The 58-year-old died Thursday night after a battle with bladder cancer.
“The city, as well as my heart, has a hole in it,” friend and Councilman Bruce Jenkins said. “He was just an inspiration, that’s what I loved about him.”
Thrash was elected to council Post 4 in 2001 and was serving his third term in office. After his last re-election in 2010, he was named mayor pro tem in 2011.
He announced he wouldn’t be seeking a fourth term during a council meeting April 1, where he was honored with a resolution recognizing his efforts throughout the years by Rep. Ed Setzler.
Countless friends and colleagues said though talking local politics was a favorite pastime for Thrash, his true passion was using his position to further the city and its residents.
Thrash worked tirelessly to initiate youth programs, such as the Kennesaw Youth Council and the Bill Thrash Kennesaw Teen Center recently dedicated in his honor. He was a key player in developing Swift-Cantrell Park and getting the city’s police department nationally accredited.
“He was the kind of man who really did plant the trees even though he knew he’d never sit in their shade,” Councilwoman Cris Eaton-Welsh said.
Mayor Mark Mathews said he’s known Thrash since they were both appointed to serve on the inaugural Downtown Development Authority and Kennesaw Development Authority in 1994.
He said Thrash got involved with the city because people knew they could come to him with any ideas or issues they might have.
“The personality type is that he’s always been a very approachable person and someone that means what he says,” Mathews said. “He walks the walk. He was always very, very passionate about youth and recreation and public safety for the city.”
Jenkins said his fellow councilman was the ideal city leader.
“For me, he was the articulation of exactly what a friend means both personally and professionally to all of us (councilmembers) and to the citizens,” Jenkins said. “He embodied really what a public servant is supposed to be.”
Dallas White, pastor of Kennesaw’s City Church, said he met Thrash soon after he moved into town a few years ago and asked city leaders what he could do to help. The answer morphed into what is the Bill Thrash Kennesaw Teen Center, an after-school program in downtown Kennesaw where about 25 at-risk middle and high school students are welcomed three times a week for learning enrichment programs.
“He was an incredible advocate for giving kids in our community a place to go after school,” White said. “Bill just had a real heart for giving them opportunities to succeed.”
Mathews said Thrash was always trying to make things better for local children.
“We have been able to turn a few kids around because of the dream that Bill had,” Mathews said of the teen center.
White’s church continues to be the main fundraising and volunteering arm for the program. Besides mentoring the teens, White’s main role is directing the Dream Dash 5K, which will be June 15 with all proceeds going toward funding the center.
White said Thrash never let his position outshine his passions.
Working behind the scenes
“What stood out to me about Bill was that in everything he did, he never needed to be in the limelight,” White said. “He was always working behind the scenes, always working for something but he never needed credit for it.”
Shannan Smith, owner of Big Shanty Barbershop on Main Street and member of the Kennesaw’s Downtown Development Authority, said she and Thrash became “cancer buddies” after Smith was diagnosed with melanoma just a couple of months before Thrash was told of his cancer about two-and-a-half years ago.
“All of the sudden, politics is just superficial when you’re fighting a disease and you have to live it every day,” she said. “All of a sudden, (our friendship) just became so much more.”
Smith, who was recently told by the doctor she’s cancer-free, said their struggles helped the two build a friendship.
“We spent hours on the phone late at night just talking and surviving together,” she said. “When he had hair, he came in the barbershop about once a month. When he got sick, I went to his house to shave his hair off.”
But lack of hair didn’t keep Thrash away from her shop, which opened in downtown Kennesaw in 1998. He came in every week or so to keep active and get out of the house, Smith said.
“That way he could keep up with what as going on in the city without actually going to city hall,” she said with a laugh. “The barbershop can give you anything you need to know.”
Bill Westenberger, Kennesaw’s chief of police, said Thrash saw the potential in his department to become nationally accredited and pushed for the goal ever since Westenberger joined the city in 2004. Westenberger said Thrash was key to rallying the council and city in support of his department earning national accreditation for the first time in 2009.
“He was always pushing us and asking us to be more, wanting the best out of us,” Westenberger said. “I think if it wasn’t for Bill’s vision, I don’t know if it would have been possible for us to reach this goal.”
In November 2012, Kennesaw Police Department received re-accreditation from the Commission on Accreditation for Law Enforcement Agencies.
Seeing potential in people
Westenberger said several instances came to mind where he remembered Thrash seeing potential in people and helping them achieve beyond what they might have seen for themselves.
This week, Westenberger is at the FBI Academy in Quantico, Va., for executive leadership training, an opportunity Thrash encouraged him to pursue.
“He thought I could do it and always supported me,” he said. “He was just that way in every way.”
Born in Texas, Thrash grew up in Oklahoma and served in the Army during Vietnam and went on to serve in the Colorado National Guard. He then became an EMT/paramedic and attended nursing school, but worked for most of his career in corporate security management.
Thrash moved to Kennesaw in 1992 and served on the Development Authority, Downtown Development Authority, Recreation & Culture Commission and Historic Preservation Commission before his election to the city council.
Thrash previously served as president of the Third District West Region of the Georgia Municipal Association and as president of the Cobb Municipal Association. He also served on the National League of Cities Council on Youth, Education, and Families and was named Kennesaw Citizen of the Year by the Northwest Cobb Area Council of the Chamber of Commerce and the Kennesaw Business Association.
Thrash is survived by his wife, Suzie, daughter, Mandy, and sons, Robbie and Billy Mealor. He requested his remains be donated to Emory University.
The mayor and council met Friday for a special work session to finalize plans for a memorial service.
In lieu of flowers, donations may be made to Loving Arms Cancer Outreach in Bill Thrash’s name.