Longtime Macon, Bibb County leader Tommy Olmstead dead at 83

Tommy C. Olmstead, who headed two branches of local government -- as Macon’s mayor during the Great Flood of 1994 and later as Bibb County Commission chairman -- died Wednesday afternoon. He was 83.

Olmstead had been in a Macon hospital since early this month and was in intensive care since June 7, his son Cliff Olm­stead said.

The senior Olmstead, a two-time state senator, resigned from the Georgia Senate and won the mayor’s office in 1991, in part on a campaign that promised to oust then-Police Chief Jim Brooks.

In 1995, at Gov. Zell Miller’s request, Olmstead gave up the mayor’s post to oversee the Georgia Department of Human Resources. He was elected Bibb commission chairman in 2000 and retired four years later in 2004.

“He loved Macon and this community, and he loved the people of it,” Cliff Olmstead said. “He looked to achieve things as much through harmony as he could. ... He wanted this community to grow. ... I’m sure in his heart he always tried to do the right thing.”

Bibb County Commissioner Joe Allen worked as a firefighter when Olmstead was mayor, and later was a county commissioner when Olmstead was a county employee lobbying for Lake Tobesofkee. In between, Allen fought Olmstead for the county commission chairman’s seat.

Allen said Olmstead always treated him fairly and respected him.

“He gave me some words of wisdom after I lost that I’ll never forget, and that was, ‘Keep your head high. A loss does not mean the end of the world. You can come back and do it again,’ ” Allen said.

Tommy Clarence Olmstead grew up in Depression-era Macon. He went to Lanier High School and Mercer University before joining the National Guard.

In 1950, after his father died, he took over the family business, American Printing and Stationery Co., and later renamed it American Office Equipment Co.

Olmstead got into politics in 1976 when he was first elected to the Bibb County Commission. When he ran a successful campaign for state Senate in 1986, he told The Telegraph he liked being around his family, hanging out at home.

“I enjoy working in the yard and working around the house. That’s basically it. I’m not a member of a country club or any clubs for entertainment. I like the privacy of home.”

In his government roles, Olmstead was in the middle of several big decisions.

As county commission chairman, he fought to expand Bibb County’s jail to reduce federal oversight because of overcrowding problems. At the Department of Human Resources, Olmstead’s name was out front on a case that made it to the U.S. Supreme Court, Olmstead vs. L.C., as his agency and the state fought to keep mentally impaired people in state institutions. Georgia lost the case.

Former County Commission Chairman Larry Justice remembered working with Olmstead during the floods from Tropical Storm Alberto in the summer of 1994.

“Tommy, he could get things done,” Justice said.

Olmstead was instrumental in getting Bill Vaughn hired in 1977 to start the county’s first finance department.

Vaughn sometimes met him on Sundays to further scrutinize the county’s budget for even tiny cuts.

“He thought if you added up all those $10 amounts for all those departments, you’d have a good bit of money,” Vaughn said. “Sometimes we’d cut $10, and sometimes we’d cut $1 million.”

Former Macon Mayor George Israel remembered visiting Olmstead’s store in the 1970s.

“He said, ‘George, George, come here. I’ve got to show you this,’ ” Israel recalled. “And he pulls out this calculator that was the size of a business card. I said, ‘I can’t believe it. How much is it?’ He said, ‘It’s $299, you wanna buy it?’ I said, ‘Nope.’ He said, ‘This is the wave of the future.’ ”

As a government leader, Olmstead “was very interested in the policymaking process ... that it be done right,” Israel said.

“He had been a businessman himself, so he drove a pretty hard bargain for the public sector,” Israel said. “I had my times of negotiating across the table with Tommy, and he could be very tough.”

In a statement Wednesday evening, Bibb Commission Chairman Sam Hart called Olmstead “a political stalwart” whose “long dedication, civic pride and service to the citizens of Bibb County will be sorely missed.”

When his third and youngest child, his daughter Elaine, was born in 1957, Olmstead showed off his creative side.

Ever the office equipment salesman, he used a miniature filing cabinet with three drawers in it -- one labeled with the names of each of his children -- and the bottom one was opened to announce Mary Elaine’s arrival. In her drawer was a baby-sized folder that included her weight, time of birth and other details. Birth-announcement cards inspired by the creation were later noted in a 1959 issue of Redbook magazine, which sent the Olmsteads a check for $50.

But there were plenty of trying times for him during his days of governance.

On the morning of July 6, 1994, after Tropical Storm Alberto swamped the region with record rainfall, Olmstead was in Macon’s emergency management bunker next to City Hall.

The surging Ocmulgee River had flooded the sandy bend that housed the county’s waterworks. Olmstead made the call to shut down water service, leaving the city without running water for days. He led efforts to get 10 million gallons of water to Macon and Bibb County residents.

In an interview a decade ago about the challenges of being mayor, Olmstead said “the toughest part is the 15-person City Council. ... That’s the problem. It’s not as easy as people think.”

In February 2011 at a ceremony to acknowledge his retirement as a Lake Tobesofkee lobbyist, Olmstead reflected on life in the public eye, which always kept him on the move.

“I was busier today and yesterday than I have been in a long time,” he said at the time.

Information from Telegraph archives was used in this report.

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