“Life’s what happens when you’re busy making other plans,” Henry County Administrator Tim Hall said, quoting John Lennon, as he reflected back on the career trajectory that brought him into public service.
The quote is an appropriate one. Hall never planned on a career in public service.
After more than two decades serving Henry County, including 10 years as County Administrator, Hall retired on June 30.
As Hall’s decades-long career in service to the county, a career he never envisioned, drew to a close, he reflected on the roads that led him to his current role, and the people who helped shape him along the way.
Hall was born in Lee County in far southwest Virginia. His family moved to Martinsville when he was 9 or 10 years old when his father, who worked in A.M. radio, took a job in the area. “Back in that day,” Hall recalled, “A.M. radio was the icon.” People tuned in to hear his father deliver the day’s news.
Hall credits his parents with instilling in him a strong work ethic, a healthy dose of humility, and the idea of “taking responsibility when it’s your screw-up and doing your best to fix it,” lessons that Hall returned to several times when reflecting on his tenure with the county.
Hall graduated Martinsville High School in 1977 and, following in his father’s footsteps, studied journalism and communications at James Madison University (JMU.) As a student, he worked for newspapers in Harrisonburg, Charlottesville, and even his college’s student newspaper.
Hall recalled submitting his first article for his college paper and receiving a check for $25. Thinking it was a mistake, he said, he returned it. When he discovered the money was, indeed, his, he swiftly determined to write and submit even more.
After graduation, Hall was hired on as a reporter for a Lynchburg paper, eventually moving from sports writing to news, mainly due to the easier schedule, which was important for the newlywed, who married his wife Mary in the summer of 1989.
Six months after his wedding, Hall’s father passed away.
“In my family,” Hall recalled, “my parents were golden. I had the greatest parents, a very tight family, and my dad was the patriarch.” After he passed, “I just felt like I needed to come home to help with the transition.”
Hall returned to the area and, despite having never done radio before, took over his father’s job. “I just felt like I needed to do it,” he said.
Moving back proved a fortuitous decision.
“From covering school board meetings, the Henry County (Schools) Superintendent at that time was a man named Virgil Poore, and he liked the way I covered meetings,” Hall recalled. “He said, ‘we’re going to create a public information officer (PIO) at the school system. Would you be interested?’ and I said, ‘sure, what is that?”
Hall took the job. He also worked as a coach and taught journalism to middle school students after earning his teaching certificate.
The 7-years he spent working as PIO and teaching for Henry County was “the hardest job I ever had,” Hall said. “Knowing what teachers had to do even then, I have always had a lifelong admiration for teachers.”
While difficult, the job also was rewarding.
“I felt good about the kids that learned the value of asking questions,” he said.
In 1998, the Henry County PIO Bill Farrar took Hall to lunch to tell him he was leaving the county for a job in Richmond and was recommending Hall take his place. In Dec. 1998, Hall went to work as the PIO for Henry County, and has worked in public service ever since.
“I never worried about what was coming next,” Hall said of the various turns his career path took before leading him to the county. “I always figured something would come next. I was happy being a reporter. I was happy teaching school. I was happy just doing what was in front of me, but things get presented as opportunities, and I just decided to roll the dice a couple of times and see what happens.”
Hall was hired as PIO for Henry County by then-County Administrator Sid Clower. He served in that role until March 26, 2002, when Clower walked into the woods with a gun in his hand, threatening suicide, as investigators zeroed in on a years-long embezzling scheme, during which an estimated $800,000 was taken from the Henry County Public Service Authority (PSA).
Clower was disarmed and arrested. The Board of Supervisors immediately appointed then-Deputy County Administrator Benny Summerlin to the top job and Hall, the former journalist who never envisioned a life in public service, became his deputy.
Hall said the entire period of the Clower episode and the fallout from it “was just a fog.” Hall said he wrestled with doubt. “Did I not know that person? Because he never gave me that impression. Did I not know him? Is that on me? And if it is on me, should I even be in this chain (of succession)? If I wasn’t aware of what he was doing, and clearly, I missed it, does that mean I need to move on?”
However, Hall recalled, there was no time for either he or Summerlin to second guess. “We had to do it because there was a chasm there. So, you jump in, and you work.”
