner’s education continued at the gas station, he said, as he met and interacted with a variety of people, particularly those who would come into the store following the local evening news.
“They would watch WDBJ-7 News at 6 and then, at 6:45 when they got tired of national news, they would come down and tell us all their life lessons for the evening. We called them the loafers, so I always say I learned a lot about life from the loafers,” he laughed.
An early childhood accident inadvertently set Wagoner down the path toward becoming the new County Administrator. At the age of 4, he was struck by a vehicle, hospitalized for several weeks, and confined to a wheelchair for some time after that.
Because his mother could not get her young son into the car to drive to church on Sundays, they began attending First Baptist Church of Bassett nearer their home, a church Wagoner said he still attends today.
It was there, 12-years later, that 16-year-old Wagoner saw an insert in the church bulletin about volunteering for the Bassett Rescue Squad. He filled out the form and dropped it into the church offering plate.
“That’s how I got started in Bassett’s Rescue Squad as a volunteer, which was my introduction to public service,” Wagoner said.
Over the next several years, Wagoner continued to volunteer with the rescue squad, which allowed him to receive much of his EMS training at no cost to him. That training continued into his adult life, where he eventually earned the credentials necessary to be a paramedic.
The next stage in Wagoner’s service to the county came during his junior year at Ferrum College, where he was majoring in computer science (he would go on to earn a Master’s in Public Administration from Virginia Tech.) He applied for an internship with Henry County, which he planned to complete the summer between his junior and senior years.
That internship began in May 1992 under then-Public Safety Director Benny Summerlin. Within a few weeks, an employee with the department quit and Wagoner applied for the full-time position of EMS Training Coordinator for Henry County Public Safety. He got the job.
He began work in July of that year, while also completing his final year of college.
“As soon as I got in it, it was almost an immediate attraction (to EMS) because there was never a point I didn’t want to learn something else. I would run one call and realize if I’d taken one more class, I could have done something more to help this person,” Wagoner recalled.
As he continued to learn, he said he kept thinking, “I can do more, I can learn more, I can help more people,” until finally he reached the level of paramedic.
“I wanted to avoid that sense of helplessness” that came with not knowing how he could have better helped someone in need, he said.
Wagoner said he was initially drawn to the work in part because of the satisfaction derived from helping others.
“I saw that all the time in my parents and others,” Wagoner said. “They were always helping each other out with family and other things, so that wasn’t anything new. Growing up in the church, you help other people, you do what you’re supposed to do.”
In 1996, Wagoner became the EMS Coordinator and, later, Deputy Director of Public Safety, then Public Safety Director.
“I don’t think there was ever a goal in my mind to become the county administrator,” he reflected. “I wanted to learn as much as I could, and I took every opportunity to go to every meeting I could go to when Benny Summerlin was Public Safety Director. I just wanted to soak it all up.”
His desire to “soak it all up” earned him a brief stint at the county’s Human Resources Director after the termination of former County Administrator and PSA General Manager Sid Clower, following the discovery of a long-term embezzlement scheme.
Summerlin was appointed County Administrator and Hall, who at the time was the county’s public information officer, became Summerlin’s deputy.
The county’s HR Director was involved in the scheme as well, Wagoner explained, and was fired along with Clower. Wagoner was asked to step into the role, while also continuing to serve as Deputy Director of Public Safety.
“It was because of always listening, always trying to go to meetings, that I was recruited to do the job,” Wagoner said. Though the post came with a steep learning curve, Wagoner said, “I don’t regret any of it. It makes it a lot easier to do what I’m doing today, to have that experience back then.”
Wagoner recognized that the aftershocks of the Clower chapter are still felt to this day. The episode, he said, “changed the public’s perception of Henry County and I don’t know that we’ve fully recovered from that. It’s been a very concerted effort since then to be fiscally sound. I think we go above and beyond to make sure we’re doing accounting principles and practices that are in excess of what’s required of us to make sure the public can see that we’re doing everything above board.”
Then, in 2012, the Deputy County Administrator position became available, years earlier than Wagoner ever anticipated.
Wagoner recalled discussions with Summerlin about his plans for his retirement. “He was going to buy an RV and travel. He passed away before that happened.”
Following Summerlin’s death, Hall stepped into the County Administrator role and, about a month later, Wagoner was chosen to serve as Deputy County Administrator.
Moving into that role, Wagoner said, “I missed the comradery. I missed the family environment you get in Fire/EMS and law enforcement that you really don’t get anywhere else. But that’s okay. This is a good place to work. People look out for each other, we care about each other.”
Because of his long career in Public Safety, Wagoner was well-versed and accomplished in the field, even serving on several governor’s panels. In fact, in 2012, he received the Governor’s Award for Excellence in Emergency Medical Services, Virginia’s most prestigious EMS award.
“When I came over here, I was no longer an expert,” Wagoner said. “The reality is (the department heads) were experts and I just had to trust them and roll with it, and for the most part that has really worked for me.”
Just days before he moved into his next role with the county, Wagoner said that he believed the collaborative relationship and trust he enjoyed with Hall would help ease his transition.
