Dave Light served his last day with the city of Kingsport on Friday. Photo by David Grace.
KINGSPORT — Dave Light has been described as a friendly face at city hall, a key contact for Kingsport residents and the “court of last resort” for people with problems or concerns. Now, after working 25 years with the city of Kingsport, Light is calling it a career.
Light announced his retirement back in October and on Friday served his last day with the city of Kingsport. Light called the day “bittersweet.”
“I guess maybe you could say I’ve reached that time in life that I begin to look outward instead of inward and realize if I’m going to do some things that I want to do I’m going to have to start doing them,” Light said. “I’m 60. I’m not going to live another 100 years.”
Retirement will bring a new travel schedule to Light’s life, more time to spend with his two grandchildren — Charlie Grace and Finley Brianna — and the chance to do some volunteer work. Over the years, Light has volunteered for a variety of organizations, including Fun Fest, Girls Inc., Kingsport Tomorrow, the American Legion and the Boy Scouts.
“My health is still good and it’s time to start doing those things,” Light said.
Light hails from Kingsport, graduated from Dobyns-Bennett High School in 1965 and holds major degrees in math and science. He is a U.S. Army veteran, a church elder, a lay minister, and husband of 38 years to Jennifer “Rusty” Davison — a retired Kingsport City Schools’ teacher.
Walking into city hall, one cannot easily forget Light’s office — stacks of paper, binders and files completely cover the desk and cabinets, boxes and other city documents lie around the floor. On the day of this interview, a copy of Ordinance #7, which allowed the Kingsport Utility Co. to provide electric power to Kingsport, lay on Light’s desk.
“I can find anything I need,” Light said.
Over his 25 years with the city, Light has worn many hats — fleet manager, interim water/wastewater system manager, community relations director (the most notable position) and for the past year as the assistant to the city manager.
“I’ve worked for or with some of the best and brightest folks that we could ever possibly imagine, that’s filled the shoes of city manager in Kingsport — Bill Cook, Jim Zumwalt, Pete Connett, on an interim basis like Mike Billingsley, Ray Griffin and now John Campbell,” Light said. “You could not have not asked for higher-caliber individuals, as those gentlemen have been.”
And the caliber of people carries on out through the city’s staff, Light said.
“The finest people in the world work for the city of Kingsport.”
Over the past 25 years, Light has worked under six city managers, five mayors and numerous iterations of the Board of Mayor and Aldermen, a cast that has included Bob Petrey, Norman Spencer, Hunter Wright, Richard Watterson, Peggy Turner, Roy Harmon, Nathan Vaughn and Dave Clark.
“They all stand out,” Light said, noting that the aldermen of 25 years ago are not all that different from the aldermen of today.
“There has been something about them, that sets them apart, and that was their desire to make this community a better place to be, and they may sound corny and trite. I cannot point to a single one who didn’t do their dead-level best for this town,” Light said. “Some to the detriment to their standing in the community, the standing in the eyes of segments of the community and to the point of causing some personal problem.
“Have I agreed with all of them? No, but I will tell you this, to an individual, we’ve been very fortunate in the quality of our elected leadership.”
For over a decade Light has served as the city’s community relations and training officer, fielding questions from the media, being the city’s spokesman in front of the camera and basically being the catch-all person when a resident calls with a complaint or concern.
“Ultimately I’m the court of last resort,” Light explains, noting he tries to look out for everybody who calls him. “You have to, and in this position particularly. Coming into this building can be frightening, because things happen in this building, so you try and put people at ease.”
But sometimes people cannot be put at ease, or they want something done by the city that’s illegal or unreasonable, Light said. Examples from the past include one caller wanting something done with an elderly neighbor, or a tree cut, a pile of dirt delivered or in another case, a street evangelist removed from the downtown area.
“Sometimes you just have to tell people no,” he said, commenting on the types of people who call. “Women predominately call. Men tend to be more impatient and unwilling to listen to an explanation. Women will listen to the explanation and if they don’t like what they hear, they’ll get more emotional, they’ll cry. That’s average and there are exceptions.”
A couple exceptions include being named in a lawsuit once and being threatened by a caller.
“I’ve been threatened to have my ass whipped. But I’ve never been threatened with death,” Light said.
Light had planned on retiring back in May, but when John Campbell came on as city manager in October 2006, he convinced Light to stay on, promoting him to the assistant position.
“John indicated he would like me to stay. The more I thought about it, it was OK. There are some things that I could help him with. I know where the bones are buried in a lot of situations. He deserved that,” Light said. “I’ve known John since high school, have the greatest respect for him as a city manager and have enjoyed working with him the last year or so.”
Light has not signed a contract with the city for freelance or consulting work, but said he would investigate that opportunity very closely if it presented itself.
“If I felt like what I could provide would be honest-to-goodness use to the city of Kingsport, then yes, I would do it,” Light said. “How in the world could you be in a place for 25 plus years and not miss it? That being said. I’m going to miss the people-to-people contact, the folks I’ve worked with, and some of the citizen interaction.
“What I won’t miss are the opportunities, as they occasionally present themselves, where you want to reach through the phone lines and slap some sense into people.”
Changes are taking place in Kingsport, the likes of which have not been seen in years, from the redevelopment of downtown, to higher education coming online, to new commercial developments to a growth in residential housing. Light believes the city is on the right track.
“I think the realization that we are not totally and completely at the mercy of any one business or entity has been a great help to us. We realized after the biggest employer went through the right sizing exercise, that we could be as good, if not better than we were in the past,” Light said. “Right now I see Kingsport as being at a point that it was when J. Fred Johnson was alive. Johnson was a constant cheerleader for the community and the community felt good about itself and had reasonable, measured growth.
“When he passed away, we went through that period of trying to find ourselves, the switch to the global economy, a whole raft of things in ’90s. I think those have served to strengthen us, and yes, we’re on the right track.”
Mayor Dennis Phillips, a longtime friend, spoke highly of Light’s service to Kingsport.
“David has always been a key contact for the community, the board and staff. He has worn may hats and without fail, he has performed admirable. David will be greatly missed.”
At the last BMA meeting, Phillips read a proclamation in Light’s honor and declared Nov. 30 “Dave Light Day.” Light received a standing ovation from those in attendance that night.
At that point, Light said he did shed a tear.
“You know you’re appreciated day in and day out, but when you have something like that happen, it kind of touches you, and it did. When the folks you work with say nice things about you, it touches you.”