Maj. Gen. (ret) Mark McQueen, a 1978 graduate of Enterprise High School, began a new assignment as the city manager for Panama City, Fla., two weeks before Hurricane Michael slammed into the Florida Panhandle.
Little did he know how his life would change so quickly.
McQueen was planning to retire from military life and decided to apply for the city manager job earlier this year. The reason behind it? A point he took from the book “Halftime” by Bob Buford how halftime is not a time to rest but a time to strategize. With his commitment to the Army ending in October, he felt this was his halftime.
“What am I going to do for the second half of the game, the game of my life to contribute, to give back, to secure victory, to get the win?” he said. The city manager job would give him the opportunity to be a service leader and give back to the community.
McQueen first came to Panama City in 1988 to work at a local community college when he met his wife and they made Lynn Haven home.
He had no prior municipal experience but was so poised and well spoken in the interview process, he beat out over 100 candidates for the job. Now he has the task of rebuilding a city suffering from the devastating effects of a Category 4 hurricane.
“I believe the Lord sent him,” Panama City Commissioner Billy Rader said. “God knew this was going to happen before we did.”
McQueen had some loose ends to complete before he began work in the fall. He was wrapping up his military service as the commanding general of the 108th Training Command of the Army Reserves where he was responsible for over 8,000 soldiers as well as ending a job as the business administrator at First Baptist Church in Panama City.
In addition, he had made a commitment to a longtime parishioner at the church to donate one of his kidneys. The man was not feeling well and McQueen found out he was in need of a kidney but had a hard blood type to match. McQueen was the right blood type and match and nine weeks later, donated one of his kidneys.
“It was the right thing to do,” he said.
So in four months time, he retired from the Army, started a new job, had to coordinate one of the largest hurricane responses in history and donated a kidney.
McQueen is the son of Diane McQueen of Enterprise and the late Col. (ret) James McQueen. He attended Enterprise State Junior College and graduated from Auburn University with a bachelor’s degree in finance. He also has two master’s degrees, one from Troy State University and one from the U.S Army War College. He rose through the ranks of the military, serving in every level of command and staff from company command through General Officer. Additionally, he has served in multiple deployments to include Operation Joint Endeavor in Bosnia, Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan and Operation Iraqi Freedom in Baghdad, Iraq.
While in Baghdad, his soldiers were responsible for repairing the infrastructure of the city. Another recent assignment was helping arrange emergency response to Hurricane Florence that damaged the Carolinas in mid-September.
After Hurricane Michael passed, he had a chance to survey the damage the monster storm left to his city. Ninety percent of the power poles were down, one of the two wastewater treatment plants was inoperable, cell towers were down, phones weren’t working and trees were covering roads and homes.
“This is Baghdad with trees,” he said. “One hundred percent collapse of infrastructure.”
McQueen flew to Washington last week for his retirement ceremony, the first time he has taken off since the storm passed. But he knows he has plenty of work ahead of him.
His home wasn’t damaged which gives him the time to focus all of his energy on the city. Tens of thousands of homes are unlivable and 75 percent of the school children get free or reduced price lunch. Finding affordable housing, or any housing at all, will be a challenge for those who can’t return home. As of Monday, 826 evacuees were living in shelters in Bay County with over 587,300 meals having been served to date by the Salvation Army, American Red Cross and World Central Kitchen.
Building a quality of life in Panama City is one of the goals he had before he took the job. But McQueen loves problem solving and has a long-term strategic plan that stretches to 2050 with five-year goals.
“I’m going to rebuild the economic engine of the city. We’re going to work the problem and create a solution,” he said.
The Panama City News Herald contributed to this story.