By Dave Ongie, News Editor
It’s been 50 years, but Johnson City Mayor Jenny Brock can still hear the ‘click, click, click’ of Gary Mabrey’s shoes echoing through the halls of Science Hill High School.
The two were classmates at Science Hill in the mid 1960s as Johnson City prepared to celebrate its centennial. Neither had any idea they’d play key roles in the city’s celebration of its sesquicentennial, Brock as mayor and Mabrey as the president and CEO of the Johnson City/Washington County Chamber of Commerce. But given the gift of hindsight, Brock said the man who has guided the Chamber for the past 31 years with his own unique blend of optimism and vision was already taking shape when he was still in high school.
“He may have had his madras shirt on, or his ROTC uniform, but he was always Mr. Chamber of Commerce walking down the hall,” Brock recalled as the Johnson City Board of Commissioners honored Mabrey prior to their meeting on June 20. “I think Gary was priming himself even in high school for the role he has served for the rest of his life.”
This past week, Mabrey’s tenure as the president and CEO of the Chamber officially came to an end as he handed off the baton to the chamber’s new top executive Bob Cantler. During Mabrey’s 31 years at the helm, he saw his share of highs and lows, victories and defeats, but he never lost his trademark optimism. As he sat in his office last Thursday morning, Mabrey said his final days on the job have been emotional.
“I’ve had a delightful roller coaster ride of thoughts and feelings and emotions and that occasional shedding of a tear, but they’re all happy tears,” Mabrey said. “They’re tears of happiness for the blessings.”
Mabrey has been deeply rooted in Johnson City since the time he was a young boy growing up on the corner of Watauga and Market Streets. He remembers those days well, attending West Side School and living a short walk from a vibrant downtown filled with retail stores, movie theatres and restaurants.
Following his time at Science Hill, Mabrey served in the Air Force before eventually returning to Johnson City, where he became an optimistic voice championing the city, county and region he lived in. City Manager Pete Peterson likened Mabrey to the “Energizer Bunny, leading the charge, very happy and positive about everything.”
“I’ve know him for a long time, and I’ve never seen him down,” Johnson City Commissioner Todd Fowler added. “In public and private, he’s always the same – always positive about everything, always positive about Johnson City and the things we can do and where we’re going.”
Mabrey chalks up his optimism to his upbringing and his genes.
“I attribute my approach to my life to three women – my mother, my grandmother and my great-grandmother,” Mabrey said. “There are some others in my years growing up here in Johnson City that influenced me to be positive and upbeat, and I think that’s just my nature. I think there’s some gene pool stuff there. My nature is to be optimistic even when things would cause one to be less than optimistic.”
Dr. Larry Calhoun recalled the dark clouds that hung over efforts to get the Gatton College of Pharmacy off the ground without state funding. Calhoun said a pharmacy school had never been started that way, but Mabrey was an upbeat voice in the room throughout the process.
“Gary was at all those meetings, right in the middle of it, and he always had an idea for how to get it done. And we got it done,” Calhoun recalled. “We live and work and play in a better place because of Gary Mabrey.”
In addition to his ability to find the thinnest of silver lining amongst gathering clouds, Brock said Mabrey has a knack for putting talented people in places of leadership where they can best serve the community and the region as a whole. Peterson echoed those sentiments, calling Mabrey a pusher instead of a puller due to his penchant for putting somebody else at the point position on a project and giving them the tools necessary to succeed.
Johnson City Vice Mayor Joe Wise recalled how Mabrey’s door was open to him when he graduated from Milligan about two decades ago and was looking to enter the workforce. That same door was open nearly a decade later when Wise sought Mabrey’s council on entering local politics.
City Commissioner John Hunter also recalled the helpful advice he received from Mabrey and credited him for his ability to see the future.
Not surprisingly, Mabrey believes the future of Johnson City and the region as a whole are bright. Last Thursday, he cited the work being done by Ballad Health in a region that includes Northeast Tennessee and Southwest Virginia. He talked about the move the Chamber is preparing to make from its headquarters on East Market Street to the Model Mill property on Walnut Street, which is currently being restored and is expected to be a shining jewel in the upcoming refurbishment of the Walnut Street Corridor.
A lot has happened over the course of Mabrey’s life. The vibrant downtown he grew up with fell into a state of deep decline after retail businesses fled for North Roan Street. But as he steps away from his role with the Chamber, he’s excited to see downtown coming full circle.
Mabrey said evidence of downtown Johnson City’s resurgence can be seen by taking the same short walk he took as a child from the corner of Watauga and Market up toward Main Street.
“I could walk from that same corner,” he said. “I could walk downtown, and it is becoming vibrant. It’s becoming a place for business. It’s a place for entrepreneurs. It’s a place for fun. It’s a place for family.”
Speaking of family, Mabrey said he is looking forward to enjoying more time with his wife Jackie, his children and his grandchildren. He said he plans to regroup before figuring out what the next chapter of his life will look like.
For now, he’s thrilled to watch a new generation of business leaders take up the challenge of moving our entire region forward.
“It’s right here in our regional backyard,” he said. “There are many talented men and women, servant leaders, who not only do well at their work and then their business, but they see a bigger picture, which is where they live in their hometown and their region.”