Wise County Judge Bill McElhaney was in office less than seven years, but he spent his life serving the people of Wise County.
McElhaney, 67, died Monday after collapsing during a commissioners meeting at the Wise County Courthouse.
The Bridgeport native was serving his second term in office and was currently vice president of the North Central Texas Council of Governments. He was first elected to his county post in 2007 and throughout that time worked to unify commissioners court and the county, expand educational opportunities for citizens and provide the public with the highest level of services.
The judge was addressing commissioners Monday when he paused, saying he was dizzy, then lost consciousness and slumped into his chair at about 10:15 a.m. Some of those in the room rendered immediate first aid, and Wise County medics arrived quickly, treating him at the scene before transporting him to Wise Regional Health System in Decatur.
He was pronounced dead just before noon by Precinct 1 Justice of the Peace Jan Morrow.
Many county department heads and employees considered him not only their leader and co-worker, but also a friend. His sudden death left them stunned and heartsick.
“For him to pass away at that table, it’s tragic, but also poetic in a way,” said Thomas Aaberg, who has served as the county commissioners’ attorney since 2009. “I honestly believe he cared about everyone and took everybody’s concerns to heart.
“He was just a champion for that.”
Aaberg said McElhaney not only gave careful consideration to the requests of department heads but also to the concerns of citizens. He explained there were many issues like power lines or biosolids for which the county had no direct oversight, but McElhaney chose to take on those issues and exercise his influence for change where he could in an effort to improve life for Wise County citizens.
“He cared enough about the citizens to get involved,” Aaberg said. “He just took all that to heart. He put so much on his table and his plate. I think in the days ahead the county will realize what all he was working on.
“He took a huge, hands-on approach.”
Precinct 2 Commissioner Kevin Burns, who as the senior member of the court faces the duty of filling the judge’s role until an interim can be named, described McElhaney has “irreplaceable.”
“He was a ‘we’ person,” he said. “He wasn’t an ‘I’ person at all. He made sure we were cohesive in court and otherwise, and he did more than anyone to unite the county.
“He helped bridge the gap across the Big Sandy,” said Burns.
Weatherford College Wise County is perhaps the project that best exemplifies his spirit of unification.
“He’s had numerous small accomplishments, but he was the main force in getting the Weatherford College branch campus built here,” Burns said. “He was just really project-oriented and detail-oriented … It’s just hard to put that into words.”
County Auditor Ann McCuiston said the judge enjoyed his work on the college project, and that no matter what he was working on, he wanted to do it right.
“He took the taxpayers’ money very seriously,” she said. “He looked at it as the citizens’ money, and he wanted to spend it wisely. He was a man of high integrity.”
McCuiston said he was easy to work with, and over the years he had streamlined the county budget process, making it easier for department heads and commissioners. She said he tried his best to meet the requests of department heads and offer the highest level of services to Wise County’s citizens.
Sheriff David Walker said he couldn’t remember a goal or program of his department that McElhaney didn’t support.
“We were able to serve the public better by what Bill was able to put together,” he said. “A lot of our programs wouldn’t be as successful as they are without Bill’s support, and in turn, that of commissioners.”
Walker said even when budgets were tight, McElhaney worked to make sure law enforcement and emergency medical services had what was needed.
“He passed away doing what he loved to do – working for others and trying to keep the county moving,” Walker said. “His love of the county was big, and he wanted Wise County to come out on top.”
McElhaney has a decades-long history of community service, including 21 years on the Bridgeport ISD board of trustees. He also served on the Bridgeport City Council, the Wise County School District Tax Board and the Bridgeport Economic Development Board.
He was a 1964 graduate of Bridgeport High School and a 1977 graduate of North Texas State University. McElhaney served in the U.S. Army from 1965 to 1967 and had a long career with TXI, retiring as corporate mineral land manager for Texas and Oklahoma in 2006.
Aaberg said McElhaney’s extensive work experience gave him knowledge that proved invaluable as county judge.
“He was very knowledgeable on those things,” he said. “He was just a hardworking, good man from my standpoint.”
