Covington City Manager Steve Horton has been on a farewell tour of sorts as he approaches retirement after serving his hometown for more than three decades, including being at the helm for the past seven years.
Earlier this year, he was named the Administrator of the Year for the Northeast Georgia Region of the state, but on Thursday, he was named one of the county's "Shining Lights," perhaps the most prestigious award given out in the still tight-knit community he calls home.
"I guess it's the pinnacle of my career. It certainly matters more to me than the Administrator of the Year that I thought (at the time) was the greatest award I'd ever gotten," Horton said Friday. "Thefact this was an award that I took to be from and on behalf of the community that I have lived in and grown up in and worked in all my life, it meant a lot more to me."
"It's amazing what they do for you for when you're leaving," Horton said.
As Horton nears his Dec. 21 retirement date, he's taken time to reflect on a lifetime of meaningful relationships.
When asked if there were any past Shining Light winner he's looked up to in the past, Horton took the opportunity to praise T.K. Adams, the longtime director of the community band and a man who's dedicated his life to service and mentoring young people.
"I've always wished be a lot more like Mr. T.K. Adams. In my opinion, he's the calmest, softest spoken man I know. He considers the impact of every word on every person he's ever said anything to. If I could be like that, I would. Sometimes I speak before I think," Horton. "I looked at (my wife) Mary and said, ‘That's truly a good man. I wish I was like him.'"
In his typical humility, Horton downplayed the attributes that many people see in him. Numerous people have praised Horton's patience in dealing with city employees, council members and the public and the fact that when he speaks up people listen.
"I've had a lot of people to say, ‘You sure are patient.' Huh. You're seeing somebody besides me," Horton said.
However, in her nomination form, former Covington mayor Kim Carter praised Horton's performance as city manager.
"He can find the middle ground in situations you would think impossible. He does so with great respect for all parties in an unbiased manner. He's level-headed and a calming force in any storm," Carter wrote. "He has risen through the ranks of his 30-plus year career, always to levels of increasing responsibility. He is the leader of his organization of 320 employees and works hard every day for improvement. That's just the kind of man he is."
While Horton has made a life out of working hard, he never fails to point out the people who took the time to pour their wisdom and perspective into him.
"A lot of people in my life have helped me. (Former city manager) Frank Turner Sr. without a doubt. I couldn't have bought a college education and learned the things I learned from Frank Turner," Horton said.
"Of course, (former mayor) Bill Dobbs. He always took time to talk to me and encourage me. Sometimes I wonder why these people did this. I'm a long way from anything special. I'm glad they did. I'm glad they took the time to share with me and with me."
Horton also praised the late Charles King, Covington's walking history book, who instilled in Horton the importance of taking the time to talk to his elders who had already learned so much.
"He said they'll be gone some day and everything they know, they'll take with them. It was the same way when he was a boy. There were people still alive who fought in the war between the states, the Civil War, and he said, ‘I didn't talk to as many people as I should have,'" Horton said. "I felt I needed to take the time to talk to older people and young people. The coin flips both ways."
Though it wasn't necessarily a conscious plan, Horton has seen himself draw from those around him and give back to those he could.
"I think I have tried to observe the people who lived their lives in the way either I would like to live mine or the way I should live mine. I've tried to take what I learned and use it, selfishly to my own betterment, but to the betterment of my job, my service to the community and to the raising of my family," Horton said.
"Some of it I think is self revelation as you get older to some degree... I think you get to a point and you stop and think well, God, I don't have as much time in front of me as I have behind me now. So every bit of that time from that point matters more than what's past," he said. "I'm thinking more, how do I make the best of that time and what it's going to be like when I'm gone. I would tend to think most people you talk to, it's not how much money can I make before I'm gone, it's what can I do that matters to the bigger picture.
"It's not important that I got be city manager. That's not my mark. My mark is what I hope people would say when I'm really gone, that, ‘He was the same person every day and he treated everybody fair and he loved people.' That's more important to me than money and those kind of things. There is a conscious effort there to make the most of it and do the best with it."
Horton was born and raised in Newton County and though he's had offers to move elsewhere, he's always decided to stay in the only place that's ever been home.
"I grew up playing in the streets and ball fields round here. A couple of times when I had a job offer and thought about moving, I remember what my grandfather told me," Horton said.
Horton's grandfather had five children during the depression and moved around the country, from south Georgia to Florida to the East Coast and to Newton County in search of work to support his family.
"He said, ‘Steve, you know what I accomplished doing all that? Nothing.' He said it was a depression everywhere back then. The best place I've ever been is right here (in Newton County) and it's home. You can do a lot worse than home. I remember my granddaddy telling me that."
Horton's family is much larger than the people related to him by blood. His father, who was of the most generous people Horton ever knew, left a lasting impression on his son despite dying at a young age. In later years, Horton found another father figure in the form of City Attorney Ed Crudup.
"He is the true epitome of a Southern gentleman. He is patient, reserved and kind beyond measure," Horton wrote. "More than anything else, he is the wisest man I know. It is so commonly said that you cannot choose your family, but if I could, he'd be my dad."
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 and his wife, Mary, have one son, Steven Jr., and two grandchildren, Taylor and Steven III.
"Steve is a devoted husband, father to one, grandfather to two and treasured by many. He is a family man of honor and compassion with unsurpassed integrity. Over his lifetime, he has quietly helped so many without saying a word or asking for credit or a pat on the back. That's just the kind of man he is," Carter wrote in her nomination. "City Manager Steve Horton is a shining light to many and a beacon in the darkness for all citizens of Covington."