Exactly one week had passed since the Utica tornado and Fred Esmond looked like a man who hadn’t slept much or eaten a square meal.
It was April 2004 and I finally got Fred, who’d been understandably preoccupied, to sit for a Q&A interview on the fragile recovery taking place. Typical of Fred, he was smiling and cheerful as the interview began.
But this time, he couldn’t keep up the sunny façade for very long.
When the talk turned to the eight people who died in the collapse of the Milestone Restaurant and Lounge, his resolve seemed to buckle. He had personally known seven of the deceased.
“How have you stayed upbeat?” I asked him. “You seem as if this hasn’t gotten to you.”
“Oh, it’s gotten to me,” he acknowledged and, typical again of Fred, he yielded to laughter and added, “You’re getting to me now.”
Then he broke down. Without the endless distractions that shadowed him the previous seven days, the grief caught up with him. His voiced cracked and tear rolled down his face.
“And I haven’t cried in a long time, either,” he said. “I try not to. Sorry about that.”
My thoughts turned back to that interview several times since last week’s news that Fred succumbed to cancer. All the strengths that made Fred a terrific mayor — indeed, what made Fred the ideal mayor for Utica at that time — were on display that day: His courage, his empathy and his ability to build a consensus when emotions were running sky-high.
Fred Esmond was quick to say that the good people of Utica are a resilient lot and would persevere though the tornado and beyond, and time has proved him right.
To look at all Utica has endured over the past 10 years — and the breadth of disaster is truly staggering — one could reasonably conclude that a town of lesser stock would have packed their bags and tried their luck someplace else. Utica residents, to their collective credit, have stayed put, dug in and held on.
But Fred’s sincere humility might also lead one to believe that he had only a minor hand in the recovery — and nothing could be further from the truth.
Village president of Utica went from being a part-time job to full-time-plus and it happened literally overnight. Fred suddenly found himself drowning in federal paperwork, mollifying bereaved residents who opposed much of the early recovery plan, and facing a rebuilding task that included Utica’s municipal offices, which were among those destroyed.
He could have been thoroughly forgiven for declining to run in 2005. Instead, he weathered a surprisingly nasty reelection contest and launched himself square-jawed into the recovery.
At the time of his passing, he had much to be proud of. Utica has new village and community halls. Route 178 has been realigned and undergoing an impressive beautification. A tasteful memorial to the fallen has been erected at the site of the former Milestone. Utica’s tax base has grown and the village has, remarkably, kept its municipal tax rate largely in check.
What impresses me most is that Fred oversaw it all with unflagging good cheer.
When villagers screamed against the proposed realignment, Fred kept his head and patiently waited for the unchecked emotions to blow over. When campaign opponents made personal attacks, he turned the other cheek and only flashed his irritation. He was the first one out the door to fill the sand bags during the floods and the last one to take credit.
And when villagers wept over their dead, Esmond cried with them.
A few seconds after breaking down during the 2004 interview, Fred composed himself and recovered his characteristic optimism.
“So anyway, we’re going to live through this,” he said, “and we’re going to be better for this.”
Utica certainly did live through the recovery. And, yes, Utica is better for it.
Thanks to you, Fred.
Tom Collins can be reached at (815) 220-6930 or email@example.com.