John Hatchel likes to tell the old municipal government joke about the city manager who said he left his job because of health and fatigue.
“The mayor got sick and tired of me,” the city manager says.
Luckily these days for Hatchel, who retired from the city of Waco in 1999 after 33 years in municipal management, he usually does not stick around a city long enough in his role as interim city manager for mayors to grow sick and tired of him.
To the contrary, several mayors over the years have asked Hatchel to take the city manager’s job on a permanent basis, to which Hatchel laughs and says “you can’t afford me.”
When Hatchel retired after serving 15 years as Waco’s assistant city manager, he did not really retire the same way others do. You won’t find him on the golf course or in a workshop. And until recently, you likely wouldn’t find him at his home in Woodway, either.
Since his retirement, Hatchel, 75, has worked with Texas First Replacement Services Inc., a Leakey-based company that provides interim administrative positions for cities, water districts and municipal utility districts, including city managers, police and fire chiefs, city secretaries, planners, engineers and utility directors.
Averaging four months a stint, Hatchel has served as interim city manager in Balcones Heights, Pampa, Hamilton, Bee Cave, Ennis, Granite Shoals, Hillsboro and now holds that position in Woodway.
He also has served as interim director of utilities in Bryan and Laredo and has been interim general manager for special utility districts near Georgetown and Florence.
“Retirement is a state of mind,” Hatchel said. “You have got to want to do it. I just had too many friends who retired and they don’t do anything. My idea was volunteer work, and I did a lot of volunteer work. I enjoyed doing that, but a lot of people don’t have any volunteer projects or anything to do and they just sit on the porch and rot away. Then they die.”
Hatchel worked under four city managers at Waco and learned his craft under former longtime Abilene City Manager H.P. Clifton, whom Hatchel calls his mentor and the “dean of city managers.” Twenty of Clifton’s assistants went on to become city managers, he said.
After graduating from Denver City High School, where his father was in the booming West Texas oil business, Hatchel went to the former West Texas State University in Canyon and got a government degree.
He started out as an intern in Clifton’s city management training program, reading water meters, riding a garbage truck and fixing potholes for a year before he moved into the city manager’s office the next year, where he learned how to write grants and develop city budgets.
After the second year, Clifton asked if Hatchel would promise to stay at least two years if he made him his assistant city manager. It was 1966, and Hatchel was making $450 a month. The new job would double his salary. Hatchel didn’t think about it too long.
“My boat had come in. I had all the money in the world,” Hatchel said with a laugh.
He was 26 and had 50 city departments reporting to him. He stayed in Abilene 10 years before becoming city manager in Plainview for five years. He and his wife of 53 years, Linda, a talented flutist who is involved in the arts, moved to Waco with their daughter in 1984.
“I love what I do. I always have,” Hatchel said. “The reason is that, at times, you are the only person in the community who has the resources to help somebody.”
Since taking the interim Woodway job in April after the resignation of longtime City Manager Yost Zakhary, Hatchel met with a woman whom he described as “pretty distressed.” She said her parents, avid animal lovers, looked out their window and saw a dead cat hanging from a tree limb. They were horrified.
“I looked at her and said, ‘Say what?’” Hatchel said. “She was distraught. She said she had been everywhere and couldn’t find anybody to help her. I said, ‘You have come to the right place.’”
Hatchel reached for the phone and sent a police officer and an animal control officer to get the dead cat out of the tree.
“She sat here and starting crying,” Hatchel said. “She said, ‘You are the only person who has been willing to help me.’ ”
As it turned out, the dead cat was actually an unfortunate squirrel that met its fate as a hawk’s dinner, the officers reported to Hatchel.
A few days later, the woman returned with a thank you card and cakes for Hatchel, the city hall worker who directed her to Hatchel’s office and for the public safety department.
“You remember those,” Hatchel said. “In this job, people call you up on the phone and call you everything in the world. You forget those. But I will remember this and that we were able to help those people.”
Hatchel volunteered to help the residents of West after the northern half of the city was devastated in 2013 by an explosion at West Fertilizer Co. He knew the city might need his experience to help get back on its feet, so he spent a few weeks at City Hall doing whatever he could to help them regroup and develop a plan to rebuild.
“He came in and rescued us and showed us what was going on,” West Mayor Tommy Muska said. “He was very generous with his time and came in and arranged the office and helped us get things back up and running in that area. John was an asset to the city because he is so knowledgeable in city administration.”
Kerry Sweatt, who owns Texas First and who is a close friend of Hatchel’s, said Hatchel’s experience and personality make him the perfect choice to step in and fill the role of interim city manager.
“His personality just lends itself so well to dealing with people, even strangers,” Sweatt said. “He gets along with people well and he brings a wealth of experience and expertise to the job. He also has a great sense of humor, which helps in that kind of job.”
Former City Manager Larry Groth, a longtime Waco city employee, was director of the Cameron Park Zoo when Hatchel retired in 1999. He called Hatchel “old school.”
“He knows the business inside and out,” Groth said. “He doesn’t mind telling you what he thinks, and that is probably the most important thing, particularly for what he is doing now. Sometimes cities are in transition. There is not a problem if you have a long-term city manager who retires. But he goes into a lot of cities who have had problems, either financial problems or relationship problems.
“And it is good, in one sense, that he can go in and just be brutally honest and tell the council what needs to be done. Not having to think of long-term tenure, he can go in and say what needs to be said and take care of business,” Groth said.