It was noon, 52 years ago on July 15, 1959, when I walked up the steps at Miami’s Dinner Key City Hall to begin a six-month internship for my master’s degree in governmental administration from the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School. Dutch Willard was the city manager, and I had no inkling that I would work in that building over the next eight years, nor that I would come back 36 years later as city manager during a time of intense distress.
How I got there is an amazing story that really began in the Air Force in 1956 when we flew a low-level training mission from Fort Pierce to Key West and back to Palm Beach. Fortuitously, that flight took place on a magnificent, sunny, cloud- less Florida day during which, having been an avid fisherman since I was 5, I fell head over heels in love with all the blue green water. It was on that flight that I determined that Florida was where I wanted to work and live.
Internships at Wharton were awarded based on class ranking, and because I was ranked third in my class I was able to select an internship in Fort Lauderdale with City Manager Bill Veeder. Leaving my wife and two daughters on Long Island, I rented a U-Haul trailer and was packed and ready to go when I received an urgent call from Dr. Steve Sweeney at Wharton asking me to come to his office. Dr. Sweeney told me that the Fort Lauderdale city commissioners had, the night before, fired their city manager and canceled my internship. Dr. Sweeney also said that all the internships had been awarded and there were none left.
I sat there in stunned silence wondering what I would do but was heartened when Dr. Sweeney said that he would authorize me to stay at Wharton as a Ph.D. candidate with a full scholarship. It was a generous offer that I readily accepted. I spent the rest of the day looking for another apartment because mine had already been rented. At four that afternoon, I received another call from Dr. Sweeney, asking me to again come to his office.
He began by saying, “You are not going to believe this, but Miami City Manager Dutch Willard just called and guess what he wanted.
“I cautiously replied, ‘An intern?'”
Sweeney smiled and said, “Merrett, the Lord works in mysterious ways. I told Willard that I had just the man or him. He is one of our best students, and he wanted to intern in Florida. He’s already packed and will leave at six in the morning. He should be in Miami in two or three days.”
After renting a small duplex in Silver Bluff, I drove back to Long Island and brought my family with me o Miami. My internship was exciting, and Mr. Willard was a delightful southern gentleman. I was paid 150 per month and still have the many position papers I wrote. Two of them stand out and would prove o have heavy consequences in the coming months. The first was a complete reorganization of the city government, and the other outlined how to reform a politically manipulated civil service system.
I wrote those reports as a student, analyzing function, lines of communication, accountability, line/staff relationships, etc., paying little regard to the political implications for politicians, unions or an entrenched bureaucracy. I believed they were only for my city manager’s and my Wharton professor’s eyes. But Willard, or reasons I never really understood, released them publicly under his signature, which caused a furor.
I learned later that Willard was on shaky ground with the Miami City Commission. It also made me a marked man, and shortly thereafter when Willard resigned to take over a Coral Gables bank, I fully expected to be fired.
But that wasn’t to be because the commission appointed Mel Reese, a professional manager, and my future was secure for the next eight years until I became Clearwater city manager in 1967.
I worked on many projects in Miami. The other assistant city manager, my good friend, Paul Andrews, who later became city manager, was responsible for engineering, public works, building. When Kennedy Park was nothing but mangroves, I filed the Open Space grant request. I also applied for the grant that funded the Coconut Grove Library and oversaw construction of Elizabeth Virrick Park in Coconut Grove and the Japanese Tea Garden.
A challenging assignment involved leading an investigation into the City’s Department of Slum Rehabilitation, which was supposed to enforce minimum housing codes in the inner city. After examining city records and doing field investigations, it proved to be a scandalous mess with minimal to nonexistent code enforcement. The director and several inspectors were dismissed.
There were, however, some great elected officials I worked with, including Alice Wainwright, the first woman commissioner, Athalie Range, the first black commissioner, and former Mayor Robert King High.
City Manager Dutch Willard’s call to Dr. Sweeney in 1959 precipitated an amazing chain of events for me. Now, 52 years later, I appreciate how important it proved to be for my working destiny, to say nothing of its impact on my entire life. It was the beginning of what has proven to be a wonderful, exciting and challenging journey in public service. I’ve always felt very fortunate to serve my fellow citizens during good times and challenging times, and I am particularly proud to call Miami my home.
Merrett R. Stierheim served twice as manager of Miami-Dade County. He is also a former superintendent of the Miami-Dade County school system and former city manager of Miami.