The year following was a blur. “We just plowed through that,” he recalled.
When Clower was fired in March, he had not begun work on the budget for the next fiscal year which began in July, Hall recalled. “As we’re going through this whole episode with him and trying to get our footing under us, we also had to put together a budget.”
Beyond that immediate work, there were some broader tasks he and Summerlin had to tackle.
“One, you try to fix whatever is wrong that allowed him (Clower) to do it. You try to see if there are other landmines that you need to figure out. And then you need to figure out, ‘am I the one that should stay or not?’ and then, four, you have to try to rebuild the public’s trust, which took a long time. Both Benny and I got accused of being in with Sid, that we stole money too, but you just put your head down and get through it because somebody’s got to do the work.”
To rebuild the public trust, “you make yourself available,” Hall said. “The multitude of civic groups and TV interviews and being out in the community, most of the interactions were good.” Hall recalled people telling him and Summerlin that they knew they were in a difficult position and that they were thinking about them.
“Some of it was accusatory, but the only way you arrest that is by being available and by telling the truth … You can knock over a wall with a bulldozer, (but) you’ve got to build that back brick by brick by brick. That’s what we had to do.”
Even after all this time, Hall said he still is not sure the work of rebuilding trust is done.
“I’m not sure there’s 100 percent conviction in the community that it’s all fixed,” he said, adding that mentions of Clower’s name from residents is still a monthly occurrence, particularly at the PSA window.
After the first year passed, Hall said he and Summerlin realized, “maybe this place needs us to kind of smooth the waters. So that’s how we approached it” moving forward.
In making the move from PIO to deputy, Hall said he relied heavily on Summerlin, his former Martinsville High classmate, “because he had been in the system since he graduated from ODU (Old Dominion University.)”
Summerlin, Hall said, was “a great boss. Very level-headed. He could explain things in detail that I could understand.”
While working as deputy, Hall returned to school, enrolling at Averett University to get his master’s degree in business administration.
“Benny authorized it,” he recalled. “He said, ‘I think at some point, you’re going to want to sit in my seat.’”
Hall and his wife had just returned home with their son, who they adopted from Kazakhstan. Their daughter also is adopted, but from the U.S.
“He (my son) was 7-years-old, didn’t speak English. Why not go back to school,” he said and laughed.
“My wife was a school teacher. She worked a thousand hours a day. We would get the kids down at 9:30 or 10 and I would do my school work until 2, grab some sleep, and go to work.”
Ultimately the work paid off and Hall earned his degree.
Then Summerlin got sick.
Hall recalled being called into Summerlin’s office to hear the news—the county administrator had stage 4 cancer.
“To watch him deal with that with dignity and grace, he never allowed it to impact what he did for the county,” Hall recalled. For a year and a half, Summerlin struggled with his treatments, but through it all, “he was Benny.
“The last six months, every day he deteriorated. The last day he was in the office, he could barely move,” Hall recalled. “I remember we got somebody to back his car up to the loading dock and I walked him out to his car. He said, ‘I appreciate it. I don’t know if I’ll be in tomorrow.’ And he went home, and he passed away at his home. He worked until the very last second, and not for the fame or fortune. He worked because that’s what he was. He wanted to do the very best, and I have tried to emulate that.”
In Aug. 2012, Hall became County Administrator, meaning “you transition from making suggestions to decisions. Following the example set by Summerlin’s selfless service and the strong sense of humility instilled in him by his parents, Hall wants no spotlight on himself.
“Everything we do is from a team aspect,” he said. “I just happen to be the guy that has to say, ‘yes, we’re doing that’ or ‘no we’re not doing that, let’s figure out something else.’ The staff know they have absolute authority to bring something to me that they feel passionate about.”
Hall, it seems, wants no sole credit for any of the county’s successes during his tenure, but knows he must bear the weight of responsibility for those things that go wrong, another lesson learned from his parents.
“There’s no absolute,” he said. “If you think you’re king, you’re not. There are no kings. There’s a team effort, but if something goes wrong, that’s on me, because I’m the last level and I’ll take responsibility …. If something works, you give credit to other people. If something doesn’t, that’s what they pay me for.”
