Iron hand, open heart Pelham mayor leads for two decades

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, June 10, 2003

Love him or hate him (and people generally tend to claim one of the two), the city of Pelham would not be what it is today without Bobby Hayes. He has had a hand in every development in the city since he won the 1984 election by 486 votes, defeating incumbent and long-time mayor Burk Dunaway by a near 2 to 1 margin.

For the past 20 years, the people of Pelham could think of no one they would rather have run their city &045; evidenced by the fact that he has been unopposed for most of the elections during his tenure (the others he won decisively).

Even his critics would find it hard to argue that Hayes has not lived up to his 1984 campaign promise, &uot;progressive leadership&uot; for Pelham.

The streets are clean, the neighborhoods are safe and business is booming.

Hayes is the only full-time mayor in a county that is the fastest growing in Alabama and among the fastest in the nation.

Although clean and efficient, he hardly has the look or personality of a polished politician.

He wears tan-ostrich skin boots and chews Levi Garrett but rarely spits.

In his own words, he is &uot;just an old SWAT cop&uot; not afraid to &uot;light somebody up&uot; if he has to.

But Hayes has worked aggressively to bring prosperity to the city that lies in the valley of Double Oak Mountain.

In fact, it was his aggressiveness that led to the annexation of Oak Mountain State Park into the city of Pelham.

&uot;Bobby was the kind that always wanted to do what it takes to get the job done,&uot; said Bobby York, former fellow police officer and special forces member.

In the corner of his office is a painting of city hall. Inscribed in pencil at the bottom of the frame, it is dedicated: &uot;To Bobby Hayes, the Mayor who brought Pelham from obscurity to a leader city of the 21st century.&uot;

Pelham, indeed, has come a long way since he was first elected mayor.

At the onset of his first term the city’s population was around 6,000.

Pelham is now home to more than 14,000 and brings in more than $25 million in revenue each year.

The Pelham Racquet Club, Oak Mountain Amphitheater and the Pelham Civic Complex have all been built during his mayorship. And construction has begun on a new municipal golf course.

&uot;He is a take-charge man. He has had a real vision for Pelham,&uot; said his assistant, Donna Treslar, who he humbly says makes all the real decisions.

&uot;I got sworn in on a Monday night, and she was there Tuesday morning,&uot; Hayes said of Treslar. &uot;She’s my right hand.&uot;

Hayes also credits his council, which backs him on most matters, and his department heads for Pelham’s progress.

&uot;I better not walk in there with something and not be able to back it up,&uot; Hayes said of the council, which rarely voices a dissenting opinion. &uot;If I don’t prove my case, they’ll say ‘Bobby, you didn’t go over this well enough.’&uot;

He once said that no one works for Bobby Hayes, but &uot;we all work together.&uot;

&uot;We all know who the boss is,&uot; Treslar said. &uot;He’s the boss. But he doesn’t micromanage departments. He keeps people in those positions that keep him informed. They work well with him.&uot;

Intensely loyal, Hayes even eats breakfast at the same place nearly every day, Fran’s on U.S. Highway 31.

He orders by simply nodding at the waitress before she even reaches the table. She returns shortly with two scrambled eggs and grits with dry toast.

It’s been a while since he has ordered his favorite, pancakes so big that they lap over the sides of his plate.

&uot;Bobby’s pancakes,&uot; says councilmember Karyl Rice. &uot;They’re bigger than a normal order of pancakes.&uot;

Fitting for a man who looked down a cow pasture and saw something &uot;bigger.&uot;

When Hayes was in his first term of office, some called him crazy for running a sewer line down an undeveloped stretch of land near Highway 119, where restaurants now have 30-minute waits and hotels boast occupancy rates of more than 90 percent yearround.

He manages his city with that same fearlessness.

Once at a city council meeting, a man from a neighboring city came to complain about developments near his property.

He was not on the agenda and realizing that he was the man whose rude phone calls had harassed city employees, Hayes told him his complaints would not be heard &045; not that night at least.

But the man continued to inject his gripes into unrelated discussions as the council moved on with the evening’s business.

&uot;Sit down and shut your mouth,&uot; Hayes said. &uot;Or I will have the officer in the back escort you out of here.&uot;

His tone and a burning glare revealed he would just as soon have done it himself.

But nowadays, Hayes leaves law enforcement up to law enforcement officials. He says he’s been out of that business for 20 years.

&uot;I don’t go back to that life; it’s in the past,&uot; he said. &uot;But I don’t forget where I came from.&uot;

It’s hard to forget a life where dodging bullets and rescuing hostages are an expected part of the work week.

Hayes lived it.

