A Chat with Ron Rordam
Updated: Oct 29, 2020
By Michael Abraham
New Orleans native Ron Rordam was mayor of Blacksburg for 12 years, 2006-2018, and has lived here for 44 years. He was on town council for 10 years prior to his election as mayor.
He came to Blacksburg to attend graduate school at Virginia Tech, working on a master’s degree in Russian history. He met his wife, Mary, and he never left. I spoke with him by phone to get his retrospective.
MA: Talk about your decision to run for mayor.
RR: I was told when I first ran for office that everybody runs for a reason. There is some sort of motivator. I’d been involved in government and politics for a long time. There were a couple of neighborhood issues that got my attention. I had served on the planning commission. It was hard to beat an incumbent. But when there was an open seat on the town council, I decided to run. Four candidates ran for three openings, and I was elected.
MA: What has evolved since then?
RR: Blacksburg has always been unique in my mind due to its attention to neighborhoods and neighborhood issues. Neighborhood issues were always important in my decision making. I always asked how any change might impact neighborhoods and residents’ quality of life.
I try to be empathic. It was about how I was raised. My parents were always aware of the people around them, their feelings, and how they could help. They always thought of how what they did and said affected others. That’s always motivated me. People talk about the term, “politically correct.” To me, that’s just about being mindful of others’ feelings. It’s not a pejorative; it’s a badge of honor.
MA: Talk about some of the triumphs and tragedies.
RR: Back to my days on the council, one of the biggest issues was the Tom’s Creek sewer basin. That issue was important to many folks. We were able to continue to protect the basin and allow it to develop in a reasonable, sensible way.
The other issue was purchasing Heritage Park. People felt it would have a huge impact in the future. Now, years later, it has. We were right! Recreation. Mindset. It spoke to who we were and who we wanted to be. It was important to preserve open space, important enough to invest money and resources. The environment is important to Blacksburg. It’s a natural oasis. We decided to leave it open and natural, without lots of ball fields. That would have changed what it is. It’s a place to walk. Sit on a park bench and contemplate or read a book. It’s a restful, beautiful setting.
MA: What was your message to your successor?
RR: I think Leslie (Hagar Smith) is doing a great job. We have some differences in how we do things, but she’s doing great. I let her know that if she ever needed me or wanted an ear, I would be there. But she would not hear from me otherwise. I wanted her to know that she wouldn’t have to look over her shoulder.
MA: Talk about your more stressful days.
RR: There were two fatal shootings in town, right after I took office. An escaped prisoner shot a hospital guard and then a policeman. It was national news. It was stressful; intense. The suspect was on the run for 24 hours.
Then, ten months later in 2007, there was the mass shooting at Virginia Tech. My first recollection was getting the news and feeling that the voice of Blacksburg needed to be heard by the world. We stayed silent the first day, but our public relations officer set up interviews the next two days, talking with the press, with the same message. We had a message of resiliency and unity. The Virginia Tech and Blacksburg communities are so interrelated; they are inseparable. We wanted to be there, to take care of each other. That’s who we were and who we are as a community.
I went to several funerals that week. By circumstance, I was there with parents when they got terrible news. It is still hard for me to talk about. The emotions were so raw, but the community was so strong. It still chokes me up.
Being a part of the community for so long, I have gotten to know its heart. The heart of Blacksburg is compassionate is forward-looking. We’re always eager to look at what’s next. Blacksburg was founded by folks moving west, looking ahead over the next horizon, and we’re continuing that.
The Land Grant university act that established what has become Virginia Tech was forward looking. The original Blacksburg Electronic Village was forward looking. We’re always open to what’s next. I always knew that about Blacksburg, but being involved with it so intimately as long as I was, it was constantly reinforced.
MA: As mayor, you met many influential people…
RR: President Bush came here after the shooting to mourn with us. Blacksburg made a real impression on him. He invited me to Washington when he signed a bill giving a settlement to some of the families. I spoke with some of his people. They said he often asked them when considering a bill regarding colleges or victims’ rights, ‘Now how would this affect Blacksburg.’
He related what he said and did to who he met and the community he got to know here. That says something about him and about us. There was a memorial at the (VT) Coliseum. One of the family members, during the course of the event, went into distress. The first person to jump from his chair to console was President Bush.
Another opportunity I had was to work meet with President Obama and Vice President Biden on gun violence. I worked with the Vice President on a couple of issues and was able to spend a little time with him.
I found Joe Biden to be one of the most genuine people in public office. After a few minutes of conversation, he was able to get to know me a little and then focused the conversation on topics he know I would relate to. Bill Clinton could make you feel good when he met you. Joe Biden made you feel like you mattered. And I’ve gotten to know mayors from across the country.
MA: Not everything the town of Blacksburg has done in my 30 years here were to my liking. But I always felt that all sides got Council’s and the Mayor’s ears. Talk about that.
RR: Blacksburg’s citizens are involved. We in town government wanted them involved and we knew we had to allow their input to keep them involved.
Blacksburg won an award for the Greenest Small City in America. The Mayor of Mountain City, California, home of Google, asked me what we were doing. Green energy initiatives. Recycling initiatives. Lots of ideas came from citizens. Community involvement becomes self-fulfilling. When people are heard, they continue to participate.
MA: During your tenure, what are you proudest of?
RR: It’s not one thing, really. I’m proud of how I left the government, as open, accessible, and transparent as it could be. I’m proud that there was lots of trust in what we said and did. Everything comes from that. Trust is the precursor to everything else.
Distrust in government has gone back decades. Ronald Reagan said that government was not the solution but the source of people’s problems. That’s been so drummed into us for so long that when we need people to listen to government, we have no foundation.
People need to know their involvement is important and valued. People are tired of being lied to.
Mayors are on the front lines these days. When there are riots in the cities, the mayors are on the streets and in the stores, facing angry people. The president and federal government are often making things worse.
MA: What do you think are Blacksburg’s current challenges?
RR: COVID will have a real impact on neighborhoods, on housing, tourism and education. Four years studying on campus might not be the future. It affects housing, faculty, and staff. The crystal ball is foggy. It’s not as clear as it was this time last year. COVID is a real inflection point. We are on a different trajectory now, and we’re all not sure what it is.
We may see more information workers staying home at working at their computers. This may be an economic development opportunity for diminishing local communities if they can get broadband. Blacksburg was one of the first communities to understand the impact of the internet.
How will hotels and restaurants, movies and conference centers here be impacted? How will the town provide services if their budgets are slashed by diminishing hospitality taxes?
We are primarily a college town. But part of looking forward is diversity in our economy. We’re not linked totally to any one industry. We can survive the downtimes. We will recover. We’re not just a university town any more. But with COVID, the challenges are immense.
MA: What was the best part of being mayor?
RR: I got to know a vast, diverse cross section of people, both constituents and contemporaries, across the Commonwealth and the country. Those people will be with me forever. I still keep in touch with many of them. I see some in the news. Some like me have moved to greener pastures. But the most satisfying part of the job was the people, even those with whom I disagreed. Even they were civil and we have good, cordial relationships.
MA: What does post-mayoral life like?
RR: There is pre-COVID and post-COVID, ha! Prior to COVID, we did lots of travel. Since then, for the last 6 months, we’ve focused our travel in local communities. Mary and I do lots of walking. We go to the New River Trail. The (Blue Ridge) Parkway. We still seek out adventures.
Michael Abraham is a native of Montgomery County and a resident of Blacksburg. He is a businessman and author with 8 books in print and hundreds of articles, focused on Southwest Virginia and Southern West Virgina.
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