Walker said McElhaney “left a void that will be felt by many.”
“The county will continue,” he said, “but everyone will definitely have a hole in their heart.”
A public memorial service for Wise County Judge Bill McElhaney is 10:30 a.m. Thursday, Oct. 17, at the Decatur Civic Center.
Readers posted expressions of sympathy on the Messenger’s website and Facebook page following the death of County Judge Bill McElhaney. Below are a selection of their posts.
“Bill McElhaney was a gentleman and a scholar who served his career industry admirably and in two different elective venues of service to his home county of Wise. We all were blessed and benefited from his presence in our midst and his working side by side with so many of our citizens.”
- D.A. Sharpe, former Wise County Republican Party Chair
“I’m saddened to hear this news. I had the pleasure of meeting Judge McElhaney in person just a few months ago. He loved Wise County and wanted the best for it and the people living here. I hope he knows how much I appreciate everything he has done for us all. I was looking forward to getting to know him better ever since he decided to help me and many others to rid Wise County of the usage of the human waste fertilizer (biosolids). My condolences to his family and friends. Judge McElhaney will be missed.”
- Bonnie Scroggins, Boyd
“A lot of Wise County folks lost a good friend today!”
- Paul Wood, former county commissioner
“Thank you for your service to our county you will be missed … Prayers for the family!”
- Brandolyn Martinez, Boyd
“My prayers are with his family. He was one of the nicest gentlemen I have ever known. I worked at the admin office when he was on the school board. He was always the same. God bless.”
- Kathy D. Evenson, Azle
“Prayers for the McElhaney family. Bill was a great guy and will be missed by many.”
- Carl Abseck, Cedar Park
“Oh, my. So very sad. He was a really nice guy. Truly a pleasure to be around. Will be praying for his family and friends.”
- Laura Davis, Decatur
“I’m so saddened by this news. Bill was a friend and served Wise County with honesty and distinction. His loss will be felt for a long time. My thoughts are with his family.”
- Skip Nichols, former editor of the Wise County Messenger
“It comes as a great shock to the Wise County Democratic Party to learn of the passing of a dearly respected county elected official such as Judge Bill McElhaney. Judge McElhaney will be best remembered among party members for his bi-partisanship while working with the county party to run elections, with the appointments of our recommended election judges every two years and his willingness to reach across the aisle and include party members and known Democrats to various county committees. (We) would like to express our deepest sympathies to his family in this time of grief as we share it with them.”
- Wise County Democratic Party
Service for Wise County Judge Bill McElhaney, 67, of Bridgeport will be 10:30 am Thursday at the Decatur Civic Center.
Burial will be private. Pallbearers will be Wise County Sheriff’s Honor Guard.
McElhaney died Monday, Oct. 14, 2013 after collapsing during a commissioners court meeting in Decatur. A lifelong resident of Bridgeport, Bill was serving his second term as county judge, and was active in several regional boards and associations.
Billy McElhaney was born in Decatur June 17, 1946, to Joseph and Atrel (Hunn) McElhaney. He was a 1964 graduate of Bridgeport High School and served in the U.S. Army from 1965-1967. He was a 1977 graduate of the University of North Texas, where he earned a bachelor’s degree in finance, with a minor in real estate, and additional postgraduate courses.
Between 1985 and 2006 he had more than 200 accredited classroom hours from the Texas Education Agency and Texas Association of School Boards. Beginning in 1970, he had also taken numerous management and safety courses with industry, community and government themes at the local, state and federal levels.
In the past six years, Judge McElhaney took more than 100 hours of judicial educational courses for county judges from the Texas Association of Counties (TAC), more than 50 hours of advanced continuing education from the V.G. Young Institute of County Government (affiliate of Texas A&M), various National Incident Management System (NIMS) emergency management training classes, and other county government training courses from TAC.
Bill began work at TXI Operations, LP in Chico in 1968 and worked for the company for 39 years. From 1969 to 1977 he was in various supervisory and management positions at two of their stone plants. In 1978 he became manager of the Bridgeport stone facility and in 1982 he also took on the role of area stone manager for the Wise and Jack County production operations, holding both positions through 1996.
