Archive for Wednesday, October 25, 1989

Friends, associates remember Watson

October 25, 1989


Commitment, dedication and leadership were words used today as friends and professional associates reflected on the career of City Manager Buford Watson, who died early this morning.

Watson, city manager in Lawrence since 1970 and only the fourth city manager in Lawrence's history, died after suffering a heart attack.

Mayor Bob Schumm, who has spent 4 years on the Lawrence City Commission and who carried the news of Watson's death to other city commissioners early this morning, praised Watson for his commitment to the city, for his professionalism and for his ability to guide the commission in difficult situations.

"Obviously, it's just a tremendous shock to us," Schumm said. "It was totally unexpected. I don't think I, or any member of the commission or staff, can assess the total loss we're going to see from Buford's death."

SCHUMM SAID Watson had a "tremendous personality, in terms of professional stature and in his ability to facilitate and help the commission in understanding complex matters."

Schumm, as did many of Watson's contemporaries, said he didn't always agree with Watson. "But he was a great peacemaker and he had the ability to work with all of the sides on an issue."

In listing what he considered Watson's biggest accomplishments, Schumm pointed to the redevelopment of the riverfront as one of Watson's proudest accomplishments. That redevelopment started with plans unveiled in the mid-1970s for construction of Lawrence's city hall at Sixth and Massachusetts and continue today with construction of the Lawrence Riverfront Plaza, just east of city hall.

"I know from visiting with him, he was so proud of that," Schumm said.

Watson also will leave a legacy for street improvements 15th, Kasold, Clinton Parkway and Wakarusa Drive, among other.

GARY TOEBBEN, president of the Lawrence Chamber of Commerce, said he learned of Watson's death early this morning and was shaken by the news. His voice broke as he spoke.

"He was a real builder. He loved this community a lot. For 19 years he led the way in city government," Toebben said. "There's no doubt that Lawrence is a finer place today because of Buford Watson. He had courage, he had vision and he cared. He's one of those people in the history of this city, it will be said, who made a difference."

Mike Wildgen, Watson's assistant for 15 years, said he not only lost a dear friend, but an internationally respected city manager.

"To the city, he was a leader," Wildgen said. "He left a mark that can be seen by anybody walking down the street. He started when there were riots on the streets in the early '70s and he led the city through some tremendous growth."

Wildgen said Watson would have been most pleased by the staff development at city hall and by his ability to carry out the commission's decisions.

"I DON'T think he ever said he was responsible for this or that," Wildgen said. "It was always with the commission, with city staff, with the community, with whoever was involved in a particular project."

Ernie Mosher, executive director of the League of Kansas Municipalities, said Watson was an outstanding municipal leader in Kansas and was also recognized throughout the country in his role as president of the International City Management Assn.

In Kansas, Watson was active in league affairs and served on the league's state legislative committee for a number of years. He was also past president of the Kansas Association of City Managers.

He was a frequent speaker to groups of city officials and well-known throughout the state.

Most recently he was a member of the league's special committee on the future of Kansas Government.

"There's no question that he was recognized by city managers in Kansas as one of the outstanding city managers in the state," Mosher said.

GERALD COOLEY, whose law firm has represented the city during Watson's tenure, was also Watson's neighbor and close friend.

"I've been associated with him professionally and as a friend since his first days here in January 1970," Cooley said.

Cooley recalled those early days of Watson's tenure, days that were filled with tension and violence on the Kansas University campus.

"Buford came here during some trying times with the city. We were having a lot of social problems that were being responded to by a number of groups . . . He did an outstanding jobs for us as citizens. He was a genuinely concerned person."

Cooley said Watson managed the city's personnel "not with a stick, but with a presence that demanded, without force, the type of work that was expected."

"He exhibited the depth of his character and the depth of his ability that he was able to maintain his position in the community in excess of 19 years, which is unusual for the position he held," Cooley said. "I think the passage of time will reveal the true significance of his contributions to the community because his abilities will be missed."

DOUGLAS COUNTY Commissioner Mike Amyx, who has also served as the city's mayor, said he had an association of more than six years with Watson.

"I truly, for myself, lost a very good friend, someone who helped me and taught me a lot," Amyx said. "It was just a terrible shock this morning. I think Lawrence has lost truly one of the best representatives it could ever have, someone who truly carried out the will of the city commission . . . The one thing that I always liked about Buford is he always repected my opinion . . . Lawrence has had an unbelievable loss."

