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John Sam Williamson stays cool despite setbacks

Wednesday, July 21, 2010 | 11:00 p.m. CDT
John Sam Williamson and his wife, Susan, discuss political engagements during the final weeks before the election for presiding commissioner for Boone County. John Williamson has been a farmer for 35 years, but recently gave that up in hopes of moving from a private citizen to government official at the age of 61.

COLUMBIA — It’s already been a long day for John Sam Williamson by the time he steps into Lucy’s around half past noon. McBaine's local hangout, Lucy's serves as a combination of restaurant, bar and pool hall, complete with a Carl Edwards sign and a painting of an American flag, shaped like a boot and reading "courtesy of the red, white and blue." The previous night’s storms left Williamson without electricity for the better part of the morning, and the rain risked ruining the ice cream social scheduled to begin in 30 minutes. The event is a fundraiser for the Democrat’s campaign to become Boone County’s next presiding commissioner.

Despite the chaos that follows him into the building, the few patrons and supporters inside the cafe wouldn’t catch on that anything's in disarray. Williamson remains calm despite the setbacks, his face solemn and relaxed. The expression rarely changes; it's almost impossible to discern a change in emotion.

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He is patient, taking the time to greet everyone and ask how they’re doing before turning to his daughter, Sarah, and her boyfriend to come up with a game plan for setting up the big white tent and gallons of vanilla ice cream waiting in the truck outside. His stocky frame jumps to direct a tourist popping her head in to ask for the location of the big bur oak. Of course Williamson knows: the well-known tree rests on his property about two miles away.

Williamson, or “Johnny” as old friends call him, grew up on that land. Born in Boone County 61 years ago, he is the sixth generation of Williamsons to run the family farm in McBaine.

It's a tradition he prides himself on but doesn’t plan to bestow on his children.

Scott Orr, a friend from growing up, talks about how Johnny hasn’t changed at all. “He was never frivolous, always serious,” Orr said. “He was always aware of his heritage and responsibility, and he carried that burden.”

Growing up in Columbia, Williamson attended Grant Elementary until the one-room schoolhouses near him were consolidated and he moved to Rock Bridge Elementary. He went on to attend Jefferson Junior High School before graduating from Hickman in 1967.

After earning his bachelor’s and master's degrees from MU’s College of Agriculture, Food and Natural Resources, Williamson served active duty in the Air Force. He returned home to work on his farm in 1975.

It wasn’t until later that he met his future wife. She was the Boone County Fair queen. He was the fair master. About a year and a half later, Williamson, then 31, and Susan, eight years his junior, were married. Thirty years later, Susan still teases him for tearing up at the altar.

Susan was first to learn of her husband’s intention to run for presiding commissioner. After returning his call around lunchtime one day, he nonchalantly mentioned his trip to file for candidacy. He filed with little warning, but his mind had been set for a long time.

“I’m doing this because I’ve had an interest for 35 years,” Williamson said, swatting at a fly perched on the burger he ordered at Lucy's. His burger came with tomato and lettuce but no fries. Williamson has lost 30 pounds since starting a diet in January.

Over the years, he’s been active in county issues. He’s worked on bond issues, chaired the No on Home Rule Committee in 1982, was a part of the Boone County Road and Bridge Advisory Committee for five years, was appointed to Boone County's constitution writing committee — the list is long.

More recently, Williamson helped organize the McBaine Levee District in response to the 1993 flood, serving as president since the district’s inception in 1995. He was also elected to the board of the Boone County Fire Protection District in 2008, and he currently serves as treasurer.

In preparation for the role of presiding commissioner, Williamson’s been attending various meetings, he says around 100 so far, to learn more about city and county government.

“If you were raised on a farm you strive for the best, and you never stop learning,” his daughter said. “And that’s what he’s doing.”

He wants to be ready on day one if elected, and the budget is his main concern. Revenue has been slipping, and Williamson says there is "no more fat to cut from the budget."

Williamson is reluctant to raise taxes, and hethinks the county needs to crack open long-term solutions by attracting businesses. "I intend to be Boone County's best businessperson," he said.

He ran for county commissioner in 1992 but lost to Karen Miller in the primaries. After that, the 1993 floods that devastated his land distracted Williamson, but he continued following the commissioners’ decisions. It wasn’t until the current presiding commissioner, Ken Pearson, decided not to seek re-election that Williamson seriously contemplated a second attempt.

“Now, things are a little different,” he said, citing his grown children, parents’ deaths and the leasing of his farm. When he turned 60, Williamson turned over the farm to a friend, and he hasn’t looked back.

“I don’t even miss it,” he said. “It’s just a relief. I do share the costs … but I don’t have the weight of all that worry on my shoulders. I’m glad of that. I did that for 35 years. I’ve had that burden on me. I don’t have that anymore.”

As the ice cream social reaches its end, the blistering heat takes hold. The rain earlier has been replaced with the type of humidity only a true Missourian can know and appreciate. As the ice cream rapidly melts and the white tent does its best to provide a little shade, Williamson and the few supporters able to stand the heat drip with sweat. A few men sport black baseball hats that read “Williamson for Presiding Commissioner” in yellow. The hats do little to block the sun.

Back inside Lucy's a retired lawyer, an electrician drinking a Budweiser from his own Koozy and a cook in faded overalls who contributed $50 to the campaign before heading back into the kitchen, are among the 40 or so present to lend their support to Williamson.

His faithful group of supporters, which transcends party lines, are all his friends, each one armed with a story to tell and a glowing endorsement to give.

“He’s a known, dependable, reliable, steady quantity,” Orr said. “And that’s hard to beat.”

Recently, that sparkling reputation has been tested by last month’s revelation that he was late in paying a portion of his taxes. The full sum was paid off as of June 29, but questions were raised regarding his candidacy, and his opponent in the primaries, Scott Christianson, called attention to the issue during a recent panel discussion sponsored by the League of Women Voters.

Christianson described the situation as a “political reality” that could be a factor later on against Rep. Ed Robb. Robb said he will not bring up Williamson's delinquent taxes during his campaign.

About a week before Christmas, Williamson said, he received a call from a family friend who couldn’t pay her bills. Williamson's family wanted to help, so they spent the money meant for the taxes to keep their friend’s gas on and insurance covered and to buy Christmas presents for her children.

"We were helping out a friend,” Williamson said. “We decided to help this person, this family. I wasn’t worried about paying the taxes. I wanted to help her.”

After reports that his taxes weren’t paid in full, Williamson said he and Susan called friends and supporters to apologize. His expressionless face betrays him when talking about a “little lady” who called him and gave encouragement.

“She said we’ve never met,” Williamson recounted. “And then, this about got me, she said, ‘I’m an 80-year-old widow, and I don’t have a lot of money, but would it help you if I loan you $1,000 to help you pay your taxes?’”

Williamson declined, but didn’t get off the phone before promising to bring her yard signs.

“Once dad is a friend, he’s always a friend,” Sarah Williamson said.

Finally, after his supporters leave, Williamson sits at a table and breathes easy. After the afternoon under the hot sun, all he wants is a cold shower.

He doesn’t even have to ask before the waitress brings over a Diet Coke with plenty of ice.

Williamson is at ease here. The people he knows and the land he’s spent all his life on surround him. When attending campaign events, Williamson is almost always seen wearing a suit, but only because he wants to relate better to those dressed up.

“I don’t wear a suit very often, and I’m not very comfortable wearing a suit. I’d much rather have on a pair of slacks and a dress shirt or a pair of jeans and a T-shirt. And that’s just the kind of guy I am,” he said, and throws back his glass to chew on the last pieces of ice before heading home to cool off.


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