In 1997 he moved into Corporate reserves and aggregate business development for Texas and Oklahoma, and 2001 he went into the company’s real estate division when he was named corporate mineral land manager for Texas and Oklahoma – a position he held until he was elected county judge in 2006.
Bill served on the Bridgeport City Council from 1978 to 1980, and he served a total of 21 years at various times on the Bridgeport ISD board of trustees. He also served on the Wise County School District Board, and in 1994 was Tax Board President.
He was chairman of the Bridgeport Economic Development Board in 1988-1989, and was currently vice president of the executive board of the North Central Texas Council of Governments. He gave over 26 years of his life to government and public service.
He was a member in the Fellows of the Texas County Judges Judicial Academy. He was also a member of the V.G. Young Commissioners Court Academy, as well as an active member of Nor-Tex County Judges Association.
Billy leaves behind his wife Kim (Smith) McElhaney; children Billy Jr., Blaine and wife Melissa, Stacie Anderson and husband Kyle, Katie Smith and husband Josh; sisters Nadine Green and husband Billy Carroll, and Rita Boles; and 10 grandchildren: Billy Jr.’s sons Christian and Nicolas McElhaney; Blaine and Melissa’s children Beau, Brody, Trinity and Colton Teter; Stacie and Kyle’s son Lane Anderson; and Katie and Josh’s children Hendrix, Harper and Haddie Smith.
He was preceded in death by his parents.
In lieu of flowers, please make donations to any Wise County charity of choice.
More than 600 attend memorial
Wise County Judge Bill McElhaney was remembered Thursday as a hard-working man with a big heart.
About 650 people attended his memorial service at the Decatur Civic Center Thursday morning to celebrate his life and share memories. A slide show and music told the story of a family man who cherished his wife, kids and grandchildren, while speakers shared memories of working with him through the years.
Longtime friend Ray Cook of Bridgeport said the judge gave his all to every project he pursued.
“He had a great deal of love for this community and a great vision and leadership,” he said. “I’ll always think about his infectious smile, and we should keep that in our memory – the smile that he’ll always have for us.”
Lonnie Hunt, county relations officer for the Texas Association of Counties, first met McElhaney when they were both newly elected judges in 2007. He attended various conferences and trainings with McElhaney and said the judge always entertained them with stories of life in Wise. He was an animated storyteller, and Hunt noted that McElhaney’s love for community was obvious.
“I think he found his true calling when he became judge of Wise County,” he said. “He was a workaholic for the people of Wise County.”
Harold Watson, who worked with McElhaney almost 40 years at TXI, said he was just as dedicated to that job and a loyal employee. He approached the podium with a brown paper sack and pulled out a bottle of Coke and bag of chips.
“For those of you who traveled with Bill, you know, this was lunch,” he said. “There was never time to stop to eat.”
His tales of their travels together left the crowd laughing. He also noted that sometimes McElhaney was hard to get hold of.
“You’d wear the phone out calling him, and then when you got him, you couldn’t get rid of him,” he said. Watson was one of many people this week who told stories of phone conversations with McElhaney that ended only because his phone battery died.
County Commissioner Danny White echoed Watson’s sentiments about McElhaney’s work ethic and said the judge would work 20-plus hour days.
“He was a knowledgeable man, a hard-working man,” he said.
Although White had only known him five years, he said it felt like they were lifelong friends. And McElhaney treated him as such.
“He gave man-hugs,” said White. “He had this way of shaking your hand and with his other arm he’d pull you into him. That’s just who he was.”
Members of the Wise County Sheriff’s Office Honor Guard stood at attention on one end of the casket before the service, and the unit served as pallbearers.
Retired United Methodist minister Johnny Irish said McElhaney lived a great life because he served well.
“He was a man of hope … and he always wanted to make things better.”
Not only a leader, but a friend
A wave of sadness swept through our office Monday when we learned of the sudden death of County Judge Bill McElhaney. The sadness continues.
