As a youth, James Taylor didn't expect his life to lead him to more than a quarter century in the Marine Corps or becoming the top administrator in Albany's City Hall. His leadership skills, however, created a successful career pathway.
ALBANY, Ga. — Albany City Manager James Taylor, a 27-year Marine who came painfully close to collecting a general's star before he opted for civilian life, is a decisive man. Albany city employees and others who work closely with Taylor have learned that the man who runs the day-to-day operations of the city is not one who wastes a lot of time debating trifles.
But it was Taylor's inability to make a decision on his future that set the stage for a distinguished career that has revolved around his ability to lead others.
"My dream when I graduated high school was to become a teacher or a preacher; those were the options," Taylor said during two days of extended conversation in his office that offers a sweeping view of the city that he now calls home. "But I had done well on the LSAT (Law School Admission Test), and I changed course, decided I wanted to be a lawyer. I was getting ready to go to Emory Law School in Atlanta when it dawned on me: I'd be a terrible lawyer.
"I didn't know what I really wanted to do, and I reached a point where it was either pack up and go home, go to law school or do something else. I chose something else — the Marine Corps — figuring I could take three years to decide what my life was going to be about. That turned out to be the best indecision I ever made."
Taylor thrived in the Marine Corps, even though he admits now "the only reason I didn't leave (during basic training) is that I couldn't figure out how to get out." The three years stretched out to 27, a whirlwind career that took a young Henry County man who'd rarely left Georgia and showed him the world, all the while preparing him for a management career that has him working to turn around a struggling city beset with poverty, crime, infrastructure and budgetary concerns that would overwhelm a lesser individual.
"It's a challenge trying to move the city to the next phase," Taylor said. "I think we're at a point where we're never going to get any bigger and we're not going to get a lot more money. So we're trying to become efficient. We didn't get where we are right now overnight, and there's no magic formula to get us immediately back to where we want to be.
"We do have to have a master plan in place, though, a vision that will allow us to work together toward a better Albany. But the reality is our roads are old, our sewer system is old ... and we have to find a way to upgrade them or we'll become a city of ruins, another Detroit."
WORK ETHIC INSTILLED
Taylor was born in Atlanta, but his building contractor father and nurse mother decided to move their family, which would eventually include seven boys, to rural Henry County south of the state capital. Henry and Quittis Taylor instilled in their sons a work ethic that drives their second-oldest to this day.
The Taylor brothers helped tend a large, 7- to 9-acre family garden in which Henry Taylor planted sugar cane, corn, tomatoes, okra, cabbage and collard greens. The Taylors raised chickens and hogs as well, and Quittis sewed most of her sons' clothes.
"It was a rural upbringing; I never remember looking at my childhood as if I lived in poverty," James Taylor says of that time. "I remember the only thing we bought at the grocery store was White Lily flour, but we had cars, a TV and window air conditioning. We were as well-to-do as the people who lived around us."
Henry and Quittis Taylor expected their sons to do their share, and James was the one who assumed management responsibilities in the household when his parents were away.
"My mom, who will be 88 this year, still calls me 'Mr. Taylor,'" James Taylor said with a touch of pride. "She always left me in charge when she wasn't home because she knew I would take care of that responsibility. All of us brothers grew up with our own responsibilities. My older brother, being the first-born, was taught all the manly stuff, and I was taught how to cook and clean and manage a household."
Young James also learned to respect his father's penchant for remembering details.
"I'd just got my driver's license, and my dad had agreed to let me drive the family car to homecoming," Taylor said. "He came home one evening and told me, 'Boy, bring me my slippers.' I got a little attitude with him, and he didn't say anything about it.
"Then, on the day of homecoming, I came to him and asked him for the car keys. He said, 'Bring me my slippers.' They were already on his feet. Needless to say, I did not drive the car to homecoming."
Taylor attended first Morehouse College and later Johnson C. Smith University in Charlotte, N.C., with the intention of becoming an educator. A friend talked him into taking the Naval flight exam, something Taylor did on a lark. One of his fraternity brothers later told him the Marine Corps' exams were the same as those administered by the Navy, so Taylor went with him to Raleigh to take the Marines' battery.
