For Frank Brandon, Life is a Walk in the (Forest) Park
Every 35 seconds (on average), a plane takes off from or lands at Atlanta Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport — and quite a few of them pass over the suburb of Forest Park as they do so. The whine of jet engines provides steady background noise as Georgia State alumnus Frank Brandon goes about his daily work.
“You never really get used to it, but I’ve lived here 42 years. I live three blocks from City Hall,” Brandon says. “I guess I’m as used to it as I can be.”
Fortunately, Brandon fell in love with Forest Park long before he became its city manager last year. He describes the city as being “one of the loves of my life” — with his alma mater being another. But Georgia State is more than just the place where Brandon earned three degrees and two professional certifications: It’s a place he credits as having helped him develop from an “immature, wild” teenager into a leader.
‘Georgia State Means the World to Me’
Brandon doesn’t mince any words as he describes the “awful young man” he was before he got to Georgia State in 1965. “I was terrible!” he says, shaking his head. “I think if it weren’t for Georgia State University and my wife, I would’ve probably been a failure. But Georgia State helped me to mature — it gave me leadership skills, taught me ethics. And I’ve been grateful ever since.”
In particular, he credits professors Sanford Bederman and the late Joseph Baylen as having “helped me grow up and mature as a man, and told me, ‘Frank, never give up.’” Brandon even remembers the “a-ha moment” in one of Bederman’s classes that taught him the value of hard work and commitment.
“I was taking the intro to geography class, and I made a D on the first major test, and he only gave maybe three tests,” Brandon recalls. “I was going to drop the course, so I went to talk to him, and he said, ‘Frank, you never, never, never give up’ — Winston Churchill said that. He said, ‘Stick with this, persevere, and I guarantee you can still can get an A out of this course if you work at it.’ His little talk really inspired me, because he had this caring attitude about his students — you know how some professors are. I stuck with it, and I didn’t get an A, but I did get a B-plus.
“That just always stuck with me. As I taught college and ran schools and things like that, I always told people, ‘Give it 100 percent, you can get through any brick wall you have to — any brick wall. You just have to focus in on what’s important.’”
Having found a sense of direction, Brandon helped found a Georgia State chapter of the Tau Kappa Epsilon fraternity in 1968 with fellow Panthers Tony Burger and Tommy Barber, all of whom remain active in the organization. Not only that, he went on to earn a master’s degree in history and an education specialist degree in the social sciences — and, later, both master’s and educational specialist certifications in administration and leadership. Since then he’s shown his gratitude to Georgia State not only through his financial support, especially to the GSU Athletics Association, but also through his time, serving for several years on the alumni association’s board of directors.
“Georgia State means the world to me,” Brandon says. “It did so much for me in terms of leadership skills, learning how to do the right thing, and knowing that everything you undertake, you have to give 100 percent.”
From Student to Teacher, Principal and Leader
After he graduated from Georgia State, Brandon taught at Atlanta’s Murphy High School (today the Alonzo A. Crim Open Campus High School) for eight years and then transferred to Forest Park High. At the time, the move south was mainly for financial reasons — “We found a good deal, I’m not gonna mislead you on that,” he says with a grin — as President Gerald Ford had just signed the Earned Income Tax Credit into law. Over the course of a four-decade career as an educator and administrator, though, he and his wife Jackie (a Georgia State graduate herself) came to love their new hometown.
“I’m 67 years old, and here I am trying to run a relatively large city at my age when I should be basking in the sun,” he says, smiling. “But I love what I do. And I love these people.”
Brandon served as assistant principal of Jonesboro High School, directed the creation of the Clayton County Alternative School, and was a professor at Clayton State University up until last August. That was when fellow Georgia State alum David Lockhart, who’d recently been elected mayor, offered him the position of city manager. In Forest Park, that title carries plenty of day-to-day responsibility. Brandon is in charge of hiring and firing city employees, researching issues that are of concern to the mayor and city council, and drafting the plans and policies they can vote to implement or not — all the while trying to keep as many of Forest Park’s 19,000 residents happy as possible.
“We’re a truly multicultural city — we have about 27 percent white, about 34 percent black, about 34 percent Hispanic or Latino, and 5 percent Asian,” he says. ”So to try to make everyone happy with their different cultural aspirations, that can be a challenge in and of itself. You’ve got to show your residents respect and dignity, and try to solve the problems that they have, whether it’s lack of garbage pickup at times, dogs out in the street, any of those little things. They may seem minor, but they are challenges, because if you don’t solve them you’re going to end up hearing about it at a council meeting. Just like Georgia State tries to be customer-friendly to its students, you’ve got to provide customer service to your residents.”
Fortunately, Brandon says he’s blessed with a city that’s “definitely on the right track.” He and Forest Park scored a major coup this past summer when Kroger announced it would build a one-million-square foot distribution center on some of the land formerly occupied by Fort Gillem — adding 150 new jobs right away and the potential for many more in the near future. With Forest Park’s proximity to all manner of transportation hubs, Brandon is optimistic that growth will continue.
“Fort Gillem is right near the airport and right off I-675, which means you can be at the Port of Savannah in three hours,” he explains. “That’s going to be the largest port on the East Coast in 10 years. Kroger looked at that, and other companies are looking at that too. All types of positive things are happening.”
In Brandon’s office at City Hall, municipal ledgers and development plans for the Fort Gillem site share space with an eclectic collection of memorabilia — a football signed by Herschel Walker here, the knife Arnold Schwarzenegger carried in “Predator” there, the daggers that Orlando Bloom carried as Legolas in the “Lord of the Rings” films mounted on the wall. Brandon is an unabashed fan of fantasy and sci-fi, which made it all the more exciting when the producers of the TV series “The Walking Dead” scouted Forest Park as a filming location last year.
Unfortunately, the show ended up saying no. It was those darn airplanes.
“They came here and thought about filming at Fort Gillem, but they decided they couldn’t because of the airplane noise — those planes fly right over Gillem, and they were afraid they couldn’t screen it out properly.” Even now, a look of disappointment creeps across Brandon’s face, but then he shrugs and smiles. “I got all their autographs, though.”