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Mayor Staton gives up gavel after three terms

Bob Staton is giving up gavel as mayor of Flat Rock this week. Bob Staton is giving up gavel as mayor of Flat Rock this week.

FLAT ROCK — Bob Staton had been retired in Kenmure less than three years when he got a call from Judy Boleman at Flat Rock Village Hall. She invited him to come over to meet her and Mayor Terry Hicks.

 

“We want to talk to you about serving on the Planning Board,” Boleman told him. Staton was eager to go.
“I thought, ‘Oh, this is great.’ I put on a coat a tie like it was a job interview,” he said.
His background as a real estate development lawyer may have counted more than his sartorial splendor, but he got the job. The Village Council appointed him at its next meeting, in July 2000. Thus began Staton’s 19 years of service that has included six years on the Village Council and 12 years as mayor. Widely regarded as the hardest working mayor in a small town that has been led by accomplished executives throughout its 25-year history, Staton gives up the gavel this week. He declined to run for re-election in November, handing the top job off to Mayor pro tem Nick Weedman, who was elected without opposition.
In Flat Rock, a tight clique of leaders made up of retired professionals recruits new blood for advisory committee and other volunteer jobs. Until the rancorous election this fall, council seats generally have been available for the asking. Hicks, who died in two years ago, urged Staton to join the council in 2001.
“I had no interest in doing that at all. I never considered myself a politician and still don’t,” Staton said. “But Terry was very persuasive.” When Hicks persisted, “instead of saying no, I said, ‘Well, I’ll think about it.’ And he said, ‘How long will it take you to think about it?’ And I said, ‘Oh, about 10 seconds,’ and he looked at his watch.”


Sixth generation native

A sixth generation native of Henderson County, Robert V. Staton traces his descendants to Benjamin Staton, who settled with his family of 10 or so children in the Mountain Page community near Saluda in the early 1800s.
“My great-grandfather, John Walton Staton, served in the Confederate Army in the Civil War,” he said. The Yankees captured John Staton and the rest of his regiment at Cumberland Gap and marched them to a Union prison camp in Chicago.
“Family lore is that when the war ended they just opened the gates and said, ‘Go home boys,’” the great-grandson said. “So they walked from Chicago to North Carolina. Took a while.”
After graduating from Hendersonville High School in 1954, Staton earned a bachelor’s degree from UNC at Chapel Hill, then a law degree from George Washington University. Staying in the Washington, D.C., area, he practiced law from 1963 to 1999, specializing in construction, real estate development and finance, and working as a commercial arbitrator in the construction industry.
“For at least 35 of the 38 years I was there it never occurred to me that I would come back to Henderson County,” he said. “I came down here in 1992 to a high school reunion. I was in the Hendersonville High School class of 1954 and that was our first reunion and I saw people I hadn’t seen in almost 40 years. I had a great time. My wife loved every one of them. We made her an honorary member of the Class of ’54 and as we were leaving to head back to the Washington area my wife said, ‘What’s wrong with Hendersonville to retire in? It’s not a bad place.’ From that time we knew we were coming back here.”
He sold his law practice, and in December 1997 he and his wife, Jo, had settled into what he planned to be a fairly sedate retirement life, with travel and a few hunting trips to keep things interesting. It didn’t turn out that way.


‘Ugliest Man on Campus’

