Up Close & Personal with Michelle Penkava
When I consider the journey to cityhood for Tucker over the past three years, the first word that comes to mind is “family.” For me that word not only includes my amazing husband and children, but also the community and its spirit, as so many worked together to preserve our Tucker family.
My personal story with Tucker began when my husband Bill and I moved here 14 years ago. Our daughter was 15 months old, and after much research we chose a neighborhood in the Livsey Elementary attendance area. I began volunteering as a parent at Livsey, and quickly discovered how gratifying community service can be – for me, the reward always greatly outweighs any effort. I love that all these years later my daughter attends Tucker High School, which anchors one end of Main Street and my son attends Tucker Middle School, not far from the other end of Main Street. The opportunity for them to grow up in a community filled with school spirit and hometown pride – all within minutes of downtown Atlanta – is truly special.
I was born and raised in Georgia, so I appreciate Southern hospitality. Tucker exemplifies this in its diverse population that is welcoming and kind. It’s not uncommon to meet second, third and even fourth generations who loved growing up in Tucker so much they chose to raise their own families here. Tucker’s sense of history and “place” also draw newcomers, like my family, who are searching for small town connectedness near the big city.
That strong sense of family and unity led to the initial discussions three years ago about Tucker’s future. I remember the moment I saw a map proposed for consideration by the State Legislature showing a new city starting inside the perimeter with boundaries extending nearly to Tucker’s Main Street. I knew I couldn’t let this happen without our community’s voice being heard so I sent an email to my neighborhood hoping to start a dialogue about what impact this might have on the quality of life we all chose for our families.
Neighbors shared that email well beyond our subdivision and it wasn’t long before a gathering was organized for people all across Tucker to meet and share ideas about the past and the future of our hometown. Cityhood for Tucker was one option raised, but we all knew that any decision about Tucker’s future had to be made by the entire community. After all we shared a 120-year history of working together as neighbors, and it shouldn’t be up to one group or any individual to make changes that affect the entire community.
The thing I remember most from those early assemblies is that people were passionate! Regardless of whether they were longtime residents or more recent transplants, the common sentiment among all was a strong desire to preserve all that is genuine and uniquely special about Tucker. That first meeting drew people from all over Tucker, and little did I know at the time that I was meeting strangers whom I would grow to regard as family. That night was the first time I met Sonja Szubski and we soon found that we shared a common bond in having chosen Tucker for our young families as well as a strong desire to each do our part for its future. I knew immediately that I wanted to work alongside Sonja.
With the help of established Tucker business and civic groups, Tucker Together was formed — a committed band of volunteers that spent long hours organizing and hosting a series of informational meetings, even conducting a poll to make sure every interested member of the community had a voice in any decision that would chart the course for our children and grandchildren. We also enlisted the support of local State Legislators: Representatives Billy Mitchell, Michele Henson, and Ernest Williams, who sponsored a placeholder bill allowing the Tucker community all the time that was available to fully consider its options and then move forward if the collective will was to pursue cityhood.
After many months of community dialogue, the overwhelming opinion expressed was that creating permanent boundaries and establishing a municipality was the best option for Tucker. With great courage, Sonja stepped up and launched Tucker 2014, the pro-city, grassroots group that continued educating and informing the community, organizing events, advocating at the capitol and working to meet the legislative requirements for Tucker to become a city. She quickly assembled a team of dedicated and talented Tucker residents who began the challenging work.
For me, the realization that we were pursuing cityhood was both exciting and daunting. I wanted to contribute my time and energy to the monumental effort required to secure a referendum for Tucker voters, but I recognized the impact this time commitment would have on my family. And just as I knew the decision about Tucker’s future had to be made by the entire community, I knew the decision about my involvement in the effort had to be made by my entire family.
Bill and I had made a choice years ago that I would stay at home while our children were school-age so I could volunteer in their schools and be available to support their extracurricular schedules. But we both understood immediately that the cityhood initiative would require a change in our lifestyle,
and that we would have to juggle our schedules to balance family and advocacy. We talked with our neighbors and friends about the fight to preserve Tucker, and were grateful to find them more than willing to “volunteer” for Tucker’s future by volunteering to help when our family needed them.
We explained to our children, Sarah and Sam, that this would mean I had to pull back some from my involvement in their schools and that they might be carpooling with neighbors more frequently. I was so thrilled when my entire family expressed their love for Tucker and agreed we were prepared to team up as a family to protect the only hometown my children have ever known. Without their sacrifices and support I could not have juggled family and cityhood. They bore the weight of my absence but their support never wavered. Bill carried an especially heavy load, and I couldn’t have done it without him.
With my family behind me, I joined Tucker 2014 as part of the legislative team and continued my involvement the following year as we transitioned to Tucker 2015. Little did I know that the cityhood initiative would grow our neat little family of four well beyond Bill, Sarah, Sam and me. Over the next two years, there were many moments that made the grueling fight worthwhile because of the incredible people I came to love and call my Tucker family.
Carolyn McDaniel has lived in Tucker for a lifetime and never failed to share words of encouragement at the precise moments I needed them most. Jonnie Johnston sent kind notes to my family and me throughout those long months of fighting for Tucker’s right to vote on incorporation. Frank Auman stood side-by-side with me at the capitol, day after day, making sure that legislators around the state understood the story of Tucker. Matthew Lee proudly shared with all of us his very personal insight into the history of Tucker told through his family’s legacy. Anne Lerner, despite being the busiest person I know, always found time and energy to be present and available for any task. Terry Cole provided insight and balance to our communications. Jennifer Winterscheidt and Katherine Atteberry organized meetings and events throughout the community. Honey Van de Kreke and Bill Rosenfeld, through their involvement in multiple business and civic groups, helped us bridge information and build relationships. And Dede Musser developed and maintained our website from beginning to end – even after her home was left out of the Tucker map approved by State Legislators.
Then there is Louise Georges. I’m not sure I’ve ever met anyone who loves living in Tucker more. Louise is an artist, and she shared her gift by painting wonderful scenes from around the Tucker community and donating them to help raise money for the cause. My heart was broken along with hers when her home was drawn out of the proposed City of Tucker map by a State Senator at the last minute. But, she taught me the power of grace and perseverance by fighting for Tucker to the very end. Even now she hasn’t given up hope of someday being an official City of Tucker resident.
I know that these are just a few of the many, many wonderful people I’ve come to consider family as we’ve met well into the late hours, sat through tumultuous legislative committee hearings, gathered in living rooms and church halls, stood on our feet for hours at booths during events like Tucker Day and the Farmer’s Market, endured the cold and rain for a Main Street celebration of our Feasibility Study with Santa, and finally cheered, laughed, cried and hugged each other as the election results were announced on November 3, 2015.
I am proud of what we’ve achieved together for Tucker, but I also know that the hard work is far from over. Tucker faces its toughest challenge yet as it considers which members of the Tucker community will serve as Mayor and Council for these most crucial first few years. A strong and healthy start is crucial to a long and prosperous future for Tucker. We can’t afford to stumble out of the gate, so we must elect committed and knowledgeable officials to ensure we start on a solid foundation. Citizens across Tucker made it clear over the past three years that they are willing to fight for a responsible and sustainable local government. This next leg of our journey is vital to the city we will mold for future generations of our Tucker family. Given the pride in community and dedicated people I’ve come to know so well, I have no doubt Tucker will shine for the next 120 years and beyond.