Special Reports

May 26, 2007

Hopeful but exhausted, Greensburg mayor quits

Greensburg Mayor Lonnie McCollum -- a voice of optimism since a tornado devastated his town -- said Friday that he has resigned because he is mentally exhausted and wants to get back to being a retiree.

Greensburg Mayor Lonnie McCollum -- a voice of optimism since a tornado devastated his town -- said Friday that he has resigned because he is mentally exhausted and wants to get back to being a retiree.

In an interview with The Eagle on Friday, McCollum, 61, a former Kansas Highway Patrol superintendent and former Pratt police chief, said he turned in a resignation letter Tuesday.

He said he was stepping down so he could enjoy retirement and not have to attend "meeting after meeting" during the intense and lengthy recovery effort.

The May 4 tornado destroyed nearly all of the southwestern Kansas town of 1,400 people, killing 10. Like many others, McCollum lost his home.

"This time, for the first time in my life I'm going to let go of it... because I really think I need to do it for myself and my wife and my family," McCollum said.

Sharon Watson, spokeswoman for the Kansas adjutant general's office, said McCollum worked tirelessly to help his town recover and boost residents' spirits.

The tornado thrust him into a media spotlight. Relief organizations from across Kansas and the nation set up camp in his town.

Wearing an American flag cap and a worker's tan, he came across as sincere, humble, hopeful.

"One thing that was unique about him was the way he approached the citizens and encouraged them about rebuilding," Watson said. "He was quick to say, 'We will have a brand-new town, and this will not be the end of Greensburg.'... He was the voice of hope, along with the city administrator, in the first days after the storm.

"It's certainly understandable that he has a lot going on in his personal life, at this stage in his life, when he's looking forward to retirement."

McCollum conceded that he has grown weary of fielding complaints as the town struggles to rebuild process.

"I can't accommodate everybody," he said, declining to elaborate. "My tolerance level was deteriorating."

"I'm a little snappy sometimes when I'm not getting my way... and I think there's no place for that now."

Added to the burden of being mayor during a difficult and tense time is the realization that he and his wife, Terri, have lost so many possessions and that insurance won't cover all of it.

"You just don't think about being totally wiped out," he said.

He lost a 1932 street rod. She lost antiques. They were only possessions, he noted.

Still, he said, "It's just a lifestyle that I worked my entire life to build up."

They moved to Greensburg, the hometown he left in 1963, to "live our dream life," he said.

A year ago, people elected him in a write-in campaign. "I told them 'Yes' to get them off my porch," he said.

Now, he and Terri, married almost 19 years, are staying in a camper trailer loaned by a friend.

He stressed that he still feels optimistic about Greensburg's recovery, saying he expects its population and economy to grow and that he and his wife plan to build there.

McCollum said City Council procedures call for the council president, now John Janssen, to take over as mayor.

Janssen, 57, who farms and owns an accounting business, said McCollum has "got the skill set, and he has the trust of the community, and he needs to stay in the saddle."

"Lonnie has been there 24/7 on the job since the tornado... he's a natural leader."

He said he knew that McCollum was exhausted and thought that a Monday council meeting in which some businesspeople complained about increased building regulation and building costs might have been the final straw. McCollum said the complaints at the meeting didn't spark his resignation.

McCollum said Janssen is qualified and "extremely intelligent."

Janssen said he would reluctantly take over as mayor but preferred that McCollum keep the position.

Greensburg City Administrator Steve Hewitt, who has been praised by McCollum and others for his work dealing with the tornado, could not be reached for comment Friday.

Thursday night, asked about rumors that McCollum had resigned, Hewitt said: "As far as I know, it's just a rumor. The last time I talked to him, we were both in it for the long run. I'd be pretty disappointed if he resigned at this time."

State Rep. Dennis McKinney, the House minority leader from Greensburg, said it's possible the resignation won't be accepted by the council or Hewitt.

"I'd sure hate for him to leave right now," McKinney said. "He's sure a good leader," with experience that would help with recovery.

McKinney said he understood that McCollum needs to rest and tend to family.

"I'd rather he take a week off, spend it with them and come back," McKinney said.

But McCollum said Friday that he was determined to stick with his resignation.

"It's a done deal," he said.

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