Liberty mayor won’t overstay his welcome

Published 12:00 am Friday, May 24, 2002

When Gerald Miller agreed to run for Liberty mayor in 1972, he thought he’d help out his adopted hometown by finishing out the last year of the previous mayor’s term.

Almost 30 years later and a few months short of retiring, Miller just shakes his head and smiles when asked if he ever thought he’d still have the job.

“Never in my wildest dreams,” he said.

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A Louisiana native, Miller was a regional sales manager for an Ohio-based firm before deciding to settle down to a life of teaching and coaching in his wife’s birthplace of Liberty.

When the town’s mayor retired one year short of completing his term, the residents approached Miller with a short-term offer.

“I was kind of recruited into running,” Miller said, laughing.

But by the time the next election rolled around, Miller had already made his mark on the town which opted to keep him, and he the town.

Even eight terms later, Miller has a modest view of his accomplishments as mayor, crediting his staff with much of the success.

“The first thing I did was bring some good people with me,” he said, like City Clerk Brenda Harvey who will also follow Miller into retirement.

With a solid staff on board, the first challenge awaiting Miller as new mayor was to rework and install new sewage lines throughout the town.

That accomplished, the town began moving forward with other projects, such as building a new town hall and library in cooperation with Amite County out of the ruins of the former high school.

But an oil and timber bust in the 1980s dealt the town a major blow and turned the emphasis on on bringing jobs to the town, Miller said.

“We just went to work selling our town,” he said.

And sell it they did.

After building an industrial park, the town lured the French Air Cruisers plant, which supplies aircraft with inflatable lifevests, Freedom Industries, a garment producer, and U.S. Metals steel fabricating plant.

But through all the development, Miller said he aimed to preserve the town’s personality, growing while holding on to Liberty’s rural atmosphere.

“We were a laid back town when I got here, and we’ll be a laid back town when I leave,” he said.

With the local economy stabilized by the influx of industry, Miller and other town leaders then turned to improving the quality of life for Liberty residents.

The Ethel Stratton Vance Natural Area on the edge of town was formed out of 288 acres left to the state after Vance’s death.

When the state declined the offer, Liberty took on the challenge of maintaining the land, which they transformed into a recreational area by adding an arena, trails and a campground.

And what began as local musicians playing on the front porch of the town hall evolved into Heritage Days, a weekend festival of that draws visitors from throughout the region to Liberty each May.

Still, Miller’s pride in the town’s accomplishments is a quiet pride, much like the town itself.

“We haven’t done anything outstanding,” he said. “No rocket science, just trying to keep a clean town.”

Looking back now, Miller believes the accomplishments of his administration united Liberty residents with a sense of pride in their community.

“Our goal was to make Liberty a better place to work and live, and I think we’ve done that,” he said.

“To see a community working together, it just makes you want to explode with joy.”

Miller admits he made mistakes as mayor, but he’s content in knowing he made them believing he was doing to right thing at the time and said he regrets nothing.

“I hope Liberty is better off because I’ve been here, or at least no worse off,” he said.

But Miller’s service to Liberty will not end with retirement. He has agreed to work with the new mayor once elected as an advisor and consultant.

“I plan to live here, and the next mayor is going to be my mayor, too, so I’m going to help him,” he said.

After three decades as mayor, Miller said he will miss his place at the town hall, but just as he felt he had a responsibility to take the job in 1972, he knows it is now time to go.

“If I’ve been a good leader, then my motto is ‘a good leader knows when to quit,'” Miller said.

“I believe you shouldn’t overstay your welcome. That’s why I say ‘I’m 70, it’s time to go to the house.'”