Winding road home: Retiring City Administrator Jim Hawks reflects on career

With the South Platte River flowing east behind him, retiring North Platte City Administrator Jim Hawks stands on the river bridge that opened in 2011 with the completion of the South Buffalo Bill Extension. Discussed since the late 1960s, the project providing a continuous city street and county road from Scout’s Rest Ranch to Lake Maloney was one of the highlights of Hawks’ 33 years in local government and 16 years as city administrator.

You’d think Jim Hawks would have followed the most direct career path in a working life all about streets and surveyor’s lines.

After all, it’s just 60 miles from his hometown of Lexington to North Platte, where Hawks retired Friday after 33 years in local government.

Nope.

First add 3,000 miles — round trip — all the way to and back from the plains of the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, New York.

Not to mention a side trip to Philadelphia and the sideline of college football’s most storied rivalry: the 1975 Army-Navy game.

“It was awesome,” said Hawks, 63, a 1975 Lexington High School graduate who won a cadet’s appointment after running for nearly 1,000 yards for Minuteman coach Barry Alvarez, later Wisconsin’s coach and athletic director.

He paused for a minute, unable to speak.

“Look at the hair stand up on my arms just thinking about it,” he finally said.

It was.

Hawks soon returned home. He didn’t play at all that day at JFK Stadium — where Navy won, 30-6 — and barely saw the field as a blocking fullback behind starter Brad Dodrill in the 2-9 Black Knights’ wishbone offense.

But he took away something that lasted: The start of his education in engineering, the prime focus of a West Point education for 200 years.

“It was when I learned more about what engineering actually was, and it spurred my interest in it,” said Hawks, who put in 16 years as Lincoln County surveyor and highway superintendent and 17 with the city.

He credits his public-service bent to his late father, Glenn, who filled various roles in Lexington’s city government from 1950 until three months before his 2016 death.

Though his father wasn’t an engineer, “he dealt with engineers all the time,” Jim said.

Hawks spent all but his first year at City Hall in the administrator’s office, turning it over to successor Matthew Kibbon after the COVID-19 pandemic extended his service a month past his May 1 retirement date.

So he took a straighter path to North Platte once he came home in 1976?

Uh, yes. His second eastward detour was only a bit over 300 miles.

While taking courses part-time at Kearney State College (now the University of Nebraska at Kearney), Hawks went to work for Dawson County Engineer Fred Dixon.

Actually, he worked for his home county twice. His high school sweetheart, Janelle Kloepping, whisked him away in between.

Married on May 14, 1977, the couple moved to Lincoln so Janelle, now 62, could earn her nurse’s diploma at Bryan Memorial Hospital.

Later a nurse and clinical care coordinator for Great Plains Health, she retired last November as a western Nebraska account manager for Option Care Infusion Therapy.

While Hawks kept taking classes in Lincoln, Lancaster County construction engineer Don Thomas became the second in a long line of influential career mentors.

When Jim, Janelle and first child Matt were ready to return to Lexington in 1980, “Don tried to talk me out of leaving,” he said.

Hired back home by Gary Donaldson, then Dawson County surveyor, Hawks received his KSC bachelor’s degree in business a couple of years later.

He picked up an MBA degree from UNK in 2002 but never finished an engineering degree. “There’s no better experience than practical experience,” said Hawks, who holds other related certifications.

Not until May 1987, when the late Dick Nosky resigned as Lincoln County’s part-time surveyor, did Hawks and his family make the straight 60-mile one-way trip to North Platte.

Elected four times to the post, he soon also succeeded Wes Wahlgren as county highway superintendent on Oct. 1, 1988.

“At the time, I was the only other guy in the county who was licensed” for such a job, said Hawks, current chairman of the Nebraska Highway Commission.

Still just 31, Hawks soon was introduced to the two projects that would highlight his North Platte career.

County and city leaders had talked for 20 years about extending South Buffalo Bill Avenue across the South Platte River and Interstate 80, probably with an interchange at the latter.

The interchange was dropped, Hawks said, because state roads officials weren’t keen on building rural interchanges only a couple of miles apart.

South Buffalo Bill residents resisted the project for years while Hawks’ City Hall predecessor, Tom Harvat, served as city engineer and for a time as city administrator.

Hired in 2003 as Municipal Light & Water director — a post he also held until this month — Hawks took up the extension after the late Mayor Jim Whitaker asked him in 2004 to succeed Harvat in the administrator’s office.

Seven years later, the extension opened with a South Platte bridge and an I-80 overpass without an interchange. Motorists now can drive 7.7 miles straight north from Lake Maloney to the Wild West Arena and Scout’s Rest Ranch.

Along with a parallel hiking-biking trail, “it has become a really major route to tie the city together for residential people as well as commercial people,” Hawks said.

Meanwhile, he was deep into a multiyear campaign — while dealing daily with city issues, employees and elected leaders — to reverse a 1979 federal mandate that property owners inside North Platte’s historic footprint buy and keep flood insurance.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency had placed the city between the two Platte branches in the “100-year flood plain,” meaning it judged North Platte had a 1% risk of significant flooding in any given year.

That puzzled Hawks as the then-county surveyor studied land elevations for building projects just outside the 2-mile-wide zoning strip past city limits.

“When you crossed the street and came into the city (zoning area), there was a couple feet (of) difference” between what the county and the city said about how much a plot of land had to be built up before construction.

That was because of the flood-insurance mandate, Hawks said. He thought: “Something’s not quite right.”

City officials, who had watched the mandate stifle home construction since 1979, were taking initial steps to challenge FEMA’s maps when Hawks became city administrator.

In 2006, FEMA redesignated the first parts of the city as a “500-year flood plain,” indicating only an 0.2% annual risk of notable flooding.

More areas got that designation in 2009 and still more in 2016. Last October, Hawks announced that the last of North Platte’s traditional residential areas would be removed Feb. 7 from the flood insurance mandate.

He announced his retirement two months later “I wanted to make sure I got it finished,” he said.

He also wanted his successor to be comfortable before he left. As COVID-19 complicated the hiring process, Hawks said he’d stay past May 1 as needed.

That added up to one more council meeting on May 5 — two days after Kibbon finished a two-week self-quarantine after moving from Wyoming — and spending less time in the office as his and his father’s 70 consecutive years of public service came to an end.

Hawks said he’s confident in Kibbon and the other, mostly younger successors in half a dozen key city positions since late 2018.

“I had the opportunity to work with a lot of good people with a lot of experience there,” he said. “But their replacements are good people, and they bring different skill sets and knowledge to the table.”

As he thinks about the council members and the four mayors he served with, “I’ve always felt their heart was in the right place.”

He and Janelle plan to stick around, since sons Matt and Nate and their families live in North Platte. The couple has four grandchildren.

They do plan to disappear briefly to drive through Texas, New Mexico and Arizona, looking for a place to spend next winter with their fifth-wheel camper.

“We always said, at least one time, we would winter down south somewhere,” Hawks said.

With COVID-19 delaying his departure, their scouting trip was “kind of put on hold.”

Good thing he’s used to detours.

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