Pete Whitenight, a former Douglas County commissioner and longtime downtown businessman, said he thought very highly of Watson.

"He made a tremendous contribution to this community," Whitenight said, although he noted that Watson was often controversial.

"He was very capable and always full of good humor and good cheer. He will be hard to replaced."

DAVID PENNY, elected to the commission in April, summed up the effect of Watson's death this way:

"It's like losing a father in a sense. . . . He's going to be difficult to replace, either from a personality point of view or from the knowledge he had about city issues," Penny said.

Watson's son, Mark, said: "We're all going to miss him. We're just getting calls today from city managers from all over the country and all over the world.

"He always set an example for me," said Watson, who is a city manager himself in Grapevine, Tex. "He'd always encourage me to stick through the tough times in city government."

Watson said the family decided to establish a scholarship fund for a student who wants to become a city manager "and pass that legacy on."

Many Kansas University students studying public administration went through Watson's office and later become city managers.

"He's really shaped city management in America," Watson said.

BARKLEY CLARK, an attorney who started on the planning commission in 1970 when Watson became manager, served on the city commission from 1973 to 1983 was mayor twice.

"He really made an impact, I think," he said today. "The city has enjoyed healthy growth and a strong tax base."

Clark said that although Watson had to clean up a number of personnel and management problems in his first few years on the job, he had left the city with a strong management staff.

Clark said Watson was instrumental in developing the city's infrastructure.

"Everything that has happened in the last 20 years, really, bears his imprint. He's left quite a legacy," he said.

Watson "was very honest and forthright," Clark said. "He had a good sense of humor," a must in such a tension-filled job. "That kept everything in perspective for him."

JOHN NALBANDIAN, associate professor and former chairman of KU's Department of Public Administration, released a statement on behalf of the department.

"There was no greater champion of the Kansas University public administration program than Buford Watson. We've lost a dear friend and we have lost one of the most respected city managers in America.

"We counted on Buford for so much. He was always available to our students. He stuck with us during lean times. He urged us to do the right things.

"My first reaction was `Who's going to get us through those rough spots during the conferences? Who can we count on to make our guests comfortable? Who will remind us of our great history?'

"The city of Lawrence will replace the city manager, but the MPA program can never replace Buford, nor will we ever forget what he did for us."

DOUGLAS COUNTY Administrator Chris McKenzie's association with Watson goes back 10 years, including his previous work with the League of Kansas Municipalities.

"I considered him a good friend and a mentor," McKenzie said, "and a good supporter of meeting the county's needs and city-county cooperation. I'm just going to miss him an awful lot.

". . . He had a wonderful ability to make people feel welcome," he said. "He took a strong interest in people and in the public administration profession."

Bill Hansell, president of the International City Management Assn., described Watson as "truly one of the greatest city managers in America.

"He was totally committed to public service, to the principals of representative democracy and to the highest ideals of our profession," he said from his office in Washington, D.C. "As a past president of the ICMA, he gave great vision and leadership. Saddest to me personally is I've lost a friend. It's a loss for the city of Lawrence and the city management profession and for everyone who knew Buford personally."

LAWRENCE developer Bob Billings said Watson deserves a lot of credit for Lawrence's growth in the last two decades.

"He's orchestrated the controlled growth of the community in a most professional manner," he said. "I would think that the preservation and enhancement of our downtown has certainly been a hallmark of his administration."

Watson "always conducted himself as an absolute gentleman, and dealt with the most difficult problems with total integrity and with the long-range interests of the community at heart," he said.

"Lawrence is a better place now and will be a better place in the future because of the leadership Buford has provided us."

One Lawrence resident who has locked horns with Watson in the past is Richard Kershenbaum, a member of the East Lawrence Improvement Assn. and the Eastern Parkway Task Force.

Kershenbaum said he did feel that Watson failed to be the kind of "peacemaker" who could bring together all the diverse interests in the community.

But though he had his differences with Watson, "I don't think there was any personal animosity between us, ever," he said. "I think Buford was good at that, too. I don't think he was ever personally hostile to anyone that I ever knew about."

VERA MERCER, who was city clerk from 1966 until 1987, said Watson was a good boss.

"He was a congenial person, a happy-type person to be around and work with," she said. "He was very forthright. He was plain-spoken. You understood what needed to be done. . . He was very easy to work for."

In a prepared statement, Kansas University Chancellor Gene Budig said: "The University of Kansas has lost a good and trusted friend, and the Lawrence community has lost a nationally known and respected resource. All of us will miss his wise and humane counsel."

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