“They (the jobs) are so overlapped. If Tim goes on vacation, I don’t need to wait to do anything. I have full authority.” He said that relationship worked both ways.
“There are no egos when it comes to a situation. Our goal aligns. We want what’s best for our citizens.”
Wagoner said he intends to continue that relationship with the new Deputy County Administrator, J.R. Powell.
Though Wagoner noted the goals for the county are set by the Board of Supervisors, and “my goals align with their wishes.” However, he does have some things he would like to see the county achieve during his tenure.
One thing he would like to see is the creation of an adaptive park for people with special needs. Wagoner credits his daughter for the idea (following an internship with the Center for Pediatric Therapies, she wrote about the community’s need for one in her college admissions essay) and said he’s been “talking it up for several years. If I have anything to do with it, it’s going to be part of Riverview Park (a planned park adjacent to the Smith River Sports Complex) when we develop that.”
Expanding broadband throughout the county is a passion project for Wagoner.
“I want to see that happen,” he said. “We’re going to make that happen. It’s going to be a big undertaking, but it’s going to be transformative for our community.
“Tim has done a tremendous job with economic development. I think we’re at a point now … we’ve got to look for those economic development opportunities that strengthen the resiliency of our community and raises the wealth of our community,” including providing better-paying jobs for residents.
Part of that will be continuing to push forward the development of Commonwealth Crossing and the Patriot Centre to attract diverse industries to the area who are willing to make a significant capital investment.
In addition to the local economy, “of course, reversion is on the horizon,” Wagoner said. “The board has set the standard that they want to fight reversion and I take my cues on that from them. We’ll fight reversion and do what’s in the best interests of the citizens to the extent that we’re allowed to by law. In the event that city residents don’t make the wise decision in deciding not to revert, then we’ll do what we have to do to make us one community.”
Even with the growing tensions between the city and county as the reversion issue lingers, Wagoner thinks the two communities can put differences aside and become one should the need arise.
The county is “at a disadvantage and the state created that,” he said. “It’s the state’s fault that we’re even in this situation. The Commonwealth of Virginia can do more to make it more palatable for counties to accept cities that revert. On the administrative level, we do work well with the City of Martinsville. We have so many successful programs,” including the Martinsville-Henry County 911 Center.
“Ultimately, if we’re forced to do it, then I think the people in the community will make it successful,” Wagoner said.
Another possible speedbump is the question of whether to raise county taxes. During his last budget presentation, Hall indicated that real estate taxes may need to be increased in the coming years. Wagoner, however, seems hesitant.
“The county is very conservative when it comes to taxes,” Wagoner said. “We have some of the lowest tax rates anywhere in the commonwealth of Virginia, but we should have. A lot of our citizens have the least ability to pay taxes. There won’t be a tax increase unless it’s an absolute necessity, and you won’t see a recommendation coming from me unless I know that we can’t mitigate it some other way.”
Yet another issue is the issue of pay for county law enforcement, which has been the subject of several meetings of the Board of Supervisors.
Wagoner said he believes the most recent issue was primarily one of communication, and one he believes he can resolve.
“To my knowledge, I have a good, solid, working relationship with the sheriff and most all the employees there. I got to know many of those folks with the jail project and I communicated with them on a daily basis. I think I see their issues, I think we can mitigate them, talk to them, work through them, so I don’t anticipate any problems,” he said.
In addition to working with law enforcement on the new jail, Wagoner noted that he was a medic for the SWAT team for more than 10 years.
“I went through SWAT training, and I’ve had their back. I didn’t work patrol every weekend, but I have been in a few precarious situations,” he said, and recalled one instance where he arrived at the scene of a hostage situation—a man was holding his girlfriend at knifepoint. As negotiations progressed, the SWAT team stacked up at the front door, Wagoner among them, ready to intervene.
“We heard the woman screaming at the top of her lungs, so they knocked the door down, we went in, and he’s stabbing her in the chest. My role at that point was to provide medical care, but she died,” he recalled.
While many officers may not be aware of his experience with law enforcement, “those that have been there for a while do, so I think that helps. I know what they’ve been through, I’ve seen it, I know what impact it has on their families because my brother is a sheriff’s deputy.”
Despite all the challenges that lay ahead, Wagoner said he is not nervous about leading the county.
“I am excited to take on some new challenges. I feel like I’m ready,” he said. “I feel like the county has invested in me. They got me ready—my coworkers, my supervisor, the citizens, the elected officials, they all got me ready for this. They challenged me along the way, corrected me when I needed to be corrected. I feel like they have gotten me ready for what’s coming.”
Wagoner has certainly invested in the county over years; growing, serving, and constantly learning, digging his roots deeper and deeper into the place that he has always called home.
“I think the biggest strength of Henry County is its people, and we have tremendous people in our community that go above and beyond to help others, whether it be their service in volunteer rescue squads or fire departments, or what they do at their church or Kiwanis Club or Rotary Club, there are just so many selfless people here, so it makes it easy to want to see it succeed and grow,” Wagoner said with a smile. “I always want to be a part of it.”