When Staton first filed for the Flat Rock Village Council in 2001, a Times-News reporter asked him whether he had ever run for office.
“I said, ‘Yes, when I was at Hendersonville High School I ran for president of the student body and I won and when I was in college my fraternity nominated me for the Ugliest Man on Campus and I came in third.’”
From Cyrus Highlander to Terry Hicks to Ray Shaw, the village of Flat Rock has always had an active mayor who basically served as the town’s manager.
In 2007, after Hicks had suffered a heart attack, Staton went to visit him in the hospital.
“He was sitting up in bed and before I could say, ‘Hello, how you doing?’ He said, ‘Will you run for mayor?’ And I told him again, no.”
Laid up with a heart attack, Hicks was probably playing the sympathy card. Staton reconsidered, called his friend back and agreed to do it.
“Everyone served one term until I came along,” he said.
He had no opposition in 2007. In 2011 and 2015, Bob Spitzen, a resident of Robert E. Lee Drive who was in a constant civil war with the village over zoning issues, challenged Staton. Spitzen ran a campaign that was even more colorful than this year’s campaign centering on the Highland Lake Road project. Spitzen’s campaign signs said: “Mayor Staton: I have upped my standards. Up yours.”
Staton roars with laughter at the message.
“When my son saw those posters he had to have one for each of his bars,” he said. His son owns restaurants in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina.
“The first time, (Spitzen) got 42 votes and the second time he spooked so many people we had a record turnout,” Staton said. “I got 768 votes and he got 38 votes.”
That he got those votes without running a campaign at all tells something about the respect and admiration village residents have for the mayor. Council members say he has always run meetings with decency, helped them prepare and shared the background on important issues.
“He’s a kind leader and he always puts us in good light,” said Paige Posey, who was elected to the council in 2017. “He does everything to make sure we’re prepared. He never hangs us out to dry and never tries to embarrass us. Any time I have a question, his office door is always open. I can just on a whim run over and it’s ‘Come on in, Paige.’ There was never a time when he said, ‘I can’t talk to you right now.’ He made sure I was on top of my different committees.”
Posey, a longtime actress and director at the Flat Rock Playhouse and its current board president, appreciates Staton’s support for the theater. Staton, who has served as a board member, too, has always pushed for an annual appropriation of $40,000, saying the Playhouse is an important economic driver of tourism for the village. He even pitches in as a member of the Flat Rock Chorus, the amateur singers who appear in musicals (including the current Christmas show).
“He’s fantastic as a singer,” Posey said. “You may remember in Theatre with the Stars his performance of “Dead Skunk in the Middle of the Road.’” He loves to sing, and he’s in the Saint John choir.”

 


A third jewel in Flat Rock

Weedman, a retired Monsanto executive, has plenty of gifts, too. But he’ll have a hard time matching his predecessor’s work schedule.
Staton, 83, used his law background to draft contracts, write resolutions and do other legal work that council members say has saved the village tens of thousands of dollars.
“There is no way I could guesstimate that,” he said when asked how many billable hours he has logged in 12 years. “I was usually there before 10 o’clock in the morning and would rarely leave before 5. There was plenty to do. My wife said, ‘I married you for better or worse but not for lunch.’”

Not only did he do the legal work for free, he also gave back the appropriated mayor's salary, as the mayor and Village Council members traditionally have done.
What was the hardest part of the job?
“I don’t like dealing with personnel,” he said. “Fortunately, we don’t have that many people to deal with and the ones we do have are super.”
His greatest achievements as mayor, he said, would have to be establishing the fulltime administrator job, because it helps with continuity and takes some work off council members, and the Park at Flat Rock.
“We’ve always considered two jewels of Flat Rock (to be) Flat Rock Playhouse and Carl Sandburg,” he said. “Well, there’s no question that the Park at Flat Rock is a third jewel. It has been so successful, a lot of times you go into that parking lot and you can’t find a place to park. But it’s big enough that even when the parking lot’s full you don’t see that many people because they’re all out and about on those trails.”
Many voters objected at the time, saying the village lacked the tax base and manpower to run a 60-acre park.
“Almost to the man, everybody who talked to me about what a dumb idea it was in the first place has come to me and said, ‘What a great idea that was. I walk my dog there all the time.’ Almost everybody is very much pleased,” he said.
For a few more days, Robert V. “Bob” Staton —reluctant recruit to a council job, non-politician, generous sharer of advice and free attorney —will go the office and do the job he grew to love. He is spending even more time at work, cleaning out his desk and getting things ready for the next mayor. His door will remain open and he’ll welcome anyone who has a question about the village and its people and culture. He’ll probably answer with a funny story and make himself the butt of a joke.