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We must fill those well-worn shoes

Kate Craig, Guest Commentary • Sep 13, 2018 at 8:00 AM

Far too frequently these past few weeks we’ve read the news to learn of the passing of a musical icon, political leader and military hero, or Hollywood legend. And with each of them we grieved. This time, the loss was even more personal. The loss was of one of our own. This wasn’t someone we knew strictly through myth and legend, newspaper articles, and documentaries.

This was someone who made the time, who dined with us, listened to us and served. Commissioner Ralph Van Brocklin was one of us, a local hero without a cape but a man who improved the lives of far too many people for any of us to ever be able to count the number of lives he touched.

I, too, am grieving this loss; which is why writing this piece on Commissioner Van Brocklin is heartbreakingly painful. One of the first organizations I volunteered for after moving home to Johnson City was the Washington County-Johnson City Animal Shelter — a labor of love for Commissioner Van Brocklin. The first time I spoke with him was about the shelter and he stated that when he decided to run for a seat on the Johnson City Commission in 2011, he promised his wife he would prioritize funds to build a new animal shelter. He quipped that by making this promise was the only way she’d allow him to run. Making good on his promise, the new building for the shelter opened in 2015 at the end of his term as Johnson City mayor.

In a day and age when partisan politics drives wedges, when there’s distrust between neighbors, Commissioner Van Brocklin lived among the citizens of which he served. He could regularly be found eating at Main Street Pizza in downtown Johnson City, enjoying a concert in Founders Park on a warm Friday evening, or representing his office and the city of Johnson City at countless events and community forums. Commissioner Van Brocklin always greeted people with a smile, making sure he did his best to make everyone feel at home.

The home he created for everyone here is now filled with large expanses of green space, beautiful parks that controlled flooding so downtown Johnson City could revitalize as well as flourish and people from all over the region could enjoy outdoor concerts, festivals, sculptures and walking paths. These are all places that make me proud to say I’m from and continue to call Johnson City home.

Commissioner Van Brocklin and I shared a common goal — working to ensure Johnson City continue to grow and is a welcoming home for everyone. We agreed on most things and he offered advice in how I lead the growth of the Washington County Democratic Party. I’m honored to have been challenged and in turn have grown by his leadership, vision, and kindness. He made me into a better leader. He made all of us better community leaders, activists, friends and neighbors.

Commissioner Van Brocklin left behind a pair of awfully big shoes to fill. A void in our community has been echoing with sorrow since his untimely passing. We will always wonder what else he could have done to continue propelling us forward. So we must always look to the roadmap he left behind, emulate his kindness and passion for service, and use those tools to guide us as we work to honor his legacy and seek to grow and improve our shared community.

As the Johnson City Commission deliberates on who will serve out Commissioner Van Brocklin’s remaining two-year term, my hope is that the commission would identify someone with the forward, progressive, and visionary leadership of Commissioner Van Brocklin to nominate in October. I ask that the commission identify a community leader who looks like the community and has the courage to fight for a better Johnson City, inclusive to all its citizens.

Tomorrow, and the day after that, and the day after that, let us remember Commissioner Van Brocklin as we move forward, as we grieve and as we serve. This is our turn to pick up the baton and continue toward the finish line. This is a marathon, not a sprint. The only way we move forward is together. Commissioner Van Brocklin taught me that.

Kate Craig of Johnson City chairs the Washington County Democratic Party.

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