Intelligent. Forward-thinking. Tenacious. Trustworthy. Competent. Involved. Thorough. Independent. Generous. Responsive. Humble.
Ralph Van Brocklin was arguably the most effective Johnson City mayor and city commissioner to ever cast a vote. The cerebral yet affable Van Brocklin could be found at numerous meetings and workshops wearing his ever-present black cowboy boots and toting a stack of books and papers to and from his appointed rounds. That toting, and those appointments, were prolific.
He died on Saturday, Sept. 8 after suffering an apparent heart attack while running on the Tweetsie Trail, an eye-pleasing amenity he championed wholeheartedly along with dozens of others. It’s fair to say Johnson City will never be the same.When the California native walked into a meeting, workshop, roundtable, discussion or debate he commanded respect. It certainly would suit his character not to be aware of that fact, but it’s true.
His final actions as a commissioner came on Sept. 6. He strongly supported and voted to purchase property next to Winged Deer Park to accommodate growing athletic and recreational needs. He also voted for a new cafeteria and gymnasium at Liberty Bell Middle School, a project he had worked on for more than a decade with Vice Mayor Jenny Brock.
“He turned, looked at me, smiled and quietly said, ‘We finally did it,’ ” Brock said. “He was so well prepared and analytical. My style is more intuitive. He would look at me sometimes and say, ‘How did you know that?’ He was so well-studied, but he had a very good sense of humor.
“Ralph put his money where his mouth was. He planted seeds. He could see the future. He governed with purpose, and he was very disciplined. He made decisions that moved the community forward. He was demanding, but respectful. He was authentic. If he were talking to me right now he’d say, ‘Keep things moving forward.’”
Van Brocklin, an oral surgeon, was elected to the City Commission in 2011, after serving one term on the Johnson City Board of Education. He was mayor from 2013-2015, won election for a second term in 2016 and would have served at least through 2020. He donated every penny of his salary back to the city.
After graduating from the University of California, Los Angeles, he went to dental school at the University of Pennsylvania. He completed residencies at the University of California, San Francisco and the University of Tennessee, Memphis, and moved to Johnson City because of his love of the natural environment.
Anyone who attended either Board of Education or City Commission meetings knows he also fought doggedly for Johnson City Schools financing, top-notch facilities, better teacher salaries and higher student achievement. “He was sitting about 10 rows below me at a Science Hill football game, and I went down and introduced myself,” said BOE Vice Chair Jonathan Kinnick. “He encouraged me to run. We would meet for breakfast — a lot of places — and he told me the school board needed someone that was analytical.
“We lost the analyzer — the detail guy. There were commissioners through the years that relied on Ralph to do the research. When I try to tell you who he was, it’s just too much,” Kinnick said while staring down at the floor. “He would help anyone. He was genuine, even his email address.”
Van Brocklin’s email address began with “thegenuine@,” an ode to the name on the label of a very rare bottle in his treasured bottle collection.“He was without question the most prepared person in the room,” said City Manager Pete Peterson. “We lost a guardian of the taxpayers’ assets. You could agree to disagree and walk away. He never held a grudge. He also did work for local organizations and never said anything about it.”
Due to qualifying deadlines and other state guidelines, Van Brocklin’s position will not be on this November’s election ballot. The City Commission can appoint someone to fill that void until his term expires in 2020. The consensus is fairly apparent commissioners do not want to rush into that decision.
Following the construction of a new animal shelter (to which he pledged $25,000 in the initial stages of its conception) and the Tweetsie Trail, he continued to push for a more vital downtown, including continued growth and activity at Founders Park, The Pavilion at Founders Park and the Depot.
“He was like the Energizer Bunny,” said Commissioner Joe Wise. “Unless you were around to see it, it was kind of hard to believe all that he did. And he wasn’t winging it.”
Former mayor and commissioner Jeff Banyas, a dentist, met Van Brocklin 34 years ago in dental school. The two sat next to each other at City Commission meetings and could often be seen conferring, pointing out the small print on various documents and sharing a laugh.
“I can’t stop thinking about him,” Banyas said. “Even after a heated debate, he could walk away and be your friend. That’s hard to do for most people. People have no idea how kind he was. There were patients he didn’t charge. He would just say, ‘I’ll take care of it.’ ”
A celebration of Van Brocklin’s life was held this past Saturday. In lieu of flowers, the family asks that you make a donation to your favorite Johnson City/Washington County charity.
Memories and condolences may be shared at tetrickfuneralhome.com. Tetrick Funeral Services, 3001 Peoples St., Johnson City TN 37604 (423-610-7171).