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Thursday, February 4, 2010

Pete McDaniel – He Left His Mark on Jackson County

By Bo McMullian

Pete McDaniel was an old-fashioned man but he was always “thinking modern”. He was a “good ol’ boy” political man, but during his life he did a lot of great things for Jackson County. When he joined the County Commission in 1982, the county suffered with an antiquated jail, the town of Malone was almost without a public works system and the Commission had no Administrator to separate policy-making, or politics, from daily administration. McDaniel worked tirelessly to change all three, to make Jackson County ready for the 21st century--from the 19th!

And that’s just part of Pete McDaniel’s legacy, as he was laid to rest Sunday after the packed services at the Sneads Methodist church in which he was given a standing ovation. He was 83. He suffered a massive heart attack in 2006 and was in and out of hospitals until a few months ago when with the support of Emerald Coast Hospice, he was brought back home to Sneads. Congestive heart failure finally ended his life last week.

He’ll forever be remembered in Sneads, the town of his life-long residence, as a dedicated family man of modest means who operated Pete’s Heavy Equipment shop. He attended FSU for a bit on the G-I bill after serving in the Air Force after World War II, but after meeting Estelle, a nursing student at FSH in Chattahoochee, he knew what he wanted to do--marry Estelle (that was 60 years ago) and work for the old Burford Caterpillar business on the west end of Marianna--and of course, live in Sneads.

Family members say his love of helping people and networking with them (he was a talker; one could say he made it an art form) led him to public service. He joined the Sneads City Council in the early 1970s and, yes, helped to modernize that tiny town with a true police force, an EMT/fire-rescue station and cooperation with Apalachee Correctional Institution on a wastewater treatment plant. He’s famous for putting the strong-arm to Department of Corrections officials when they tried to short-change the town concerning ACI’s usage.

McDaniel learned greatly from that experience with DOC. It would help later when it came time to put the strong-arm, politically of course, to Waste Management. Their bosses in 1988 wanted the county commission to guarantee a subsidy in the event of revenue shortfalls to the company if the company purchased the county landfill.

The TIMES talked with former Jackson County Administrator Ernie Padgett on Tuesday, reflecting on the Pete McDaniel days. “Waste Management pushed us,” Padgett said, “and we pushed back. Pete was the chairman and he led the charge to not only make the sale to Waste Management, but to have that company pay us royalties for waste brought in from outside the county. Now, those royalties amount to over a million dollars for the county each year, and all because of how Pete and the county commission reacted to pressure from big business.”

Padgett also gives McDaniel great credit for persuading county voters to back a one-cent sales tax for a new jail. “The federal government was breathing on us hard to close the old jail, it was so outdated and worn-out,” Padgett said. “Many thought a new jail would be ‘coddling prisoners’ but Pete saw the real need. The one-cent sales tax wound up getting passed two-to-one and a state-of-the-art jail/prison was built that could house federal prisoners and raise revenues from that. The jail paid for itself in four years. No long-term bond issue.”

McDaniel faced opposition in another issue concerning Padgett----hiring him. Padgett served as a County Commissioner from 1980 to 1984 when he declined to run again. By 1987, it was clear the growing county and county budget required a degreed Administrator for proper management of operations. Many thought it was a needless expense; they were slow to change. But McDaniel knew better. Padgett was hired as the first County Administrator, a position that has been filled ever since.

The Jackson County Development Council Director, Bill Stanton, was also reached by the TIMES for comment Tuesday. Stanton told of how McDaniel was instrumental in getting the state prison built north of Malone. “Today that prison employs about 400 people,” Stanton said, “and the town of Malone enjoys better water and sewer service. We needed Pete’s help in 1989 and he went to bat for us, helping to ensure that the county put up one-third of the cost of buying more than 100 acres of land and winning the support of local residents.”

Pete’s accomplishments were never a surprise to his family. The TIMES sat down with Estelle, daughter Rhonda Mixon, and granddaughter Mandy Grover Tuesday afternoon in the house on “Pete’s Way” in Sneads. The house is just a stone’s throw from the house in which Pete was born in 1926. “He liked to help people get jobs, “ Mandy said, “he took delight in that.”

“There was a constant path of people coming through that door,” Rhonda said, “he never turned any away.”

“I remember the phone rang all the time,” Estelle said. “He was busy until the end. Two days before he died he made his son Pat buy potatoes to plant in the garden. He could see the garden outside from his hospital bed in the bedroom.”

“He loved people and he loved Sneads,” Rhonda said. She tells her favorite story of her dad from when she was a child: “We used to go on day trips out of town and dad would always fill up a jug or two with Sneads water because he would say, ‘You never know what you’ll get somewhere else.’”

The people of Sneads as well as all of Jackson County will miss Pete McDaniel.

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