Every so often, County Progress asks our distinguished Judges and Commissioners to allow us a glimpse into their public lives, giving us a fresh appreciation for the myriad of roles and responsibilities they shoulder every day. Our thanks to Gaines County Judge Tom Keyes for taking the time to visit with us.
My folks moved to Seminole, the county seat of Gaines County, in 1950 when my father was named high school principal. I was born in Seminole in 1952. I went through the local school system, graduating in 1970. While growing up, I spent several summers as a junior lifeguard at the local pool. However, in high school I went to work for my best friend’s dad chopping cotton and moving irrigation pipe.
I went off to Abilene Christian University in the fall of 1970, where I had a partial scholarship as a student athletic trainer. I came home and worked through the summer of 1971. As I was leaving to return to ACU, I told my folks I was only going to come back to Seminole to visit them and my best friend. Otherwise, I never expected to return home. I have learned to never say never.
My time at ACU was eventful. I really did not know what I wanted to do with my education. I had declared five different majors over the years I was there. I left the athletic department and took a full-time job at the Abilene State School, initially teaching movement education before moving to the recreation department.
January of 1973 brought a terrible ice storm that paralyzed the northwestern part of Texas. My roommates and I took in a couple of Texas Tech students who were stranded on the road on the way back to Lubbock. People could not make it to work. At my work, the manpower shortage was so bad that anyone who could make it in was temporarily assigned to residential care. I was assigned to a unit with residents who had severe mental and physical handicaps. They were of all ages, but they required total care including feeding, bathing, and changing diapers. The nurse on duty showed me how to do the tasks on one resident and then assigned eight residents to me. I had never done anything like this. As they said in the day, “I was totally grossed out.” We were there for a 12-hour shift. When I got home, I could not get clean enough in the shower. This was my duty for three days. On the third day we were relieved after eight hours, and I was told we would be on regular duty the next day since the ice storm was over. As I was leaving the residential unit, the nurse I had been with asked, “Have you ever thought about nursing as a career? You seem to have the touch.” I went home feeling rather good about what I had been able to do. I decided to investigate nursing. I knew I wanted a bachelor’s degree, and at the time ACU did not offer one in nursing. So, I looked around the State of Texas and found that with all my previous majors, I only needed a class in chemistry to have all the prerequisites to apply to any of the big schools of nursing. I applied and was accepted to the University of Texas System School of Nursing at Houston.
I started nursing school in Houston in January 1974. That would be the start of a 37-year adventure in nursing. After graduating with a Bachelor of Science in Nursing in December 1975, my first job was on the pediatric unit at Scott and White in Temple. Nine months later, I moved to Los Angeles with a plan to establish residency and then pursue a master’s degree in pediatric nursing.
Eventually, I met a roommate at church, and being two young, single guys, we enjoyed life in Southern California, so much so I began to realize I was not ready to return to school. Then, I met a young lady at church, Beverly. It did not take long for me to realize she was the one. The problem was, I was in a dead-end position, acceptable if I was going to go to school, not so much if I wanted to marry. So, after talking it over with my future wife, the recruiter, and the chief nurse of the Naval Hospital in Long Beach, I joined the Navy Nurse Corps in March of 1978.
Beverly and I were married in July 1978. We moved to Long Beach, California. While at the Long Beach Naval Hospital, the Navy sent me, as part of a surgical team, on a sea cruise floating in circles off the coast of Iran during the Iranian hostage crisis with the 32nd Marine Amphibious Brigade. After three years in Long Beach, Beverly and I were sent to Okinawa, Japan, for two and one-half years.
When it was time to return to the United States, the Navy had plans for me that were not consistent with my career goals. I decided to switch services to the Army. In April of 1983, after Army Officer Basic at Fort Sam Houston in San Antonio, I was sent to a large field hospital at Fort Hood, but assigned to work at Darnall Army Medical Center. Three years and one daughter later, I was transferred to another field hospital at Fort Lewis, Washington, but assigned to Madigan Medical Center, which was being prepared for a move to a newly constructed facility. While at Madigan, I designed and helped build a computer system to manage the case cart system for the operating room in the newly built Madigan. That task helped me get selected by the Army Nurse Corps to attend the University of Maryland at Baltimore to work on a master’s degree in nursing informatics with a dual major in nursing administration. In July 1989, the Keyes family, now with two daughters, moved to Fort Meade, Maryland, where we lived while I commuted into Baltimore and surrounding communities for classes. Two years later, the Army forced us to pick up and move to Hawaii. I was assigned to Tripler Army Medical Center, where I was the project officer for the Composite Health Care System (CHCS); this integrated health care computer system was a $3 billion project for the Department of Defense.
Tripler was the Alpha test site for CHCS, and we loaded and tested each new hardware and/or software configuration. In the summer of 1995, the Army Medical Department moved me back to the Washington, D.C., area (living on Fort Meade again) where I worked for Army Defense Medical Information Systems and oversaw the worldwide implementation of the CHCS system. This position allowed me to work on several interesting projects including a pilot project to see if CHCS could be deployed into a combat zone (Bosnia) and do a better job capturing medical records than the existing manual system.
