As a young sailor in Vietnam, Jerry Maygarden survived the muddied, bloodied waters of the Mekong Delta. Later, as mayor of Pensacola and then majority leader of the Florida House of Representatives, he weathered the sometimes-treacherous seas of local and state politics.
And now at 64, Maygarden is the interim president of the Greater Pensacola Chamber of Commerce called upon to help restore public confidence in an organization that in recent months has endured turbulent times.
The chamber has suffered a storm of scrutiny over missing BP gift cards and transparency in how its executive committee conducts business. State Attorney Bill Eddins recently issued a report that the organization needs to operate under the state’s Sunshine laws because of the funds it receives from Escambia County and the city of Pensacola for tourism and economic development.
Maygarden brings vast experience to the interim role—former mayor of Pensacola, former legislator and majority leader of the Florida House of Representatives and local health care executive.
He is expected to lead the chamber for 90 to 120 days until a successor to former Chamber President and CEO Jim Hizer is selected. Maygarden sees the interim role as more than that of a caretaker.
“They need someone in this interim basically to step in and make sure something doesn’t slip through the cracks,” said Maygarden. “I think it’s getting on top of the issues that exist, making sure they have the resources it takes to deal with them, helping them in a collaborative way to be successful and focus on what we’re all about, and that’s economic development and jobs.”
The road to a career in what Maygarden likes to call “servant-leadership” began in an unlikely place—as a young sailor in South Vietnam. There, in 1970, he helped transport American troops into Cambodia, part of the controversial incursion ordered by President Richard Nixon. After 40 years, the details of his time in Southeast Asia are “sort of a blur.” But the period marked him for life.
“My 88-year-old dad would tell you that my time in the military turned me around,” said Maygarden. “Not that I was on a bad path or anything. He said I went from being a skinny-necked kid, just living life to someone who was a lot more serious and motivated to do good things.”
Vietnam chiseled two enduring impressions.
“First, I did not like having little or no control over my life and my destiny,” he said. “I was an enlisted guy. There were people above me calling the shots—and maybe, thank God, they were because they were bright, intelligent people. But I saw myself in a very difficult situation that I had absolutely no control over. I vowed to myself I would never do that again.”
The second impression was much more significant for Maygarden.
“When I got thrust into that situation, for the first time in my life, I experienced man’s inhumanity. Life over there wasn’t worth a nickel. When I came back home, that made a huge impact on me,” he said.
However, out of the pain of wartime emerged a new sense of purpose. “I came home deciding to control my own destiny and for the first time in my life, with a great deal of compassion in my heart,” he said. “It made a difference. It heightened my motivation. It caused me to want to do well in school. [Vietnam] inspired me to be a better person.”
On returning home, Maygarden enrolled at Pensacola Junior College, then went on to the University of West Florida, where he would become student body president. It was the start of a life in public service. He often uses a term coined by ethicist Robert K. Greenleaf—servant leader.
“The whole notion of servant-leadership is the undergirding foundation of all public service,” he explained. “You do things to lift up your community and the people around you. Generally you do it one person at a time, but sometimes, we’re lucky and able to do it on a much broader plane.”
Maygarden’s strength in team building is important, said Chamber Board Chairman Sandy Sansing.
“He understands the value of teammates and the chamber staff has been through quite a bit,” said Sansing. “He’s a person who can calm them down, settle them and let everyone know they’ve still got a job.”
Consensus, Collaboration Critical
Consensus will be critical for the Greater Pensacola Chamber in the coming days, months and years. Along with restoring public confidence, the organization will have to clearly define its role in tourism and economic development, as well as its relationship with local government and the public.
“Certainly, I think anytime you have change in the midst of crisis, you have a honeymoon period and an opportunity to build public confidence,” said Maygarden. “I really think this is a good staff. I’m hoping that my presence here will be helpful with Mayor Hayward and the Escambia County Commission or any local business or industry leader. I think I know those people and those players and I hope it will inspire a little bit of confidence.”
As interim president, Maygarden also plans to work in the open and sees the issue of transparency as “a balancing act.”
“As an elected official, I’ve lived in the ‘sunshine’ so long I don’t know what it would be like otherwise,” Maygarden said. “I probably have a higher level of tolerance for sunshine laws than a lot of private business, private industry people might have. I’m certainly comfortable working in that environment.”
Given the recent scrutiny of its finances, some have suggested that the chamber not take public funding, which would exempt the organization from Florida’s Sunshine statutes.
“That is an option,” Maygarden said. “What is our role here as it relates to [public] money? Do we want to be an agent of government as a business organization? That’s a pretty good question, and its part of deciding who we want to be when we grow up.”
The Immediate Future
Don’t expect Maygarden to make cataclysmic change in his interim role. The Chamber has surpassed its Vision 2015 goal of 3,000 good-paying jobs two years ahead of schedule.
Maygarden has a clear goal for his interim tenure.
“I would really like to be remembered by the city and the county as a good steward of business interests and build their confidence in this organization,” he said. “I’ve been as far down deep in local government trenches as you can get. So I know what they are up against. I would like to inspire their confidence.”
He added, “I would like the leaders of the chamber to feel good about what’s going on here, every day.”