West Hartford Town Manager Ron Van Winkle will retire on June 30, 2017, and the community attended a celebration Tuesday honoring his 30 years of service the town.
By Ronni Newton
There were laughs, smiles, a few tears, and a chorus of “congratulations” as about 150 people gathered Tuesday night for a tribute to Town Manager Ron Van Winkle.
Van Winkle, who has served the Town of West Hartford for the 30 years – the past nine as town manager – announced last November that he would retire at the end of the current fiscal year, June 30, 2017.
The retirement tribute served as a fundraiser for two local non-profits that are near and dear to Van Winkle’s heart – The Town That Cares Fund and West Hartford Community Television (WHC-TV).
Rob Rowlson, who retired several years ago as director of Community Services, former town manager Barry Feldman, and Corporation Counsel Pat Alair – who is also a retired town employee – split the emcee duties for the evening.
When Feldman became town manager in 1987, he hired Van Winkle, who had been working as a consultant for the town during 1986, as director of Community Services. Rowlson took over that role when Van Winkle became town manager.
“We’re here to salute a really terrific fellow who’s done more for the Town of West Hartford than we can imagine. If the town could chose a favorite son, Ron would be on top of the list,” Rowlson said.
Van Winkle, who just turned 70 in April, is a lifelong West Hartford resident, who spent his childhood on Ridgebrook Drive. “Ron Van Winkle attended Duffy Elementary School when it was a brand new school. Can you imagine?” Rowlson joked. Duffy opened in 1952.
Rowlson also had many kind words to say about his former boss, referring to him as a “legend” and crediting Van Winkle for his strong leadership of many complicated projects that have had a huge impact on the town’s landscape, most notably the redevelopment of the former Chandler Evans property into the shopping center that today houses Home Depot, BJs, Aldi, and Chick-fil-A, as well as the Blue Back Square development on which Van Winkle worked for many years.
Construction of the Connecticut Veterans Memorial and Bristow Middle School were some of the other large projects which Van Winkle oversaw.
Van Winkle, who has a background as an economist, remained a highly-regarded and sought-after expert on the state economy and public policy issues throughout his tenure with the town.
“Behind every great man is a great woman, and Ruth Van Winkle is no exception,” Rowlson said of Van Winkle’s wife of 43 years. The Van Winkles have two sons, and a new daughter-in-law, who live in other parts of the country and were unable to attend the tribute.
“You lent him – leased him to us for a while and it lasted 30 years. From the bottom of my heart I can’t tell you how appreciative I am,” said Rowlson.
“You’re bruised, you’re a little beat up, you have a lot less hair … but the best we can do is say thank you very much,” Rowlson said.
Alair brought a few props to assist him with his comments about Van Winkle’s contributions.
Joking that he “broke into Ron’s office” to find examples of what he had actually done, Alair said that in a recent statement about potential cuts in state aid for the next fiscal year, Van Winkle had said that the cuts were so large they would be the equivalent of cutting the entire police or fire department.
Alair, holding up a West Hartford Fire Department jacket and other equipment, said he found the stuff in a shipping box, and told the police chief that it looked like he was safe.
Alair said that Van Winkle was always diligent about reviewing documents, except when it came to his own contract – a document also presented as evidence, complete with tooth marks allegedly made by Van Winkle’s dog, Elvis.
Alair had added a clause: “On each annual anniversary of his contract the town manager will receive a new pony.” But Van Winkle never caught it until Alair told him he needed to read it a bit more carefully.
“Of all the project Ron worked on with this town, the longest one is his sons,” Alair said, holding up an “It’s a boy!” banner. He said that he, Van Winkle, and Feldman all had children born within about three weeks of each other.
Feldman said that Van Winkle is a “pretty remarkable guy.”
The one word that stands out, Feldman said, is “trust.”
“I trusted him, and because of that trust remarkable things occurred,” said Feldman.
Van Winkle won’t really be able to get away since he plans to remain living in West Hartford. “Everyone will still see you in Stop & Shop.”
Mayor Shari Cantor said that the Town Council will say its final goodbye to Van Winkle at its final June meeting, but added a few words.
“Ron, you are a very, very special man. You are so humble, ethical, loyal, hardworking, and you really care about the Town of West Hartford. We could not ask for a better person to be at the helm,” Cantor said.
She also read a proclamation from Gov. Dannel P. Malloy and the State of Connecticut legislative delegation honoring Van Winkle.
Patience Haile, Van Winkle’s longtime executive assistant, will also retire this month. “‘Patience’ is the most accurate name on this planet,” Alair said.
West Hartford Poet Laureate Christine Beck prepared an “occasional poem” just for Van Winkle, who has become known for starting off many meetings with a poem. She read “Objects from the Office” aloud to the audience.
And following the tradition for recent retirement parties, a video tribute was one of the highlights of the event.
The video “The Economist” had been prepared in advance by WHC-TV, and included several vignettes featuring town employees and elected officials. One skit involved a meeting with department managers conducted almost entirely in acronyms, and another skit was a mock Town Council meeting where members heard testimony and voted against accepting Van Winkle’s retirement.
“You must let Ron Van Winkle go,” Ruth Van Winkle said in the video.
A number of gifts were presented at the tribute, including a framed copy of Beck’s poem and a street sign that reads “Van Winkle Way.” Although there are no official plans to actually name a street in Van Winkle’s honor, at least one Town Council member already said it was something to be considered.
“Thank you for 30 years,” Van Winkle said. He said he was lucky to have learned from and worked with Feldman, and to have hired a great team of directors who will help ensure that the town continues in the right direction. He also said he could never have done what he did without the support of Haile, Superintendent of Schools Tom Moore and former superintendent Karen List, and several mayors and many Town Council members.
“I’m lucky enough to have had the support of the taxpayers of the Town of West Hartford,” Van Winkle said, and the public’s trust that he will do the right thing.
“It has been an honor to me,” Van Winkle said.
Van Winkle’s retirement will be effective June 30, 2017. Matt Hart, who was named town manager in April, will begin work on July 31, 2017.
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