The pilot project was a big success. The problem for me was finding myself away from home at least 50 percent of the time. I wanted to see my daughters grow up, so I decided to retire in July of 1998. With retirement, I took a position on the nursing faculty at the University of Texas-Pan American. My family moved to McAllen to begin the next phase of life, post-military. During my first year at UT-Pan American the tenure rules changed, and I decided to do something else. I went across town to the Rio Grande Regional Hospital as the director of education. In March of 2000, I was offered a nursing manager position at Lea Regional Hospital in Hobbs, New Mexico, just 30 miles from my old hometown of Seminole. I knew the Seminole schools had a good reputation, and I decided to return to Seminole to live so my daughters would have a good education. The commute to Hobbs was not as hard, or as long, as the commute from Fort Meade into Washington, D.C. We were now back in the town I was never coming back to.
In 2005, I began to become aware of our county government. I noticed the Commissioners Court was purposely taking actions to try to slow down growth in the county. I was concerned that those actions might have negative impacts on property values and the quality of life. I began talking to neighbors and friends, trying to figure out what we needed to do. One friend finally said, “Why don’t you run for County Judge?” I had not really considered that, but as I investigated it, I decided to at least let my voice be heard countywide through my campaign. I was going to run as a Republican against a three-term Democratic incumbent in a county that had never elected a Republican in a local election. My election was in no way certain. The primary and then the general election experiences were eye-opening. I learned a lot about myself and my community. Many voters remembered my parents with affection, and while they were registered for the Democratic primary and could not support me in the primary, that familiarity probably made the difference in the general election, as I won my first campaign. However, when I ran for re-election four years later, after a failed bond election to build a new law enforcement center, the warm memories were not enough.
I lost my first re-election bid in the Republican primary and was forced to step away from county government at the end of 2010. Once again, I observed some of the same policies that had caused Gaines County to get in the bind that caused me to run. I decided to run again for County Judge in 2014. I won the Republican primary and did not have a Democratic opponent. Six years later, I am looking forward to the end of my third term in a couple of years and retirement from public life. I will be 70 years old, and after 37 years in nursing, 20 years of that in military nursing, and 12 years as a County Judge, I am looking forward to spending more time with just my wife and me. I do not know how Beverly feels about that, but she has a couple of years to figure out how she is going to put up with me.
IS IT WHAT YOU EXPECTED?
I can honestly say it was not what I expected. It took a while to become comfortable with the limitations on the County Judge that are built into the Constitution. I understand now why those mentors we met at the baby Judge schools told us to expect it to take almost the whole first term to become comfortable in the role. Now I know enough not to get too comfortable. I have lost an election and sat out a term because I thought I had the backing of the majority, even though the law enforcement bond election had failed.
If I had been asked this question this time last year, I probably would have given some pat answer. However, with the pandemic, there are no typical days to be found. There is a significant need to be flexible and to respond to the challenges as they come. Whether it is learning to run an online meeting of the Commissioners Court, or being discouraged from having in-person judicial hearings and having to learn how to do Zoom probate hearings or taking a plea, there are advantages to this lack of the routine. If anyone is bored, he or she must not be paying attention. The processes and practices we are having to create and/or relearn will show the way to those in county government who come after us.
Without a doubt, the biggest challenge for me while in office is making the business side of Gaines County efficient and effective. When I came into office, Gaines County had one month of operating capital in our reserves. For many years, the Commissioners Court had been using reserves to buy down the tax rate. However, the Court had reached a point that if any of our biggest taxpayers decided to object to their taxes and hold payment, the county would have been out of money in less than two months. We would have been facing major layoffs in all departments. With our auditor’s assistance, I was able to move Gaines County to a system of zero-based budgeting.
In my first budget, I recommended we go above the old “rollback” rate. We were able to pass that budget without having to have a rollback election. With the additional revenue, we were able to address our shortfall in our reserves. After losing a bond election for a new law enforcement center, I encouraged the Commissioners to create a line item in the budget that would carry its balance forward each year which could only be used with the approval of the Commissioners Court as a means to save up and fund capital projects.
Since that first term, Gaines County is now debt free, and we have performed a $9 million dollar renovation/modernization of our courthouse, built a new $9 million dollar jail, and completed several smaller projects, paying cash for each project. Additionally, we have more than six months of operating capital in reserves. However, this is not a challenge that is finally won. With 95 percent of Gaines County’s revenues coming from taxes on oil and gas properties, we are stuck on the roller coaster that is the oil and gas industry. Each year brings new challenges for the business side of Gaines County government.
FAVORITE PART OF BEING A COUNTY JUDGE:
During my first term, I met a middle school juvenile. He was small for his age, but he was not going to be picked on. He was acting out to show he could fit in. His grades were bad, and it became apparent through a psychological evaluation that he was not going to learn in the normal channels. We went round and round, with repeated placements in detention as we looked for the right opportunity for the young man. With the help of juvenile probation, we finally got him placed in a secure facility that would focus on vocational training. The young man looked me up later, in my between-term time. I was not sure what to expect, but he had come to thank me. He said he was mad at me for the first six months, but then he realized he was learning to weld. The program helped him find funding to go to a junior college nearby when he got off probation at age 18.
He had met a young lady, they were getting married, and he had, with the bank’s help, his own welding truck. He said, “You didn’t give up on me, and you said you wanted me to be successful and one day be able to be a productive part of this community. You put me where I needed to be so I could be successful. Thank you.” Those types of efforts, whether it is helping a wayward juvenile find the right path, or assisting an elderly widow through the process of probating her husband’s will, are important to me. With my roots in nursing, I think I find my favorite part of being a County Judge tied to those opportunities to help individuals have a better quality of life.