Never underestimate the little things.
Some people would have tossed the bulk mailing into the trash, but something about that postcard from Sweet Briar College caught a young woman’s attention. It was the catalyst for what Teresa Pike Tomlinson credits for much of her success.
In January, Tomlinson, a 1987 graduate of Sweet Briar, became the first woman mayor of Columbus, the third-largest city in the state of Georgia.
When it came time to apply for college, she was looking at the big schools nearby: the University of Georgia, Georgia Tech and Auburn. The small liberal arts school up north wasn’t on her radar.
In high school Tomlinson took a lot of physics, chemistry and math. “That happened to be what my high school was very good in,” she said. “So that was just what I presumed I was going to do in life.”
But from the postcard, Sweet Briar looked idyllic. She made plans for a visit.
“And never, never looked back,” Tomlinson said. “My parents thought that I had lost my mind. I was a typical teenage girl. Boy crazy; in ‘love’ every other week. And they said, ‘You do know there are no boys up there?’ ”
But, she said, it was a perfect decision. It paved the way for a successful career in business, law and politics.
“I had the opportunity to concentrate on my studies at the time you should be concentrating on studies,” she said, adding that there was no shortage of young men to date from neighboring schools.
After Sweet Briar she studied law at Emory University then joined the law firm of Pope, McGlamry, Kilpatrick and Morrison LLC. For 16 years, the only female partner specialized in complex litigation.
Along the way she succeeded in and out of the courtroom.
The Georgia House of Representatives selected her as an Outstanding Volunteer; she received a Certificate of Special U.S. Congressional Recognition for “outstanding achievement, service and public distinction.” She was a Columbus Woman on the Rise and Exceptional Role Model in Business and a Concharity Council of Girl Scouts Woman of Achievement, to name a few accomplishments.
Tomlinson and her husband, Wade H. “Trip” Tomlinson, also own Tomlinson Properties LLC and Butler’s Pantry Inc.
But it is her role as mayor that has garnered the latest headlines. She was elected the city’s 69th mayor with 68 percent of the vote.
The road to city hall began at Sweet Briar, where she discovered a passion for economics and government. After opening her constitutional law book for the first time, she said it was like drinking water. “From there, I knew I was going to go into law. It was really what I felt like I had been called to do at that point.”
With her bachelor’s in both government and economics, she soon became the first lawyer in her family, graduating from Emory University School of Law in 1991.
Having a story to tell about Sweet Briar helped her gain admission, she said. She was proud of her single-sex education and was able to articulate what a difference it had made for her academically.
“I am convinced, and I try to tell young people this all the time, these graduate schools are looking for unique life experiences and how that shapes you and makes you an interesting person and a potential value for their institution.”
In the courtroom she wasn’t afraid to go against lawyers from the big-name universities. She relished it.
“I litigated against Harvard lawyers and Yale lawyers and all of them, and they had nothing on me. And that is not from the raw intelligence package that you are born with. I’m firmly convinced it is from the collegiate academic experience that I had and the confidence that I gained through that very nurturing and warm academic environment.”
Politics followed during a break from complex litigation.
“I actually was only taking a leave of absence,” she explained. “The type of law I practice was really very intense. When you had a case, it was one that demanded every single second of your time until it was concluded.”
After two such cases back-to-back, she and her partners agreed she should take a sabbatical. It was a chance to take it easy and recharge, or so she thought.
A local economic development community renewal non-profit needed an interim executive director while they searched for a permanent leader.
“So I said sure. How much time could a non-profit take?” she said.
“I got in there and absolutely loved it. It was just my passion and all the skills that I had acquired being a lawyer and the difficulty of some of those situations prepared me for the jigsaw puzzle of economic development, citizens’ interest, being able to negotiate, mediate, listen, problem solve, understand the law, understand how it is going to affect things and how to put deals together. It all really came together and I just loved it.”
Mayor Tomlinson leads a meeting of the city council on Jan. 4.The job had a “quasi-political” aspect to it, she said. So when the then-mayor of Columbus decided not to seek another term, Tomlinson threw her hat into the ring.
She ran against three men, a longtime city councilor, a young African-American man and “one of our wonderful community protagonists who never misses a city council meeting,” she said. “It was quite a lively, lively campaign process.”
Along the way she became known as the first Facebook mayor.
“[Facebook] became a fantastic vehicle to stay in touch and post pictures and videos, position papers and all that good stuff,” she said. “If you give people access and involvement, they get used to it. So it’s still a very big part of what we do every day.”
She also hit the tried and true circuit — with 44 debates.
The city was thriving, she said, having experienced an influx of 28,000 new people. “We are one of the few communities that are actually growing in this recession, for various economic reasons. But even with all of those good things, there was this great agitation that there was no vision [for the city’s future].”
Tomlinson felt she had that vision and could articulate what she saw as the great potential of the community. “So I decided to pitch that [vision] and let the chips fall where they may.”
The citizens responded.
Tomlinson finished the first round as the two-to-one front-runner, then won the runoff against the young African-American man. “I thought that was so remarkable that the citizens, whatever it was that they were voting for, were definitely voting for something fresh and new.”
Sustaining Columbus as the economic hub of the region, while maintaining its racial, gender and age diversity was the foundation of her campaign, she said.
“We [want to] maintain a fabric of community. What tends to happen with suburbanization is that young and affluent families move out. And it tends to leave an older, less diverse, poorer community behind. That’s not just in Columbus. That is anywhere in the country that has a suburbanization model.
“ ‘Smart growth’ really requires that you do a lot more thinking. You don’t just use your virgin land, spend it so haphazardly. You find thoughtful ways to bring a healthy portion of your growth to the interior of your community, your urban heart.”
It is an impressive road that led Tomlinson from Georgia to Sweet Briar and back again — one that once-skeptical parents are proud of.
“I don’t know what they ever thought for me; all good things certainly. They have always been so tremendously supportive of everything and worked on my campaign. I can’t imagine, though, if you dialed back forty years or so, if they would have thought ‘mayor.’ ”
To this day, Tomlinson still talks of how valuable Sweet Briar was in her development.
“I am so glad that during my entire four years, thank goodness I had the maturity and understanding to realize what an incredible time that was and what an incredible education I was getting.”