Photos Cameron Flaisch
Bill Collins, now Mayor Bill Collins, will tell you, “I just want to be me.”
“I can walk into my meetings with my uniform shirt on. That’s me. I can dress up and sit with foreign consulates or governors of the United States. I have been in all of those lights and I’m still going to be ole Bill.”
Mayor Collins has seen a lot, been through a lot and has experienced a lot, and there is a difference between what people have experienced and what they have been through. “At times I sit back and think, God what are you really doing here? Because I find myself not caring what man thinks about where I am, as I know you have to have the proper etiquette to even be in the room. So, I adjust to what’s natural for myself, while keeping etiquette in mind, and know when to do what I need to do.”
Being appointed as Mayor of the City of Rome is a historic accomplishment for Mayor Bill Collins who has dedicated his professional career to service.
Hearing him recall his beginnings, we are able to see just how far we all have come, while also being thankful for those who have paved the way.
V3: What is your connection to Rome and Floyd County? If you spent your younger years here, can you talk about your experiences with education, community leadership, etc.?
Bill Collins: I graduated a Chieftain of West Rome High School in 1974. While in high school, I was in a program that allowed me to attend the Coosa Valley Technical College and I spent some time welding, as well as in the machine shop. Some of my greatest educational experiences came when I was 13 years old. I worked in a fish market and a gentleman told me that he wanted to teach me how to have common courtesy. That included how to conduct a proper handshake, how to speak clearly and looking people eye to eye. He said I needed all of these skills, as I would be making the move to a new position on the job (working the cash register). That training has always stuck
V3: When starting your business, can you discuss some of the things you encountered and how you overcame adversity?
BC: Before ever starting a business, I had jobs that paid well. At one of the jobs, UPS, I improved the way the company handled packages by speeding the process up. I also worked for an automotive plant. I was making my way up through the automotive company when a lay-off happened. One of my brothers had a car detailing shop in Ohio and I went up to work with him. I had met my wife, Faith, at this time but we were not married yet. I asked her to rendezvous up North with me and she said she would. A short time later we left and quickly realized the North was not for us. Man, it was cold! (laughs) Thanksgiving came and her parents came up to visit. I asked her dad for her hand in marriage, and he agreed on the condition: he wanted us to come back to Rome and work in his family business. I almost shook his arm off for that offer and back to Rome I came, with a fiancé and some knowledge of the car detailing business. A little later, my brother in Birmingham, Alabama asked me to come down and take a look at his business working in the beautification of automobiles, so that he could train and teach me the business. It was a one-bay operation. I took him up on an offer to join him permanently and I moved to Birmingham. My wife came a little later and found a job at a bank. We were there a year, developing the business and again, I found myself ready to come back home to Rome. I wanted my kids to grow up around their grandparents. We moved back to Rome in 1979 with our first born, a son. I found a small shop to start my own car detailing business. It was a slow roll at first. I sat for days with little or no cars. Then an opportunity arose. Another shop had made a mistake with a dealership’s vehicle and I was given the opportunity to show what we could do. After capitalizing on that single opportunity, it blossomed into a business of cleaning multiple cars. We had to expand because we outgrew our first location and many other locations after it. We finally settled in to our current location.
V3: Who are some of the people who were influential to your development as a business owner, a community leader and a politician?
BC: One was Mr. Grizzard. Some people were in my ear about getting into politics and I was very hesitant. I felt as a business owner, I didn’t want to make decisions that could make someone not so happy with me or uncomfortable with me. Unhappy people would hurt my business. I shared that sentiment with Mr. Grizzard, who had himself grown a huge business and was serving the community here in Rome and Floyd County in many ways, including helping out with educational programs in the public and private school sectors. He had a vast amount of knowledge. He said to me, “Look, I hear and understand what you are saying about upsetting people and whatnot, but have you considered what you can do for your people and the community as a whole? Have you considered how many people would be glad that you are doing it?” After those words I gave it some strong thought. I did continue to struggle with making the final decision to throw my name into the hat to be elected, so the Final Decision Maker, God, didn’t leave it up to me any longer. There was a knock at my door, and I was informed that there was a new opening on the Rome City Commission and they wanted to know if they could have my blessing to place my name in the pot of candidates being considered for appointment. An appointment only lasts two to three months and you then must run for election. I agreed to place my name in the pot. In my head, I wouldn’t be chosen for appointment anyway. The Commission met and I was a unanimous selection. From that day forward, I have been involved in city government, laws and helping this community. I had another mentor, the first elected black commissioner in the City of Rome, Mr. Napoleon Fielder. I also had another mentor who was a white gentleman, Mr. George Pullen. George would take me around and teach me all about the city. Once I had been on the Commission for a couple of months, I got wind of a conversation where Mr. Pullen had said, “I would have thought that (Bill) would have gotten on this Commission because of the support of people of color. But with this man, color makes no difference. He appears to be for what is fair for all people. What’s good for you is what’s good for me and good for him too.” I chuckled to myself; they read me right that time, because that’s me. I take great pride in striving to be treated like anyone else. If I treat you right, I wanted to be treated right. That is what I call treating all people with respect.
V3: Why did you choose the political arena to try and bring about positive change for Rome and Floyd County?
