Having been in office for almost forty two years, Liberty Mayor J. Edward Hale holds the distinction of being the current longest serving elected public official in DeKalb County.
It was his love for the town he was born and raised in that inspired him to seek the office in 1971 and with the help of many townspeople who have served on the city council down through the years, Hale has worked to improve streets and sidewalks, restore local landmarks, and preserve history for future generations
Even before his time as mayor, Hale found other ways of serving the public. Hale spent many years as an educator in the school system and he once held a rural carrier position in the postal service. Though he is not one to brag on himself, Hale is proud of his accomplishments. It was for his years of leadership and devotion to his community and county that Hale was presented the Leadership DeKalb "Legacy Award" last week during the annual membership banquet of the Smithville-DeKalb County Chamber of Commerce.
While he doesn't mind talking about his life, Hale would rather not mention his age. He did, however just celebrate his birthday on April 3. The son of John Hale and Sadie Bratten Hale, he was born in what is known as the old Bratten House near Salem Baptist Church. The home still stands today. When he was six months old, Hale said his parents moved to another house in town, a home that was built around 1820 and remains one of the oldest houses in Liberty.
A graduate of Liberty High School, Hale furthered his education at Cumberland College, where he received an education degree. Hale later earned his Masters Degree at MTSU.
Shortly after completing his studies at Cumberland College, Hale got his first teaching job at Pisgah, where he served for one year before joining the U.S. Air Force on his birthday in 1942. After being honorably discharged from the service in December 1945, Hale spent two years in the fruit tree business in Danville Virginia before settling down back home in Liberty where he married Gloria Hobson in 1950 and resumed his teaching career.
Hale taught at the Dismal school and then moved to Liberty High School where he became teacher and later principal. After consolidation of the high schools in the county, Hale taught at the Liberty Elementary School. During those years at Liberty, Hale even tried his hand at coaching basketball. "We won the county tournament one year. It was the first time Liberty had ever done that," he said. While he enjoyed teaching, Hale found there was more money to be made in other occupations. "I was just carried away with teaching. It got in my blood. I taught school for a pretty good while and then a rural route came available here. The pay was so low in the school business. It was so much better in the rural route. I just had to try it. So I got that job and served as a rural carrier for ten years. But I would pass a school house and see the kids playing. I felt I ought to be there with them," he said. Hale eventually returned to the school system and retired as attendance supervisor in 1992.
In the years after the high schools were consolidated, the old Liberty High School began to deteriorate to the point where it became unuseable. Concerned about restoring the building, Hale made that a priority when he ran for and was elected mayor in 1971. "The city bought it after the consolidation. But up until we started (renovating) it wasn't useable. You'd get wet in here if it rained. This building would have been gone in a little while,' said Hale. " That's really what motivated me to come in as mayor. I thought it would be terrible for that old building to just go down. When I first came in, the town didn't have any money. So I got the council to borrow some money. Everybody cooperated on it. I got a grant and got started on the building. We finally got a roof on it. One wall was gone from the leaks. Through the grants, I got a company from Nashville to come in to do restucco work. Later on, we finally got the windows put in. Eventually, we got it in pretty good shape," said Hale.
Today, the building houses the town's senior center, library, meeting room for the mayor and aldermen, and a History room which contains old photographs, newspapers, and other historical artifacts pertaining to the city and county. Hung along the walls in the main hallway of the building are old Liberty High School class pictures dating as far back as the 1920's.
Improving streets and sidewalks also ranked high on Hale's to do list when he first became mayor. "At that time, the town hadn't had any repairs in a long time. The sidewalks were all broken up. Streets were in bad shape. With the help of the council, we did great things with the little town in building it back up. It was going down pretty bad. We got the sidewalks built on both sides all the way up main street. We did our roads and we've kept the streets up in pretty good shape. Now, they're pushing babies on strollers and walking in pretty weather up and down the streets here. Meeting each other. Its really made it nice," he said.
Through his association with UCHRA, UCDD, and other entities, Mayor Hale has taken advantage of many grant opportunities for funding city projects over the years. "I got interested in the UCDD and UCHRA. Every program that came along, I was there trying," said Hale. "We got a program way back called the Green Thumb. A man (who worked in the program) would come around town and see to the needs of several people who were shut in and a few were blind. He would check on them everyday or take them to the store or wherever they needed to go. That was his job. It was a great help to the community," said Hale.
"At one time the people didn't have any place much to meet. We got the idea of a community center. It was probably the first one in the county. I got with my council. We called a community meeting and designed the community center. Its turned out real well. People come here from outside of the area now and rent it a lot. We've kept it up in pretty good shape," said Hale.
Liberty also has its own fire engine and fire hall thanks to the leadership of Mayor Hale.
While he and the council have agreed on most projects over the years, there have been times when Mayor Hale has resorted to a little friendly persuasion to make things happen. "We had a retired preacher on the council one time. He didn't want to spend any money. I got the money to build this tennis court down here through a grant. When I brought it up, he said no I'm not going to vote to waste money on a tennis court. I said okay, Alexandria will get that money and they will have a nice tennis court. He said well go ahead and get it then," he said.
The city has also established zoning in recent years, which doesn't always sit well with some town folk. "We've set up a zoning board. That's tough in a little town," said Mayor Hale.
Some may consider Mayor Hale himself to be a little conservative when it comes to spending local funds, but he doesn't necessarily mind that brand. "I guess they've tried to tack onto me that I'm slow to spend money. But I want to spend on things that will be worth something and when I go out as mayor I want there to be money to use because there wasn't when I came in," he said.
Mayor Hale said while much has been accomplished in his four decades as mayor, he would like to have seen more services provided. "We don't have sewage. We tried to get it during the days of Model Cities. We had a survey run but it was too expensive. That just killed our chances of getting it. We do share a water system with Dowelltown. We had one well furnishing all the water we needed but the state wanted us to dig another one so we have two now," he said.
"We were never able to get the financing it takes to develop the upstairs (of the Liberty High School building)," said Mayor Hale. "The seats up there are in good shape. It seats a hundred people or more. I had an idea of trying to develop that and I had a committee to work with me to have a community meeting place but we had to have an elevator so I gave up on that part of it," he said.
Even with all the improvements that have been achieved over the years, Mayor Hale is perhaps most proud that Liberty remains a quiet, peaceful town of good neighbors. "We have these old houses up and down main street. A lady visited here from Oklahoma one time and we took her around over town. She said you know, this main street is a Norman Rockwell picture," he said.
"Its been a good little place to live. If you live here, you can't imagine the turmoil going on in the rest of the world," said Mayor Hale.