Martinsville Bulletin, Inc.
P. O. Box 3711
204 Broad Street
Martinsville, Virginia 24115
Toll Free: 800-234-6575
Commitment to job, community praised
Summerlin is shown above shortly after being named Henry County administrator in 2002. Summerlin, known for an affable personality and serious work ethic, died Wednesday at his home in Axton. (Bulletin file photo)
Friday, August 17, 2012
By DEBBIE HALL - Bulletin Staff Writer
Henry County Administrator Benny Summerlin has left a legacy of community service.
“Benny has set a benchmark in the terms of public service that any and everyone should try to emulate,” said Jim Adams, chairman of the Henry County Board of Supervisors.
Summerlin, 53, died Wednesday at his home in Axton. His funeral will be at 2 p.m. Saturday at Bassett High School.
Summerlin announced in 2011 that he had colon cancer. He continued to work even as he underwent chemotherapy.
“Benny had a strong work ethic, and he never came to the board with any kind of problem that he did not, in the same sentence, offer some solutions to it. That is the sign of a good manager,” Adams said.
Summerlin had “total respect for not only the board of supervisors, county and PSA employees, but he also showed that respect for every person regardless of their positions, and he had a knack for bringing people together,” Adams said.
Summerlin was “not afraid to make a stand for something he knew was right, always conducted himself as a true professional, and he always had the interest of the county” at heart, he added.
He joined the county as a patrol deputy with the sheriff’s department and later an investigator. He was named the county’s first public safety director in 1985, became the director of operations in 1992, and was appointed deputy county administrator in 1996.
He was appointed county administrator and general manager of the Henry County Public Service Authority in 2002 after former County Administrator/PSA General Manager Sid Clower was charged with embezzlement.
At that time, county attorney George Lyle said the county’s uncommitted fund balance, “essentially the county’s savings account or rainy day fund,” was less than $1 million.
“This was dangerously low for a county with an annual budget in excess of $100 million,” Lyle wrote in a column in today’s Martinsville Bulletin. But Summerlin prepared “a decade of balanced, conservative budgets that consistently grew the uncommitted fund balance. The fund now stands at around $15 million and allows the county greater financing opportunities for economic development deals, cash to match critical grants, and opportunities to make capital improvements without having to borrow money. All the while the county’s tax rates are in the bottom half of the 95 counties in Virginia,” Lyle added.
Summerlin also received the Fred Herring Award from the Chamber’s Partnership for Economic Growth (CPEG) in 2009. The award recognizes a “person who has given unselfishly to the community through their volunteerism and dedication to the economic growth of Martinsville-Henry County.”
“We were just in great hands, and I’m really going to miss him,” said Tommy Slaughter, vice chairman of the board of supervisors. “I greatly admired him for the job that he did for Henry County.”
Slaughter said he also “loved to go with Benny to meetings out of town and listen to other county and state officials asking for his opinion,” Slaughter said. “He just had a rapport with people.”
Martinsville Sheriff Steve Draper has known Summerlin for more than 30 years.
“And I think it’s a sad day for Martinsville and Henry County. Benny had a love for this area. He was a leader who probably could have gone just about anywhere he wanted to go, and he chose to stay here,” Draper said.
“I’ll miss him. ... (but) I’m glad he won’t have to suffer,” Draper said. “I really worry about our community. He worked harder than I think anybody else will. Benny will be greatly missed. What a dear, dear friend. I’ve lost a dear, dear friend.”
Henry County Sheriff’s Lt. Col. Steve Eanes said Summerlin “has been one of my best friends since 1975, and it’s a huge personal loss and a huge professional loss. ... Anybody that knew him was lucky to have known him.”
Public Safety director Dale Wagoner said Summerlin “always had time for you, no matter who you were or what department you worked in. He always had time for you and he always kept his door open. You never were an interruption to his work.”
Since Summerlin’s death, Wagoner said he has heard “so many stories about where Benny had an impact on people’s lives. He was truly great at building social capital and encouraging people. He had a good heart, and he gave so generously across” the board.
Wagoner said a comment made Wednesday was repeated by many on Thursday: “A lot of who I am is because of who he (Summerlin) was.”
Deputy County Administrator Tim Hall said Summerlin “had the unique ability to treat everybody the same, from a maintenance worker or a landscaper all the way through to senators and governors. Everybody was equal in his eyes, and that was a very rare trait.”
Also, when Summerlin hired an employee, he “trusted them to do their jobs,” Hall said.
Summerlin also believed in openly discussing matters.
“We would discuss things, and he would let you discuss things and bring things to the table, but when he was ready to make a decision, he made the decision,” Hall said. Summerlin “always did what he thought was best for Henry County.”
Mark Heath, president/CEO of the Martinsville-Henry County Economic Development Corp., said Summerlin “had a real role” in the expansion of Commonwealth Laminating that was announced Wednesday.
“We wouldn’t have been there” to make the announcement that 60 jobs would be created in the deal that includes the company’s $5.45 million capital investment in the county’s shell building “without him. He helped get that final deal on the line, and he worked to the end, which was true to his character,” Heath said. “I guess you would expect nothing less.”
Beth Braswell, who formerly worked closely with Summerlin before the city and county created a joint economic development office, said, “it was my privilege to have an opportunity to work with Benny Summerlin. He was a most wonderful employer and a great friend. His honesty was one of his greatest characteristics. I learned from him how to be both gracious and straightforward.”
Martinsville Speedway President Clay Campbell also said Summerlin’s loss is “a great loss for our area. Benny was all about Henry County.” Not just Henry County, “but Martinsville and Henry County and what was in the best interests of the people of this area.”
Campbell praised Summerlin as a true public servant who had “been in public service since Day One of his career.”
Horsepasture District Supervisor Debra Buchanan said, “Benny was probably one of the most respected county administrators in the state of Virginia. He always put Henry County first. He was rock solid ... a very detailed person, and when he presented information to the board, he had his facts, but he always was in the background. He never wanted any accolades for himself, and he always got the job done.”
Martinsville Mayor Kim Adkins said, “I’ve known Benny for a really long time, and in that time, I’ve learned a great deal from him. The community has lost a great community leader. Benny was always a great partner with the city administration, and because of Benny’s leadership, that legacy will carry on.”