BC: It was and, in some ways, still needed. For example, the parks in the city’s challenged areas were not up par with the county parks. Young people, children, were playing in these parks. Youth players and coaches in the city were practicing on these downtrodden and overlooked parks. All the while, the county parks were nicer and well-maintained. They had water fountains, restrooms, well-manicured grass and even lined parking lots. I went and took pictures of the differences and informed the commission that the city’s tax payers would like similar facilities to those of the county. We finally got it done, with the biggest improvement coming to Banty Jones Park. It has new equipment for the kids to play on, restrooms, mulch, a lined off parking lot with handicapped spots and a covered basketball court. Other city parks have also seen improvement. We fought to have more African Americans in the police and fire departments, and we now have more than ever, including the Rome City Police Department being led by an African American as Chief of Police. The fire department has also had an African American Fire Battalion Chief. Doors have been opened and I hope I played a small part in making it happen. While I’d never beat my own chest, I owe all of my opportunities to help others to God and his infinite wisdom.
V3: Looking back, did you ever imagine that you would be the Mayor of Rome and Floyd County?
BC: I know that, regardless of race, I’m no better than anyone and they’re no better than me. If you put yourself in a position to receive an opportunity, you should receive that opportunity. I feel like that’s exactly what happened in my journey of becoming Mayor of Rome. Over the course of my 22 years on this commission, it hasn’t been all roses. I remember times when we’d travel as a group and some of the commissioners were drinking out of fine china at their hotel and Mrs. Collins and I were drinking out of Styrofoam cups at ours. As a Black freshman commissioner, I realized a few things. You can’t be afraid to realize that change takes time. Then, you can’t be afraid to speak up. There was an instance when I called the city manager and asked for directions to their hotel because we had different accommodations. He gave me the address, we took a cab over there and hotel staff was at the door to greet us with our very own accommodations at that hotel. A lot of people don’t have a clue that things like that were happening, but they were. There were settings where I was the only Black person there and arguing for change. Changes, much like the hiring practices in our police and fire departments, were ones I wanted to make in our city. Fighting for those changes weren’t easy. I was asked questions like, “Bill, what do you want to do, put them there because they’re Black?” I would respond with, “No, I don’t. But let’s not disregard the fact that there are qualified people applying for these positions.” We started placing ads in other communities announcing employment opportunities in Rome City and sent our people to their job and recruiting fairs. Because of my position, I always have and always will continue working for things to get better. Slowly, it’s improving and I do believe that eventually we will get to where we are trying to go. City Commissioners have the opportunity to get training through the Georgia Municipal Association and I have been attending for years, using that training to help this community. I have achieved the Distinguished Award from the Association, which is one of the Highest Awards you can receive. I have had to watch counterparts, not of my race, come and sit on the bench as Mayor after having served three or so years while I’ve served 15-plus years, and that did not feel good. That’s how it was for me for a long time. Becoming Mayor of this city, after all these years, did not come easy. It was a split vote, a 5-4 vote, but we finally go over that hump.
V3: What are some of the goals you have set for our community under your leadership?
BC: I want to lead in the fairest manner. I want to be as smart as I can in making positive change continue to happen. I understand that my colleagues have come to accept that, yes, he’s the Mayor now. We want to ensure our team continues to make our city be as great as it can be.
V3: How does it feel to be a part of this historical appointment by the citizens and leadership of Rome and Floyd County?
BC: I feel as though the start of my term as Mayor is getting off to a great start. I’ve had so many people of all races come to shake my hand and congratulate me, and tell me how proud it made them. I sat for a picture with a young lady on her 100th birthday, and that made me feel so good. It’s an honor to be the Mayor of this great city.
V3: How do you continue to rise above the ugliness sometimes associated with politics and maintain your integrity?
BC: You have to realize in politics that it’s not all roses. If people can find an angle to use, and sway you one way or the other, that’s what politics is all about. I mean there were situations right up to my vote being used to try to change things. For myself, there’s really no shame in my game. I just let people know that I’m seeing right through the surface and I’m trying my best to reason. It is all about the blood and muscle. People should always remember this is me, Bill, that you’re talking to and I try to lay things on the line from a true perspective. I don’t want people handing me something if that’s not really what you’re thinking or really what you hope to accomplish. I want them to know that they can talk to me and share with me, so I can share with them what my real thoughts are about the subject. And then, when my wife and I go home in the evening, and eat our supper, we don’t even talk about work. I get a cold drink and watch Andy Griffith and she watches her westerns. I watch some news and some sports, but realizing life is so short, I want to enjoy my time. I don’t even have a computer in my office. I’m a manual guy. You can email me and some days I’ll see it. Other days I’ll have three hundred to a thousand to be sorted through. If a conversation is important enough, it will definitely find me.
V3: What keeps you motivated to continue to serve the citizens of Rome and Floyd County and offer your leadership?
BC: More than anything, it’s not about Bill. Even in becoming Mayor of this city is not about Bill. Not at all. What I take from the people I’m consulting with and talking to is that, it’s not only a great opportunity and an honor, but an inspiration to our young African-American boys that are coming up through the school system. Also to the Latino boys in the community, the Caucasian boys in our community, and all of our children. If they had to read my history they would know I came from a place up in Fourth Ward, that’s not from the historically influential places in this city, and that I’m just an ole boy who believes in fairness and that what’s right for one should be right for the other. I just want to help them to become better and I just want to lend a helping hand. That’s where I come from.