By Lynn J. Richardson
When Kelly Wolfe left the Jonesborough’s Board of Mayor and Alderman meeting on Monday evening, March 12, he was no longer the mayor of Tennessee’s oldest town — a title he has held for almost a decade.
That night was full of changes for Jonesborough. Long-time alderman, Chuck Vest, was appointed as the town’s new mayor and Adam Dickson was appointed to fill the vacated seat of former Alderman Jerome Fitzgerald.
But it was Wolfe who had everyone’s undivided attention. After addressing a packed house for about 20 minutes during the Mayor’s Comments portion of the meeting, Wolfe announced his resignation and left the room. Aldermen, town staff and citizens were visibly shocked. Many were in tears.
And while the decision may have seemed sudden, Wolfe says it was the result of several months of careful consideration and prayer.
“As I left that room, my first thought was “Thank you, God, for the peace that comes with resolving the conflict that I’ve been having,” Wolfe said. “You know, nine and a half years is a long time for anything. But for a public official, nine and a half years — especially with the time we’ve had here in Jonesborough — has been a lifetime for me, full of wonderful experiences, great changes and tremendous growth for our town.”
Wolfe’s five-term tenure has been described as “transformative.” Few would disagree. During his administration nearly 40 percent of Jonesborough’s streets have been paved, water loss has been reduced from 63 to 15 percent, and new city parks, parking lots and connective walking trails have been created.
With Wolfe’s leadership, Jonesborough also built a new $5.5 million wastewater treatment plant, a state-of-the-art senior center, the McKinney Center for the Arts and the Chuckey Depot Railroad Museum.
Wolfe was first elected in 2008, in the throes of the Great Recession. Business was slow for his company, Wolfe Development, and that allowed him the time he needed to devote himself to his new role as mayor of Jonesborough. Now, in 2018, Wolfe’s business is booming. With 26 houses, two subdivisions and a commercial project underway, he says he realized he was on “an unsustainable path,” trying to juggle his non-paying job as mayor with “the paying gig that supports our family.”
His decision to step down was also influenced by his late grandmother, Lou Mazalean Fox, who passed away about a-year-and-a-half ago.
“Not long before she died, she told me, ‘I’m worried about you. You’re doing too much. You need to slow down and take time to enjoy life.’ ” Wolfe said. “I kept hearing her voice in my head and I kept agreeing with it more and more and more.”
“Life passes us in a blink of an eye,” he added. “I look back and I’m overwhelmed by what we’ve accomplished. But then I also look back and say, ‘Where did the time go?’ ”
Those accomplishments didn’t come easy, he says, and he credits Town Administrator Bob Browning, Director of Operations Craig Ford, and Town Recorder Abby Miller — who together have nearly 90 years of service to the town — for being part of a very successful team.
“They are selfless individuals who are willing to change for a better path forward,” he said. “That’s rare in any organization and especially rare for people with that much tenure.”
Wolfe has been called both a conservative and a progressive — something he takes as a compliment. And while he is a self-described conservative “both by nature and in politics,” as mayor, he says it was important to hear everyone’s voices.
“If you look at one side or the other being better, you’re missing the boat,” Wolfe said. “We run on a nonpartisan basis for the Town of Jonesborough. I wasn’t just the mayor of only the conservatives of Jonesborough; I was the mayor of the conservatives and liberals in Jonesborough.
“I worked hard to keep the pendulum as close to the middle as I could because if you pull the pendulum to one side or the other too far, you’re going to create instability in town government. We had that for years. One group would be in charge and they would overreach. Then another group would be in charge and they would overreach. It was back and forth, back and forth.
“That’s not healthy for the staff, or for the long term vision for the town for things to be going like that. So, we married both sides.”
He says an example of such a “marriage” of conservative and progressive ideals is the McKinney Center for the Arts project.
“The use of prison labor and town staff to complete the McKinney Center was a conservative philosophy of execution,” Wolfe said. “But constructing and completing it was a more progressive goal, that of supporting the arts and unifying our community behind a building that used to be a segregated school back in the 1940s.”
“We said, ‘You don’t have to pick one or the other; you can do both.’ And I think that is the summation of why I get pegged as one or the other. We worked very hard to keep things straight down the middle and I think we did a great job of it.”