published Thursday, January 31st, 2013

Hamilton County's Public Works chief calling it quits

Dan Wade, Hamilton County's public works administrator, will be retiring a the end of the month after serving the county for the last 27 years.
Dan Wade, Hamilton County's public works administrator, will be retiring a the end of the month after serving the county for the last 27 years.
Photo by Dan Henry.

WHAT'S NEXT

At today's Hamilton County Commission meeting, commissioners will vote whether to approve the mayor's selections for a new public works director and a new lobbyist.

When Dan Wade was first offered the position of Hamilton County's Public Works administrator over 27 years ago, he protested.

He was an ideas man, he said, with degrees in philosophy and history. He was a political man, with 10 years under his belt as the executive of Rhea County before then-county executive Dalton Roberts asked him to come to Hamilton County government in 1984.

Wade didn't know much about roads or sewers or engineering projects.

"Dalton, I have no technical expertise," he told Roberts. "I'm a generalist."

"I have all the engineers I need," Roberts shot back. "I need someone with political sense and common sense."

After nearly three decades in the post and working with three different county administrations, Wade, 77, is retiring with the conviction that those instincts were the most important tools he had for every single meeting, phone call and split-decision over the years.

Through the terms of Roberts, former county Mayor Claude Ramsey and current Mayor Jim Coppinger, Wade has tended county ground as major projects were planted, took root and grew -- like the installation of a sewer system outside of the city, and the purchase and development of Enterprise South.

But Wade's favorite part of the job was being involved in the politics that impacted county development. For 14 years, Wade also served as the county's lobbyist at the Tennessee General Assembly, staying in hotels and haunting the legislative plaza for three nights a week whenever the assembly was in session.

He sat through long meetings, past midnight and before dawn, and read the fine print of bill after proposed bill, to see how Hamilton County may fit in.

"Every time I'm in Nashville or at a conference, people ask about Dan," said Coppinger. "He has built and fostered those relationships and the county has benefited from them."

Wade has been deep in Tennessee politics, but he has also overseen day-to-day tasks like making sure potholes are fixed and strategizing after storm damage.

He is a conversational man, who laughs easily and repeatedly credits any of the department's successes to having "excellent people" on staff.

"Dan was good with the resources he had," said Ramsey, now Tennessee's deputy governor. "He just has good judgment. It helped when making decisions about projects. And it certainly helped with his fantasy baseball league, when we used to do those. He always did well."

As his retirement begins this week, Wade plans to focus on treating his peripheral neuropathy, a nerve disorder doctors say he got from an old football injury, which affects his mobility. Besides that, he hasn't made any plans for retirement.

"I'm going to do nothing, and I'm going to do that better than anything I've done," he jokes.

Wade ate, drank and breathed local politics for so long that he is not sure what he'll do with all the spare time.

"I just really like what I do," he said. "I've enjoyed every minute of it, and it's with mixed emotions that I'll leave."

Wade's position will change with his departure, splitting into two separate jobs of public works administrator and lobbyist. But Coppinger said whoever follows Wade will likely need to draw on his institutional knowledge.

"We're hopeful he'll continue to take our phone calls," he said.

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