Covington City Manager Steve Horton is not used to being kept out of the loop, but family, friends and employees managed to give him quite the surprise Thursday.
Horton was named the Administrator of the Year for the Northeast Georgia Regional Commission, an appropriate capstone for a man who has spent 34 years in numerous roles with the city and become synonymous with Covington.
"I was more than little surprised, I'll put it that way," said Horton, who was not only honored at a ceremony in Athens, but also at City Hall Thursday afternoon.
Frank Turner Sr., the former city manager and man who nominated Horton for the award, originally asked Horton to fill in for him at a regional commission committee meeting.
"When I get there it's not really a committee meeting, but people are getting up and giving reports. And I'm like well if I have to do a report, he didn't give me any information. They go through those things and start talking about the administrator of the year and award time, and still I didn't get anything," said Horton, who finally realized he had won the award as they read a description of his career.
"I was sitting there thinking man they pulled this thing over on me. I was overwhelmed, I really was. I felt tearful, honored, very honored," he said. "When my wife and grandchild walked in, I didn't know, and I felt a little head on my shoulder I kind of lost it right there."
Horton was first hired by the city of Covington as a police patrol officer in February 1978. He worked his way through the ranks to police chief, where he served from June 1996 to the fall of 2007. He was promoted to public works director, then assistant city manager and, eventually, city manager, the top position in Covington, in late 2005.
Horton was chosen by the regional commission's awards committee from a handful of other nominees across the 12-county area.
"His professionalism, his demeanor, the way he goes about doing his job, he enjoys the respect and trust of not only local elected officials, but also the residents of the city as well," said Jim Dove, executive director of the northeast regional commission. "He was just a natural choice. He manages a city above reproach in everything it does and sets the standard for a lot of the municipalities in that area."
For Horton, the award was made all the more special because Turner was the one who nominated him.
"It means more than he'll ever know for him to think that much of me, because most of everything I know administratively, managing and those kinds of things, I learned from watching the best," Horton said.
While Horton has many close friends in Covington, nobody knows better what the city means to him than his wife Mary.
"When Steve does something, it's never half way, it's always with his whole heart," Mary said. "When we were coming back home (from the ceremony in Athens), he made the comment ‘I tell young people it doesn't matter what you do, it's just how you do it. Put your best into it.' That's what he's done while wearing all those hats with the city, put his best into it. And of course the extra hours afterwards, and at home and late nights."
His son Steven Jr., granddaughter Taylor, and mother Illa, were all on hand to congratulate Horton.
"I always told him that God had great plans for him, and I saw him do unto others (as he would have them do unto him). He would give you the shirt off his back. He does things for people that nobody know," Illa said, noting he was like his father in that regard. "He was my only child, and I am so proud of him and he worked hard to get where he is today. I'm just so proud of him."
As for Horton, despite the sentiments shared by others, he didn't think he was deserving of such an award.
"I come to work every day and did what I thought I was supposed to do. I've had a lot of opportunities to be touched by a lot of lives, and I feel like everything I've done is because of what these people have been able to teach me, what I've been able to learn from them and how I've been able to respond, respond to life, not just situations. This is really more about them than me; I feel that I'm a part of all they are and all that has happened," Horton said.
"It's not bad to come to work and do something you like every day and get around people you love. People hear me say sometimes I love you, and I do, because I get wrapped up in people's lives. It's not just a saying; it's a fact."