Progress 2024: Citizen of the Year — Threlkeld’s life of service lives on through Chilton

Published 12:24 pm Friday, May 17, 2024

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This story was originally featured in Progress 2024.

Story by Carey Reeder | Photos contributed by Donna Velasquez

Each year, one person is recognized as the Citizen of the Year in The Clanton Advertiser’s “Progress” magazine. The person is selected by a committee formed by past winners of the award, and the committee this year has selected Robert Threlkeld as the recipient of the award.

Threlkeld lived a life of service to his country and his community, and worked to better the Chilton County community up until the day he passed away.

“Robert cared about people in general as well as his community, and he freely gave up his time to serve this community,” Mark McKinnon, 2023 Citizen of the Year, said. “He was involved in everything from education to industrial and retail development.”

Threlkeld was born on May 28, 1958 in Oahu, Hawaii, and he grew up a military child with older sister Donna, now Donna Velasquez, and younger brother Albert, moving with his family where his father, Donald, was stationed at during his service in the army.

“He was always just a good, honorable, conscientious man,” Velasquez said. “He was not ate up with ego … He was a good chip off the old block — you work hard, you serve others, you give back.”

After many stops, the army family landed in Verbena in 1971 and established their roots when Threlkeld was 13 years old. The new location in rural central Alabama took some time to adjust to for the siblings, but everyone took a liking to Threlkeld.

“It was a major culture shock for all of us, and a lot of adjustments had to be made,” Velasquez said. “Robert ended up being one that everyone just loved. Everyone loved him to pieces.”

Threlkeld played football at Verbena and excelled on the field on both sides of the ball, earning honors for his play. He attended Auburn University after Verbena and was a member of the Navy ROTC there, and graduated to follow in his father’s footsteps of serving his country. When the time came for Threlkeld to be commissioned, it was his father who led the ceremony to commission his son into the Navy.

Threlkeld’s first stop was on the west coast, but he made travels around the world during his 20-year Naval career from 1981-2001. He saw action in Desert Shield, Desert Storm and the Cold War, and spent much of his time at sea serving on the USS Carr, USS Flint, USS John Rodgers and the USS Saratoga.

During his service, Threlkled was awarded a Commendation Medal, presented for sustained acts of heroism or meritorious service, for his heroic acts in the USS Bonefish submarine fire in 1988.

An excerpt from “A Date with Destiny — Part VI,” an article about the USS Carr and the USS Bonefish submarine fire, captured the event through other witnesses.

“LT Robert “Bob” Threlkeld was the Engineer Officer on CARR. CDR (Commander) (Wade C.) Johnson told him to get in the whaleboat, go over and find the CO (Commanding Officer) of the Bonefish, CDR Wilson, and bring him back aboard. Bob did. He told me he climbed aboard the sub and walked among the crew until he found the CO. He noted the smoke coming from the hatches was the worst thing he had ever smelled,” the article said.

Threlkeld reached Commander rank and eventually settled closer to home his last few years of service before retiring. During his service, Threlkeld met Rebecca Alred, and the couple married and had two children — Drew and Emmajean, to make three children joining Leslie, Threlkeld’s daughter from a previous marriage.

Velasquez said Threlkeld loved spending time with his family more than anything, and he loved spending time with all three of his children whether it was fly fishing, going to Auburn football games or attending community events together.

When he retired from the Navy in 2001, Threlkeld got involved with the Tenaska Lindsey Hill and Tenaska Central Alabama generating stations in Billingsley, Alabama. He became the plant manager of both stations, and worked with the same things there as he did on the Navy ships, such as tending to the propane turbines to produce power.

Threlkeld’s father passed away in 2006, and Donald served for many years as Chairman of the Chilton County Health Care Authority. After his passing, the board reached out to Threlkeld to step into his father’s role, and he agreed to continue his life of service and following in his father’s footsteps. He served on the board for many years, and was influential in the building and energy savings as the new hospital in Chilton County was being built — Ascension St. Vincent’s Chilton.

“Robert told me the thing he is proudest of professionally is his military service, and he was incredibly proud to do that,” Velasquez said. “Then, he was really proud of his role at Tenaska and his involvement with that hospital, and it was very important to him because it was important to my father. Robert’s whole system of belief was in service to others, so he was involved with a lot of stuff, but that hospital was a big thing.”

Threlkeld was also a huge promoter of vocational education for people, and that a college degree is not the end all by all for everyone. He was involved at the Frank Lee Youth Center in the prison system in Elmore County to set up vocational education for the people incarcerated there.

Other places Threlkeld’s service fell was based in industrial development in the county, such as serving as Vice Chairman of the City of Clanton Industrial Development Board and the City of Clanton Public Building Authority, as well as a member of the City of Clanton’s personnel committee. He also served on the Chilton County Industrial Development Board.

“Robert was the type of guy that anything you asked him to do for the city and volunteering his time, he would never moan about it and just do it, and was always wanting to help move the city forward,” Clanton Mayor Jeff Mims said. “We would go and look at different things around the state together, and he would always be willing to go. He was just a genuine guy … The machinist part of him, he just knew everything, and he learned all that stuff in the Navy. He was great guy, and you will not find anyone else that would say anything different about him.”

Threlkeld was also a fighter, putting up a four-and-a-half-year battle with a rare form of cancer after the initial prognosis was grim.

“We prayed for a miracle and got it, and most people who get that type of surgery, they cannot do anything for them,” Velasquez said. “Robert had an extensive 10-and-a-half-hour surgery, and we got four and a half years with him after that. He fought it hard, and he never gave up.”

Threlkeld still worked at the Tenaska plants and served in the Chilton Community during his battle, and was still working well into 2022, never letting his drive to make things better dwindle. He passed on Nov. 28, 2023 at the age of 65.

“Threlkeld was truly an unsung hero who always strived to bring out the best in people, and to help them reach their full potential,” Clanton City Councilman Billy Singleton said. “As English author Albert Pine once wrote, ‘What we do for ourselves dies with us, but what we do for others remains immortal,’ even though his physical presence has passed from this place, the memory of Robert Threlkeld will remain in our hearts forever. He made Chilton County, the home that he loved, a better place for all.”