Hiscox bid farewell by housing authority staff, supporters

Praise caps retirement gatherings

jgaines@macon.comJanuary 4, 2013 

John Hiscox was in his element Friday afternoon, circulating in a crowd of about 100 people gathered at the Buck Melton Community Center to mark his retirement after more than 30 years as executive director of the Macon Housing Authority.

He hugged friend after friend, but barely broke a constant patter, much of it retirement-related.

“My wife must have concluded that I have way too much time on my hands,” Hiscox told more than one person. “One of my Christmas presents was a harmonica, and a book on how to play it. That’s the kind of thing you give somebody who’s going to be in prison for 20 years.”

Friday’s informal reception followed a night of formal tributes Thursday in the same setting.

“People said fancy and flowery things,” Hiscox said. “It was kind of like going to your own funeral. We had a great time.”

At one point Thursday night, representatives of many groups with which the housing authority has partnered over the years lined up to indulge Hiscox’s well-known love of cheese. In the end a table bore perhaps 150 pounds of all varieties, he said.

“They’d drop a cheese, give him a hug, drop a cheese, give him a hug,” his wife, Beverly, said. “You should see our refrigerator.”

Before the crowd of about 200 Thursday night, John Hiscox heard praise from Macon Mayor Robert Reichert, Mercer University Chancellor Kirby Godsey, colleagues from other housing authorities, federal Housing and Urban Development officials -- current and retired -- and the heads of many partner agencies.

“I said to them, ‘One more time I get to stand up in front of you and take credit for what all of you have done,’” Hiscox said.

But he was no less in his element Friday afternoon at the less-formal public reception in the same location, next to the housing authority’s Felton Homes. A year ago Hiscox oversaw the renovation of the 100-unit complex into an energy-efficient showpiece.

Jacenta Flowers, a housing authority resident for nearly two years, said she attended Friday’s reception in part to help out and in part to show her respect for Hiscox. She had never met him personally but knew his reputation of helping people.

She is one of the beneficiaries of the Felton Homes upgrade. The complex, she said, is far better than before its 60-year-old houses were renovated.

“It’s a great place,” Flowers said.

Dancers from Phillips Children’s Performing Arts Studio performed Friday. Co-owner Gwen Phillips said she was glad to honor Hiscox, and that many of her students come from the housing authority’s properties.

“This is a tribute to him for his sponsorship and support,” she said.

Janice Washington and Janita Thomie, who both work in the housing authority’s admissions office, said Hiscox is a collegial supervisor who often demonstrates that he really cares about employees and residents.

“He has stories about tenants from years and years ago,” Thomie said. “Some of them he still keeps in touch with.”

Leroy Mitchell, a longtime housing authority custodian who shared a table Friday with Washington and Thomie, agreed that Hiscox is genuinely friendly and fair.

“He’s very approachable,” Mitchell said.

Hiscox, executive director since 1981, announced in late September that he would retire at the end of 2012. In those 31 years, he oversaw the transition of a traditional public housing program to a focus on building high-quality affordable housing. In late December the housing authority announced a plan to convert 932 remaining public housing units, almost half its total, to Section 8 housing. The resulting revenue is expected to fund $7.5 million in renovations.

Under Hiscox the authority has replaced Oglethorpe Homes with the Tattnall Place mixed-income development using a federal HOPE VI grant, and partnered with the city to replace the nearly abandoned Macon Homes with the 75-unit Bartlett Crossing neighborhood.

Pearlie Toliver, vice chairwoman of the housing authority board, said the agency is conducting a national search for Hiscox’s successor. It’s open to current housing authority employees, she said. The board is seeking an entrepreneurial person with a business background who can demonstrate real interest and affection for Macon, Toliver said. That’s likely to take some time, she said.

June Parker, the housing authority’s comptroller, has been named interim director.

“We will stay the course he’s set for us,” she said.

Parker, who said she’s not applying for the permanent position, said her goal is to keep services at the same level as they were under Hiscox.

“By no means can I fill his shoes,” she said. “I don’t think anyone would be able to.”

To contact writer Jim Gaines, call 744-4489.

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