As a sergeant with the Birmingham Police Department, he was asked to head an elite unit combining the expertise of the undercover, vice, K-9 and other divisions.

He was instrumental in forming one of the nation’s first tactical units or SWAT teams at the Birmingham Police Department.

&uot;When the police needed the police, they called us,&uot; Hayes said.

He once helped rescue a 77-year-old woman held hostage with a butcher knife at her throat.

&uot;I’ve seen this guy (Hayes) throw one punch and the first thing to hit the ground is the back of his opponent’s head,&uot; said Mike Morgan, who helped Hayes build SWAT units in departments across the Southeast. Morgan now heads Pelham’s Revenue Department.

As a member of the U.S. Special Forces, Hayes helped guard every president from Nixon to Reagan when they traveled through the state of Alabama.

He even survived several accidents on his police motorcycle, one of them a head-on collision that seriously injured his back.

Although he may hold a reputation as one of the toughest politicians around, Hayes has always had a soft spot for children and the elderly.

&uot;He is just a big teddy bear,&uot; said State Auditor Beth Chapman. &uot;If anyone ever finds that out, he is going to be in trouble.&uot;

But Hayes’ compassionate side, though not always in plain view, is no secret to those who have been around him, especially when dealing with students at Pelham’s schools.

Hayes and his wife, Judy, attend numerous school functions to spend time with his grandchildren and their friends.

They have reared three children of their own and have nine grandchildren, but they claim all the children in Pelham.

&uot;They all belong to us. That’s how we look at it &045; they’re our kids,&uot; Hayes said.

That’s evident each year at graduation time when Hayes sits down and signs a personal letter to each graduating Pelham High School senior congratulating them and wishing them good luck.

&uot;We don’t stamp letters that go out of here,&uot; he said. &uot;I sign them. That’s not much for me to do considering all they’ve done to get where they are.&uot;

His son, Dr. Robert Hayes, a Chelsea optometrist, recalls days when his father was coaching his baseball team and was supportive even when things weren’t going well.

&uot;You never saw him yelling at the players or yelling at an umpire. It was always about the kids,&uot; Dr. Hayes said. &uot;He taught me respect and discipline.&uot;

But Hayes not only worked to instill respect in his children. He works to make sure that his city is given respect as well.

Hayes is known for making sure the acts who perform at Oak Mountain Amphitheater understand they are in Pelham, not Birmingham and that they greet the crowd accordingly.

When hard-rocker Ted Nugent came to town on a tour that included opening his shows with an explicit taunt, Hayes arranged a backstage meeting with the band before the show.

&uot;I told him we don’t talk like that in public in Pelham,&uot; he said.

Nugent objected, telling Hayes that was how he opened his show.

&uot;I told him, ‘not in Pelham’.&uot;

When it was suggested that he might not talk so tough without his armed companions, Hayes excused the two officers at his side and locked the door behind them. Whatever transpired between Hayes and Nugent’s band in the following moments was enough to convince them that he was serious.

&uot;We reached an agreement that he wouldn’t do that,&uot; Hayes said.

That night, in language fit for the public library, Ted Nugent told an Amphitheater crowd it was great to be in Pelham and got a thumbs up from a man in ostrich skin boots at the end of the stage.

Nugent sent Hayes Christmas cards for several years following that performance.

&uot;You can work a lot of things out if you just go to people and talk to them,&uot; Hayes said. &uot;You can reason with almost anybody.&uot;

A natural leader, Hayes first took charge at a young age. As a quarterback at Birmingham’s Ensley High School, he led his teammates in front of crowds sometimes bigger than 20,000 at Legion Field.

&uot;There were lots of girls in high school that had their eye on him,&uot; said friend and high school classmate Carolyn York.

But it was a girl from nearby Phillips High School that caught Hayes’ eye. Shortly after she graduated and they were both taking classes at the University of Montevallo, he made a commitment to his wife.

She has supported him since the very first days when he joined the Coast Guard and continued that support when he told her he wanted to become a police officer, join the special forces and later, when he decided to run for mayor of Pelham.

&uot;I don’t make any appointment after six that my wife is not invited to,&uot; Hayes said.

It’s clear that Judy Hayes supports her husband.

&uot;He cares a lot about people. I guess he would be considered a politician; but to me, he’s never been a politician. He knows he can’t please all the people, but he tries to do what’s best for Pelham.&uot;

He’s done that successfully for almost 20 years.

&uot;When we live in a society where you have to get everything in writing, all you ever have to get from Bobby is his word and you can take it to the bank,&uot; Chapman said.

Mayor Hayes said things are moving forward for the city of Pelham.

&uot;And we’re glad they are. We are here to do what the public wants us to do, and if it’s legal, we’ll do it,&uot; he said