When Taylor found himself agonizing over what to do with his future, he fatefully decided to take the plunge and join the Corps. An eye exam showed that he had 20-25 vision in his left eye, so his dream of flying ended. He went back to The Basic School in Quantico, Va., and, since he graduated No. 3 in his class, had his choice of assignments.
"The hot job at the time was tank commander, but I wanted to do something that could eventually help me with a career," Taylor said. "I chose logistics and was assigned to the First Division, 4th Marines.
"What I didn't expect, though, was to fall in love with the Corps."
Taylor's first assignment was in Okinawa, Japan, where he fell under the guidance of Chief Warrant Officer Leroy Williams. Williams was the only black officer in the division, and he shared the lessons he'd learned with the young man who turned out to be an eager student.
"The biggest lesson I learned (from Williams) was to deal with people as people," Taylor says. "CWO Williams taught me the whole truth and nothing but the truth."
Among the leadership lessons Taylor learned from Williams — lessons that he still abides by today — were:
— Do your job as well, or better, than everyone else. It's not about you, it's about that colonel you're serving under, and if you do your job well you'll be respected.
— If the grunts get up at 6 o'clock to get started, have your men up at 5:30.
— If everyone else runs five miles, run your guys 10 miles.
— It doesn't matter that you're in logistics; know infantry tactics. No matter what your orders are, you're still a Marine.
Taylor was part of a Marine amphibious unit that was deployed to the Gulf of Siam to extract the last remaining American troops from Vietnam at the end of that conflict. Eventually, though, a unit on a more battle-ready vessel was sent in to do the job.
"I guess one of my biggest regrets from my career is that I did not get to test myself in battle," Taylor said. "I tried to get to Vietnam and I tried to get to the desert. That's what Marines are trained to do; everything else is incidental."
Taylor went back to Okinawa, where his executive officer encouraged him to apply for his Regular Commission. And even though he had no plans to stay in the Corps at that time, Taylor applied out of respect for his XO. When he arrived at his next assignment as logistics officer at Parris Island, S.C., his Regular Commission came in.
When Taylor discovered he could extend his stay in the Corps for just a year, he decided to sign a contract. But he soon discovered that while he was fulfilling his contract, being a Marine had become as much a part of him as he was a part of the Marines. And it would be 23 years before he walked away.
Taylor served as recruiting officer in charge in San Francisco during the hectic early '70s, always fearful that he was going to lose his job for failure to reach prescribed officer, enlisted and ROTC quotas.
"Think about where I was at the time," Taylor said. "I was recruiting in an area that included Berkeley, Stanford, the University of Hawaii, San Jose State ... and at a time and place when the military was not exactly popular.
"It was one of the toughest jobs I had, but for my three years there I managed to meet my quotas."
In a theme that would recur frequently in his Marine career, Taylor was sent back to Okinawa to serve as battery supply officer for Headquarters Battalion with the 4th Marine Division. He returned stateside at Camp Lejeune, N.C., with the 3rd Field Service Support Group, but when he applied for the Army Advanced Logistics Course at Fort Lee, Va., he drew a little heat.
"My monitor called and told me the Marine brass were not happy that I'd 'back-doored' them by enrolling in the Army course, which was an approved joint group," Taylor said. "They said, 'Since you went to a joint school, you'll get a joint assignment.'
"I was sent to serve with the Defense Logistics Agency at Wright-Patterson Air Base in Dayton, Ohio. While there, I worked to get my master's degree in industrial engineering from the University of Central Michigan."
Taylor's next assignment? Inspector General ... in Okinawa, where he earned the nickname Col. "It Depends" Taylor.
"When my folks would ask me questions, I'd say, 'It depends on this, this or this. Get me that information, and I can answer your questions,'" Taylor said.
CHANGES IN CAREER
Taylor served at Marine Corps Headquarters in Washington, D.C., before being sent back to Okinawa as Headquarters Battalion, 4th Marines Supply Maintenance Unit Commander. From that assignment, he was sent to the Marince Corps Logistics Base in Albany, where he met his wife Carmel, who was visiting the base for a weapons system conference.
