Don McClellan was known to cut grass on a softball field as mayor and jokingly threaten to cut those who teased him with his pocket knife. He refused to get into the sewer as a matter of political discourse even as he was up to his neck in discharge and drawing the wrath of federal environmental officials. He lost his job as mayor then set about helping thousands find new employment after Russell Corp. withered.
McClellan was many things to many people but also the same — a man who cared about others and worked tirelessly to help them without seeking recognition until the day he lost consciousness.
McClellan, 74, a two-term mayor of Alexander City and the executive director of the Lake Martin Area Economic Development Alliance, died at East Alabama Medical Center in Opelika early Wednesday morning after suffering a massive heart attack Sunday night.
But McClellan pushed through personal frailties and concerns to work on major economic development projects until the fatal heart attack. He had a previous heart attack, friends said he seemed to be losing weight and in recent weeks had undergone cataract surgery and suffered a bowel obstruction while also helping his wife of 54 years, Linda, mend from a broken arm. McClellan never awoke after being admitted to the hospital.
“He had some struggles the last month and it had gotten him a little bit down,” said Denise Walls, the LMAEDA’s director of strategic planning and community development. “It was hard to come in here and know he wasn’t going to be here. But we’re going to keep it going. I’m going to do it for him.”
Tributes gushed forth following McClellan’s death.
“His reputation and his character made people trust him and love him,” said former Alexander City Mayor Barbara Young, who unseated McClellan by 56 votes in a 2004 runoff then worked with him to help bring jobs to the area.
Young recalled their campaign against each other as civil and respectful.
“He was always a gentleman,” she said. “When I told him I was going to run he said he hated to hear that but he understood. It was a very positive campaign. There was never any criticism from Don and he didn’t have any from me.”
Before that defeat, McClellan spent eight years bailing the city out of a sewage dispute with the Environmental Protection Agency and trying to bind the wounds caused by Russell’s collapse and the loss of thousands of jobs.
City community development director Al Jones remembered McClellan recounting a particularly disturbing meeting with an EPA official about the sewage problem.
“He went to Washington to discuss how to handle the issue and someone high up in the EPA looked across the desk at Don and said, ‘Mayor, I hope you know if anybody goes to jail over this it will be you,’” Jones said. “Don hadn’t done anything illegal; he was trying to fix the problem. He laughed about it later but it was an unnerving experience to hear him tell it.”
The city had been discharging sewage into Sugar Creek and the chronic toxicity drew a consent decree from the EPA which could have resulted in hundreds of thousands of dollars in fines during a time the community was suffering the loss of thousands of jobs.
McClellan averted one catastrophe and began working to correct the other one.
“Don oversaw the most complex process I’ve ever been involved in,” Alexander City public works director Gerard Brewer said. “The resolution was using a 5-mile force main, a 30-inch pipe, with everything treated at the plant, then pumped 5 miles down to Piney Woods into a diffuser and then into the (Tallapoosa) River. I felt like he was a large part of how we satisfied the EPA. It was his leadership. If he had a goal he’d kick the doors down and he was going to get things done. I don’t know if people realize how much he used his relationships to help the community.”
After losing to Young in 2004, McClellan was approaching retirement age but decided instead to join the Lake Martin Area Economic Development Alliance, which he had helped create as mayor.
“He had a way of forming relationships around the state that benefited Alexander City that people don’t know about,” said Marshall Griffin, who has served as the alliance’s board chairman for 10 years. “He didn’t care about getting the limelight. He worked to create an alliance between Alexander City, Dadeville, Tallapoosa County and Coosa County to form a stronger economic development program. You need to look at that from a regional standpoint. Companies want to deal with regional groups, not just one little city.”
During McClellan’s 15 years with the LMAEDA, 16 new companies came to Tallapoosa County and there were 20 existing industry expansions, all resulting in the creation of more than 3,400 jobs, according to the alliance. The biggest employers brought in were Korean manufacturers Sejin and Kwangsung in Dadeville and C&J Tech in Alexander City, all of which supply automotive parts for Kia, Hyundai, Nissan, Toyota and Honda.
