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A Tribute to One of the Great Ones

The economic development profession lost a legend last week after a two-year battle with cancer.  John Gessaman of Rocky Mount, North Carolina passed away surrounded by his family on April 18th.  John wasn’t a rock star because he served one of our largest communities, or rose to Chair IEDC, or landed the mega deal that this profession so loves to chase; John was legendary because he toiled at the real work of economic development — helping a small, rural community fight to sustain a challenged economy while maintaining his sanity and most importantly, his family.

John Gessaman is one of the finest men I have ever had the honor of knowing.  He was not just a professional colleague, but also a mentor and a friend.    When Mike Trubiano and I left the Suddes Group with no clients, no game plan, no money in the savings account, seven kids between the two of us and Christmas around the corner, John rolled the dice and took a chance on us.  He was our first and only client.  It was the beginning of a friendship I will cherish the rest of my living days.

I think the thing I admired most about John was the value he placed on family.  It was impossible to be in his presence very long without hearing about his son or daughter, later his two grandchildren and of course, his lovely wife Verna.  An evening with John and Verna was always a truly memorable experience!

Mike and I had dinner with John at the Philly IEDC conference in October 2013, shortly before his diagnosis.  I remember it like it was yesterday because it was a typical John Gessaman dinner ……  great food, fine wine, incredible story telling and lots of laughter; that’s the other thing I will always remember about John is his fantastic sense of humor.  That sense of humor was something else he didn’t lose through his excruciating two-year battle.

Tom Betts, Chairman Emeritus Carolinas Gateway Partnership; John Gessaman; Rob Radcliff, Managing Principal RDG

Tom Betts, Chairman Emeritus Carolinas Gateway Partnership; John Gessaman; Rob Radcliff, Managing Principal RDG

We lost John way too soon.  But he leaves a professional and personal legacy that should be the envy of us all.  I will miss him dearly. I was blessed with one last dinner with John and Verna last November at his retirement reception and in spite of the obvious manifestations of his infirmity, I was astounded by its normalcy – yes the voice was weaker, the limp and cane very prevalent and of course, that flowing mane was now closely cropped, but that Gessaman sense of humor was still going strong.  This was a man who tackled what fate threw at him with laughter, love, dignity and faith to the very end.

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