Sure, Vanleer has experienced change over the past 40 years. The population has fallen and risen. Businesses have closed, others have opened. Elected officials have served and stepped down, making room for someone else.
But change isn’t a hallmark of the town. In 1980 the population was pegged at 401, and that’s about what it is now. In 1980 Ruben Schmittou was an alderman, and although he hasn’t served continuously since then, he’s an alderman today.
Familiarity, consistency, dependability — these seem to be the defining characteristics of the northern Dickson County hamlet. And since January 1980, no one has personified these traits more than Vanleer Secretary-Treasurer Mike Powell.
At last month’s town meeting, Powell was honored by Mayor Jason Weaver and the Board of Aldermen with a plaque and a cake in recognition of his 40 consecutive years of service.
The ceremony was meant to be a surprise to Powell — and it was, even though several people were in on the secret.
“I should have gotten a clue when my wife wanted to go to the meeting,” Powell said. “She never wants to go.”
It was only moments before the ceremony, at the end of the meeting, when Powell got wise.
“The mayor said he had to go get something, and it hit me — they’re fixing to do something here,” Powell said.
As chief financial officer for the Bank of Dickson, Powell may not need the small salary he draws from the part-time secretary-treasurer job with the town. He stays because he likes the work — and the people.
His duties include writing checks, collecting taxes, formulating the annual budget, producing quarterly reports, handling regulatory filings, writing the minutes of the meetings and sometimes doing “a little cleaning” at Vanleer Town Hall, he said.
He said he enjoys the interactions with residents.
“Earlene Robertson always tried to be one of the first ones to pay her taxes and she would bring me a cup of hot chocolate each year when she came in,” he said. “She never failed. She passed away a few years ago and I still miss her.”
He said he also appreciated the sausages and biscuits that Gladys Barbee would occasionally bring him.
A flexible job description
Another reason Powell stays on is that the volume of work is manageable.
Town Hall is open for business only on Saturdays. The meetings of the mayor and aldermen are held one night a month, and there are no other boards or commissions to worry about. There’s no need for a board of zoning appeals in a town with no zoning ordinance, Powell explained, and there’s no planning commission, either.
The mayor and aldermen also form the beer board but hardly ever meet as such.
Policing in Vanleer is handled by the Sheriff’s Office, and the fire department is a volunteer squad. As for the town government, only the water department has seen any structural change over the course of Powell’s tenure.
When Powell started with the town, the water department had two full-time positions. Now it has five, plus a couple of part-time workers — but that’s not because the town changed. It’s because the agency morphed into a regional water provider serving residents outside the town limits.
Other than those new water agency positions, Powell said, no town jobs have been created in the past 40 years.
Over the years, computers have changed Powell’s work somewhat, but not very much.
“I still keep a written ledger,” he said.
People turn to Powell when they have questions about past actions by the town government — or really anything about Vanleer’s past, for that matter.
“His historical knowledge of the town is invaluable,” Town Attorney Tim Potter said.
Comfortable in Vanleer
Powell, 65, has lived in the area his whole life except for a time in his childhood when his family moved to Detroit. Just before Dickson County’s school consolidation, he was part of Charlotte High’s last graduating class in 1972 and went on to earn an accounting degree from Austin Peay State University.
Over the years at Vanleer Town Hall, Powell has seen newcomers to elected office — not a whole lot of them, though.
Schmittou was there when Powell was hired. Weaver has held his post for only about seven years but he was an alderman before that, beginning in the mid-1990s.
In elections, “Sometimes no one runs against us,” Weaver said.
U.S. Census figures for Vanleer show a population drop from 401 in 1980 to 310 in 2000 — and then an uptick to 415 in a 2018 Census estimate.
Weaver said the town went through some tough times, with businesses closing as people passed away and no one stepping in to fill the void.
“There were times you couldn’t get a tank of gas or buy a loaf of bread,” Weaver said.
More recently things have gotten better, he said. Along with the rebound in population, new businesses have opened, making life more convenient for residents and adding tax revenue for town purchases such as fire department vehicles, he said.
Through it all Powell has been there, taking notes at the monthly meetings and greeting residents at Town Hall on Saturdays.
When he was hired, he didn’t know what the future held.
“I never knew I’d be here for 40 years,” he said.
Seldom has his routine been interrupted.
In 1994 he married his wife, Chris, and they went to London on their honeymoon. Their flight back home left on a Saturday morning, London time.
It’s a long flight. But it’s six hours earlier in Tennessee than in England, and “I was writing checks at Town Hall that afternoon,” Powell said.
Now, that’s consistency. And it’s not stopping anytime soon, because Powell has no plans to retire.
Sure, change happens in Vanleer. But if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.