The missteps during his tenure as administrator that Hall dwells on, however, are not broad-ranging errors, but day-to-day business—an interaction with an employee that was not handled well or getting a call from a resident at the end of a long day and not treating them as they should have been treated, or being not as willing as he feels he should be to hear what they have to say.
Hall admits that he has struggled with his temper and with impatience, but hopes that he has improved on both fronts over the years.
“I used to have a really volatile temper,” he said, “and I could show that temper before I had to explain it.”
Putting on a face for the public, he said, took some getting used to. Realizing, thanks to his wife, that even his facial expressions carried more weight once he was in the public eye, Hall said that over the years he has worked to be as stoic as possible.
“I’ve grown up” since becoming administrator, he said. “I’ve grown up from thinking I’m the smartest guy in the room to knowing I’m not the smartest guy in the room. It wasn’t from arrogance, I just thought the way I was doing it was the way to do it. Once you realize that’s not the case, that’s when I started to grow.”
Of the county’s successes during Hall’s tenure, economic development tops the list, but even there, he takes little credit.
“We went 36-months with double digit unemployment. We could not get people back to work,” he said, adding that the efforts of the Martinsville-Henry County Economic Development Corp. and its President and CEO Mark Heath, “the EDC board’s work and our Board of Supervisors, who showed the foresight 15-years ago to purchase the land that is now Commonwealth Crossing, and to purchase the land that’s across the street from the Patriot Center,” Henry County began to turn around.
Eventually, Press Glass “showed the confidence in us for their first huge manufacturing facility in the United States. The hardest thing is getting the first one.”
The second was Crown Holdings.
“Press Glass took about a year. Crown took 6-weeks to get done. Thanksgiving 2019 was when we first met with Crown. The third week in December, they announced they were coming, and that was the largest single-day announcement in the history of the community.”
Hall fondly recalled joining Crown executives and other representatives from Henry County for a 21 golf ball salute after a successful meeting that left everyone feeling confident the county would be Crown’s new home.
That memory and the announcements of new jobs “are the days that you keep,” Hall said. “It’s not a complaint about water bills. It’s not ‘my neighbor’s grass is too high.’” The big announcements, both of new industries and the expansions of existing ones, “those are the ones that you remember.”
As he departs, Hall said there is still work left undone.
“I would like to see wages go up,” he said. “We did a really good job of getting people employment opportunities after the 36 months. We wanted to get them a job. We’ve transitioned to wanting to get them a better job,” which is still a work in progress.
The issue is one Hall is passionate about.
“You shouldn’t have to work two jobs,” he said. “If you’re working a full-time job, you shouldn’t have to work a part-time job to pay your rent. I’m proud of the fact that the manufacturing wage has gone from $16 to almost $22 an hour over the last few years.
“If we can put a person into a position where they make $20 or more, that enables them to not have a second job. It allows them to work and then go home. They take their kid to t-ball practice or to the park. That’s where the benefit to the community comes in. You’ve freed up that parent who was working themselves to death to provide the basics. You’ve given them that time.”
Hall said the county has had such success in attracting industries that they have turned some away, including some “that would have hired a lot of people but would have paid them $12 or 13 an hour. That’s not a living wage.”
Now, he said, county officials can tell companies who want to come here that “you’ve got to step it up. You want to have a plant here, you can come. We’re not going to incentivize you and you need to pay more. You need to have a benefits package. And we’ve said no to some that didn’t fit. I think that’s growth when you can say no.”
While Hall has not worked for a newspaper for many years now, to him, his successes throughout his entire career all trace back to journalism.
“It all goes back to journalism,” he said. “The curiosity and not being afraid to make a mistake, because I’m still making them. But I truly do believe that every mistake you make is an opportunity to get better, to figure out what you should have done and that’s what you do moving forward.”
Hall sees many of those same qualities in his successor, Dale Wagoner, who took the helm July 1, with long-time Martinsville-Henry County 911 Center Director J.R. Powell to serve as his deputy.
“Dale will be great. He may be the smartest guy in the room. He’s sharp, he’s curious, he’s inquisitive, he’s opinionated, which is good. He’ll be great. The place will be in great hands.”
Hall said he would be around, should Wagoner have any questions, but other than that, “I’ve given it all I can give since December 1998, and I’m at peace knowing I did the very best I could.”