Those successes are even more meaningful given the rate of failure in economic development and the grousing McClellan often heard for not doing more, criticism which bothered him.
“The best advice he gave me was to be patient with economic development because no matter where you are and who you are you’re going to lose more than you win,” said Jones, who is also on the alliance board. “You’ve got to fight for the wins. He told me the average is about one win for 17 losses. It’s so competitive and he told me not to take it personally.”
Walls was particularly sensitive about rocks thrown McClellan’s way.
“He loved his job for the most part,” Walls wrote in a Facebook post. “And he did it because he honestly, truly cared about our communities and the people who live here. I will physically fight anyone that says different.”
McClellan often parried criticism with a sharp retort and a dull blade.
“He liked to kid around,” Jones said. “You’d pick on him about something and take a swipe at him and he had this tiny pocket knife he carried around. He’d pull it out and wave it and say, ‘Don’t make me cut you.’”
That didn’t apply to the turf at local playing fields.
“I remember my daughters were playing fast-pitch softball at the (Charles E. Bailey) Sportplex and Don was out there cutting grass and he’s the mayor, getting the field ready for play,” Alexander City Mayor Tommy Spraggins said. “He led by example. Nothing was too dirty for him to do.”
And the pressure of creating jobs is often dirty, something that made Alexander City Chamber of Commerce president and CEO Ed Collari feel like a kindred spirit of McClellan’s.
“You do take criticism,” Collari said. “If you have a bad day, you don’t get to go home and forget about it because it could be on the front page of the newspaper and on social media. But that’s what we signed up for. It means that much to us. His death leaves a huge void. He was committed to making lives better, not his but everybody else’s. It’s a tough loss personally and professionally and for the chamber and the community. I’m not sure there were any who cared as much about the community as Don did.”
City attorney Larkin Radney and others said McClellan blended an unbending determination, even stubbornness, to enact his plans with a willingness to listen to many opinions.
“When he set his mind on a course of action he felt was good for the city he could be extremely stubborn to make sure that course was followed,” Radney said. “He deeply loved being in the position of mayor so he could do good things for the city he loved. He was always positive and would listen to anyone as long as they would talk.”
Radney said McClellan was driven by his incessant optimism about Alexander City.
“It isn’t an easy job,” Radney said. “It’s so competitive in the state to get businesses to come in and he gave it his all. He didn’t leave anything on the table. We could have sat around and done nothing when Russell went through a slow death but he created jobs that weren’t there.”
Brewer and Sabrina Wood, the LMAEDA’s director of workforce development, said McClellan had a way of making people feel special and valued.
“When he’d talk to you he’d actually listen to you,” Brewer said. “You felt like you were the only one he did that with but you were one of many. Don was almost like a father to me. He expected you to work hard but he would also reward you. He was a really good people manager. When he was the mayor, he’d say, ‘We need to learn to work together. Even if you disagree, you work together.’”
Wood said McClellan’s office was often a clearinghouse for solving problems.
“I don’t know if you can count how many people he gave a listening ear to and advice,” she said. “I can’t tell you how many people would come here just to talk to him and get his opinion, personal and professional.”
McClellan died 13 days after his 74th birthday which Wood wanly remembered with tears brimming in her eyes.
“We sang ‘Happy Birthday’ to him that morning,” she said.
McClellan died 51 days after the death of Mayor Jim Nabors on May 6 after emergency surgery to remove an intestinal blockage, a loss that left McClellan thunderstruck.
“Don didn’t have many contemporaries before Jim came in,” Walls said. “It hit him hard when Jim passed.”
Collari said the community is feeling the abrupt vacuum left by those leaders.
“To lose two people like that in such a short time hurts,” he said. “They were pillars. It’s tough to absorb. It will take all of us to step up and care more and continue things on a positive path for Alexander City.”
The LMAEDA plans to be deliberate in finding McClellan’s successor.
“It’s a great loss for Alexander City and it will be very hard to find somebody to replace him, his expertise and experience,” Griffin said. “We’ll form a search committee and we’ll take our time. We want to get just the right person, the right fit.”