Having been incorporated in 1959, the city of Lansing is a young one in the grand scheme of things. But for more than half of its official history as a city, Ken Bernard has been at the helm.
Having been incorporated in 1959, the city of Lansing is a young one in the grand scheme of things. But for more than half of its official history as a city, Ken Bernard has been at the helm. Bernard’s nearly 30-year tenure as mayor of the city came to an end Thursday night as his successor Billy Blackwell took the oath of office during the council’s regular meeting. Afterward, Bernard said the last few weeks of his last term have caused him to do something he rarely had for all of those previous years. “I’ve been doing a lot more reminiscing than I did before,” he said. “I never used to think about what went on before, it was always about what’s next, and now there’s no next.” He said he’ll miss the interactions with the staff at City Hall — a staff that he called among the best he’s ever encountered. “The day-to-day stuff is the toughest,” he said of leaving his routine behind, “because I’ve been here every day for 12 years, ever since I retired from civil service.” Bernard’s work as the mayor started in 1983, having served until 1991 before starting up again in April 1993 and continuing until the Thursday meeting, through about 30 different council members and four city administrators, he said. But Smith said Bernard’s work with the city goes back farther — to 1979. Smith described himself at that time as a “rookie, rookie” police officer and Bernard a newly appointed council member. He remembered his first impressions of his new boss. “I guess you could say we hit it off right at the beginning,” Smith said. “Back then, you may not have known it, some of you may, but he was a very blunt man.” Smith said he was well accustomed to that style of communication, having been raised in a military household himself. And while for others that exterior bluntness might have indicated stubbornness, he said Bernard actually knew how to get things done. “He may not agree with you, but he’s always been the kind of person that would allow you to speak your mind,” and was open to compromise, he said. But that doesn’t mean there weren’t contentious decisions or exchanges. “I guarantee you that Mayor Bernard will sit behind those doors with you and he’ll take you to task,” Smith said, having experienced that himself on a few occasions. During Bernard’s tenure, according to the Kansas Institute for Policy and Social Research, Lansing has grown from a small town of about 5,307 in 1980 people to now more than 11,000. Blackwell said his mark on that progression is indelible. “I would challenge anyone in this room to drive through Lansing and find some place that Ken Bernard has not been involved in or had some decision in bringing about,” he said. Gene Young, a lifelong Lansing resident and member of the first City Council, put it more succinctly. “He’s taken this from a small town to a great city,” he said. Bernard himself said it was difficult to pick out any one thing as something he was most proud of, though the 1987 ballot issue that funded the construction of City Hall stuck out for him as an important victory. The things that happened afterward — like the evolution of the city’s community library from cramped quarters in the Lansing Activity Center to comprising nearly half of the municipal facility across the street from City Hall that also houses the public works and economic development departments, the construction of the multi-million-dollar wastewater treatment plant and the modernization of the city’s Main Street — are all points of pride for him, building on each other. Those efforts do not bear his name outright, unlike the more recent purchase and opening of the Kenneth W. Bernard Community Park, located west of the city off of 4-H Road. A testament to his fiscal management, Smith said, was that the city was able to buy that land outright, without using municipal bonds. Bernard said that grip on the purse strings stemmed from his experience as a field artillery officer in the U.S. Army. “I had just retired from the Army and I didn’t even know what a city council did — the only thing I knew anything about was financing and budgeting,” he said of the time he was first appointed. “I walked onto the city council and it was the easiest year I ever had — the budget was done and we had no money.” Blackwell, also a retired Army officer, said he had talked with his predecessor about their shared experiences in the Armed Forces. “One thing that comes out loud and clear when you talk to Ken is how proud he was to serve his country and how honored he was to serve his country,” Blackwell said. “I can tell also that as you talk to him about his service to Lansing, that same pride comes out in his voice.” Young said he had worked with the mayor on several occasions. Those experiences came out, he said, as he sculpted a bronze bust of Bernard unveiled Thursday. “A lot of love went into that,” he said. Bernard was also given a photographic portrait that will hang in City Hall, a framed aerial photo of the wastewater treatment plant and a new flat-screen TV, a technology of which Smith said Bernard is a late adopter. Following the ceremony, Smith called Bernard almost like a “second dad” as well as a colleague. “I had to leave the office the other day when he was taking his stuff out,” he said. “It just bothered me too much.” However, Bernard himself is quick to point out that retiring is not the same as disappearing, though he said he might do some traveling with his free time. “I’m on a couple boards, I’ll continue to do that,” he said. “I’ll still be available if there’s any questions. There’s always questions about the past history.” Despite that, Blackwell encouraged the newly retired official to do just that, if only for a little while. “Take a well-deserved vacation, sir,” he said. “In fact, I would say find something on that bucket list and do it and experience it and enjoy yourself.”