With rumors of a general's star floating around him, Taylor was asked to return to Okinawa one more time after his two-year stint in Albany. He decided, however, that he'd had enough.
"Existence in the Marine Corps as a one-star (general) is tough, not a great quality of life," Taylor said. "And even though I never really saw myself as a general, I guess I really wanted that honor. But I had a new wife, and I decided it was time to take what I'd learned to the civilian world."
Taylor had offers to choose from (one at Albany State University and one, ironically, with the city's Water, Gas & Light Commission), but he decided to accept a position as CEO of Goodwill Industries. That turned out to be one of the toughest challenges of his professional career.
"Not only did I not realize what bad shape they were in financially, neither did they," Taylor said. "I wanted to be in charge — I wanted the success or failure to be mine — but three of the four years I worked there, I worked totally without pay.
"But I'd never failed at anything, and I was determined not to fail there."
Taylor eventually brokered a merger with the Goodwill chapter in Columbus, and six months later he was enticed to work with Edo Corp. as a contractor during the first Base Realignment and Closure study that threatened the local base. Taylor worked out of the local Chamber of Commerce office, and helped put together the plan that kept the local Marine base open.
Taylor got no response when he applied for a vacant assistant city manager position with the city of Albany, but when Lemuel Edwards became interim city manager, he encouraged Taylor to reapply for the position. Al Lott was soon hired as city manager, and he brought Taylor on as one of two assistants.
MANAGING THE CITY
When Lott left almost four years later to take a position in Washington, Taylor started thinking about a business idea he'd always considered: running his own jazz club. But several commissioners and other local leaders had encouraged him to apply for the city manager position, and he admits to being surprised that he was hired.
"I'm fortunate that the things that I learned in the Marine Corps are easily applicable to the running of the city," Taylor said. "I learned a lot about dealing with people, and while in logistics I learned not only about working with civilians, I learned about working within a budget.
"In both cases, it's a business."
Being a part of the inner workings of the city's government has convinced Taylor that another decision he didn't make turned out to be a fortuitous one.
"Right after I got out of the Marine Corps, I decided I was going to run for mayor," he said with a laugh. "I lived in the county at the time, so I moved into the city with the full intent of running for office. But guess who else decided to run about that time? Willie Adams. I was still considering a run when all my friends in the Sertoma Club started telling me how much they loved Dr. Adams.
"I finally decided it was not a good idea to run at that time. And, now that I've been over here for a while, one of the biggest things I've learned is that I really didn't want that job. I was glad that God was a lot smarter than me on that one."
The politics that swirls around the city government is a constant source of frustration for Taylor as he takes on Albany's many challenges. He's suggested millions of dollars in necessary cuts from the city's budget, and most have been rejected by a commission whose members are concerned about re-election.
"Politics is just a reality you have to deal with," Taylor said. "We're an instant gratification nation, and I realize that these commissioners feel that they have to make certain choices if they want to be re-elected. My hope is that we can find a common vision and start working together on these issues like crime and employment.
"Our mayor (Dorothy Hubbard) says we need a commitment to education, but I think it needs to go further, to a commitment to family. The core of any community is family."
NO GOOD AT DOING NOTHING
Taylor admits he thinks more now about retirement, about spending time with his two sons, their children and other family members. He wants to travel to Europe and, of course, spend as much time as possible on the golf course. But he'll never be one of those do-nothing guys.
"Wherever I wind up (Taylor recently bought and started fixing up a retirement home in Florida), I'll find a (civic) club where I can do something useful," he said. "Marines just aren't very good at doing nothing. I think I have an obligation to give something back, and I'm just too stupid to quit.
"I think it goes back to The Basic School, where my drill instructor told us, 'If you quit, I'll kick your ass; but if you work until you pass out, I'll carry you out.' That became my goal, to work until I passed out and have him carry me. I never passed out, but I did realize what I was capable of doing. That's what the Marine Corps teaches you: That you're capable of doing much more than you ever thought possible."
Of such things, leaders are made.