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Getting to know Galesburg’s new city manager Gerald Smith

Gerald Smith.jpg
Courtesy photo
City of Galesburg
Galesburg city manager Gerald Smith.

Galesburg city manager Gerald Smith grew up as an orphan and was raised by Catholic nuns in St. Louis.

When he graduated from high school in 1982, he left town the next weekend and went to stay with a sister he didn’t know.

“At that time, I thought I was going to go to Northwestern University,” Smith said. “But when I got there, I realized my pockets just didn’t have that kind of scratch.”

So Smith, the son of a World War II veteran he never knew, took another path.

In 1983, he got a job with Amtrak.

Smith worked as an Amtrak train attendant for about five years, traveling the continental U.S. on the rails – and that’s the first time he ever came to Galesburg.

Smith said in 1984 or 1985 his supervisor sent him to Galesburg for Railroad Days.

“I had no clue what that was,” Smith said. “I’m hoping someone has a picture of me standing in front of a train as a train attendant.”

Coming back to Galesburg

Railroad Days has changed a lot since the mid-1980s and so has Galesburg, in part because of factory closures and population decline.

But nearly 40 years after that first visit, Smith said it’s the city’s history – and its potential – that made him want to return.

“I was always interested in the community, and clearly I never thought that I would have the opportunity to come back to Galesburg, not in an Amtrak uniform, but in a regular suit to work as their city manager, but here I sit today,” Smith said.

Smith did go back to school, starting at community college and continuing to earn a bachelor’s degree in urban history and political science from Elmhurst College and a master of public administration degree in urban management from Northern Illinois University.

Since the 1990s, he’s been working in municipal administration.

"I’ve had opportunities to work in communities that are extremely progressive, extremely conservative, communities that were predominantly white, communities that were mixed, and working in communities from as small as 4,000 to communities as large as 460,000,” Smith said.

He was hired as the Galesburg city manager after a national search, and began working for the city on Nov. 7. He succeeds Todd Thompson, who is now the city manager for Rock Island.

Prior to coming to Galesburg, Smith worked as city manager in Creedmoor, North Carolina; Maquoketa, Iowa; and Junction City, Kansas. He also served as the Director of General Services for Kansas City, Missouri.

Finding a way forward

Smith said in addition to Galesburg’s history, its diversity also attracted him to apply for the position.

Plus, he sees Galesburg as a city looking to find its way forward.

He said his job is to help elected officials find that path and guide them through it.

“I bring a lot of different experiences from a variety of different communities that are outside of the box of how maybe prior leaders have thought in order to accomplish or achieve goals here,” Smith said.

Having worked with more working class and more affluent communities, Smith said he sees Galesburg as more working class.

But he believes there are a number of progressive leaders in the community, and the potential to advance the city’s industrial, retail, and housing sectors.

“Understand, some of the conservative communities I have worked with were some of the most progressive communities I’ve ever worked for,” Smith said. And it was from those communities that I’ve learned how to help guide and move communities forward.”

Asked whether he thinks Galesburg needs a community center, Smith said that’s not his job to decide.

He said elected officials have gone through a process to determine the need.

So now he will guide those officials through the process of finding funding for the project.

Tri States Public Radio produced this story.  TSPR relies on financial support from our readers and listeners in order to provide coverage of the issues that matter to west central Illinois, southeast Iowa, and northeast Missouri. As someone who values the content created by TSPR's news department please consider making a financial contribution.

Jane Carlson is TSPR's regional reporter.