One of the first people I got to know in American Fork, after my family and I arrived in 1998, was J. H. Hadfield, known in recent years to American Forkers as Mayor Hadfield. He yielded the gavel this week, after two four-year terms, to our new mayor, Brad Frost.
We often say the words “public service” with a wink or an eye-roll, and we look mostly in vain for genuine heroes in our politics. I myself have less than a handful of heroes in national government, but they’re much easier to find at the local level. And sometimes public service really is service.
Before They Were Mayors
J. H. enlisted me to serve as his assistant in a local church leadership assignment before he and I had even met, I think, and we worked together in those roles for the next four years. I quickly discovered, beneath a crusty exterior, a warm and generous heart, a keen and open mind, an eagerness to serve, a skill for delegation, a profound distaste for long meetings and bureaucratic baloney, and a humility one does not always find in seasoned leaders. He didn’t want fanfare; he was more interested in helping people. He had more energy for that than I did, and I am decades younger. I’ve spent most of my adult life in local church leadership, but a disproportionate number of my favorite behind-the-scenes stories have J. H. in them.
A few years later I would meet the first American Fork Mayor I knew before he ran for office, the late Heber Thompson. He and I worked together on a civic project for more than a year. I found him equally eager to serve and possessed of a quiet dignity and intelligence, to say nothing of a taste for French poetry. He ran for office and was elected in 2005. He and I had a few political differences along the way, but under his leadership the City addressed some large and difficult issues intelligently.
Heber was retired. He could have worked a lot less and enjoyed his retirement years more, but he wanted to serve, and he thought he could and should serve. And he didn’t take shortcuts. Before running for mayor he served in one of the busiest and most thankless unelected roles in the City, as a member of the Planning Commission.
J. H. was working in the City Engineer’s office at the time, and I knew he was looking forward to retiring and serving a particular church service mission. Colonel Hadfield (long of the Utah National Guard) wanted an assignment to work with members of the military somewhere. He spoke of this plan repeatedly to me — sometimes over french fries and milkshakes, after we visited one of our flock in a hospital in another city, where his dietary misbehavior was less likely to find its way to Mrs. Hadfield’s ears.
Serving Where Needed
Then came 2009. Mayor Thompson would seek reelection, hoping to serve one more term. Behind the scenes, two of the best people I have ever known, friends for whom J. H. also had great respect, began to twist his arm. They wanted him to run for mayor — my older friend against my newer friend. Somehow they persuaded him to put his dream retirement at risk — he might win — and he filed for office. He turned to me for help with his campaign, which I gladly provided. I thought he stood a good chance of winning, in part because, when I was out and about with him in our church service, everyone in northern Utah County seemed to know him, and he seemed to know everyone.
(Cool tangent: He and Mrs. Hadfield — Elaine — first crossed paths in a Lehi maternity ward, as newborns. By his account, she wouldn’t give him the time of day. Later he would win her favor, obviously, but it wasn’t easy.)
As we strategized in those early days of the campaign, I could see that he was running to win, not just to placate friends who wanted him to run. I knew of his hopes for his retirement years, and I could do the math even before he stated it outright: if he won, his service mission would have to be to the city, not to his beloved fellow soldiers somewhere.
He did win, and he narrowly won reelection in 2009, despite an anti-incumbent frenzy.
Mayor Hadfield’s Mission
In the ethos of church service — not just in the LDS Church — and in the ethos of military service, for that matter, we are sent where we are needed, and we go where we are sent. One of the many things we can learn from J. H. Hadfield and his greatest supporter, Elaine, is that civic service is crucially important too, and some of the best people are needed there. The examples of his predecessor, Mayor Thompson, and his wife, Vicki Thompson, with whom I served on a City committee, offer the same lesson.
Mayor Hadfield’s second and last term ended this week, but there will be no church service mission now. He has been battling cancer for a while. He and Elaine sacrificed the service they wanted, to serve where they were needed. And if we’re tempted to think that civic service — eight years of it! — is somehow less worthy or a lower calling than a church mission or two or three, their example could instruct us in that too.
Looking back, I see that there is much to honor in eight years of service by an excellent mayor. For one thing, he’s kinda like a superhero of infrastructure, and we needed one. (See a recent Daily Herald article.) But I thought you should know what some of his friends have seen and honored from the beginning.
Thank you, Mayor and Mrs. Hadfield.