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.