I heard the dispatch of Wise County EMS and Decatur Fire Department to a medical emergency on the third floor of the Wise County courthouse shortly after 10 a.m. Monday. I knew commissioners were meeting.
Moments later, Decatur fire units with sirens blaring swept past my office window, and just as that happened Kristen Tribe called to tell me, “It’s the judge. He just collapsed.” Kristen, who regularly covers commissioners, was sitting just behind him when he collapsed.
A short time later, I heard the ambulance check “en-route Code 3 with CPR in progress.” to Wise Regional. That is never good news. About an hour later, Decatur Police Chief Rex Hoskins called to tell me that “Judge Bill” as we all knew him had died.
I find it hard to say how much Judge Bill meant to Wise County. More than 600 persons jammed the Great Hall of the Decatur Civic Center Thursday morning and heard story after story about his contributions to the Bridgeport school board and city council, and Wise County. He gave more than 30 years of public service for the citizens of this county, most of it as a volunteer while he worked at TXI in Bridgeport.
It is not an exaggeration to say that the new home of Weatherford College Wise County would not be a reality if it were not for Judge McElhaney. As “semi-insiders” to what was happening, Fred Meyers and I got a firsthand look at how complicated that project was. Judge Bill and County Commissioner Kevin Burns spent hours to work out financing for the new building.
At the time, Wise County was only the second county in Texas to propose a branch campus maintenance tax to build the WCWC facility. The Wall Street companies that buy bonds for such projects weren’t all that thrilled with the convoluted way the bond debt would be paid and therefore demanded a high interest rate.
The bonds were sold, but Judge Bill and Kevin weren’t satisfied with the rate and during the last legislative session got bills approved to clarify the financing. Now when those bonds can be “called,” a lower interest rate will be possible. That’s called determination, and Judge Bill and Kevin were determined to “get it right” for the benefit of Wise County taxpayers.
When someone said that he always protected the taxpayers’ money, they were “right on the money” when it came to that college project. Judge Bill fought many battles with Weatherford College officials to make sure that Wise County was not paying more than absolutely necessary to make that branch campus a reality.
But the college was not his only accomplishment. His persistence and determination delayed for several years a plan by the Environmental Protection Agency and Texas Commission on Environmental Quality to put Wise County under Metroplex air pollution regulations. He ultimately lost that battle, but he fought it to the end.
When he died, he was battling the city of Fort Worth over the dumping of smelly biosolids on fields near homes in Wise County. He also helped re-route some major power lines into more rural areas instead of through property scheduled for industrial development.
Some may call battles against governmental agencies “tilting at windmills,” but Judge Bill never avoided a fight when it came to the well-being of Wise County residents.
His spot as vice president of the North Central Texas Council of Governments (NCTCOG) gave him a front-row seat on developments in the region. It was an important first for Wise County to have an elected official in a leadership role at NCTCOG.
Judge McElhaney was a man of vision, and that was never more evident than when he saw the need for Wise County to have a first-class fairgrounds facility and realized that was not going to happen until the county took over full operation of the Wise County Sheriff’s Posse Grounds in Decatur.
Judge Bill and I first talked about it more than two years ago after I stopped by his office for a visit and told him of the poor conditions at the facility. Now after several “fits and starts” commissioners later this month have the opportunity to make that transfer a reality, and in his honor, I trust they will make it happen.
On a personal note – I will especially miss the big smile, handshake and bear hug I always got when we would run into each other. The first time that happened was on New Year’s Eve several years ago when we were celebrating the holiday at the Southlake Town Center. As we walked back to our hotel after dinner and a movie, we ran into Bill and Kim who were also there for the holiday. At the time, I really didn’t know him that well, but from that first bear hug till today, I considered him my friend.
Journalists and elected officials often have problems developing good relationships, but in Wise County more often than not, we not only report the news developed by the elected officials but we also become friends.
I will always consider Bill McElhaney my friend and, like so many others, I will remember him for his dedication and hard work for the citizens of Wise County.
Judge Bill, we miss you already.
Roy Eaton is publisher of the Wise County Messenger.