Like many military veterans transitioning to civilian life, Shaun Tooke’s big question has been, “What’s next?” Two months into an internship with the City of Gastonia, he thinks he has found the answer.
“I see entering a local municipality in some leadership role at the division or department level,” he says. “With that foot in the door, I’d potentially work up or gain more experience to seek a management level position for a city or county.”
Tooke is a third-generation soldier. His grandfather served in the Army Air Corps in World War II. His father is a Vietnam veteran with 29 years of military service. Shaun Tooke will retire from the Army in June after 30 years, including two tours to Bosnia and three tours to Iraq. He has a bachelor’s degree in business administration from Cameron University in Oklahoma, an MBA from Clemson and a master’s in strategic studies from the U.S. Army War College.
Last year, Tooke applied for the Veterans Local Government/Management Fellowship Program sponsored by the International City Managers Association. “I was accepted into the program, but it was a challenge to find a city in close proximity who would host me,” Tooke says. City Manager Michael Peoples had learned about the VLGMF program last summer at a conference and welcomed the opportunity to bring Tooke on board as a Fellow. Tooke started his internship with the City of Gastonia on Nov. 4, 2019. “Now I’m here and loving every day of it!” Tooke says.
Tooke believes many of the skills he developed in the military will translate easily into a civilian career in city or county government. “I’m learning what it takes to run a city, provide essential services and balance priorities, all while managing expectations of various stakeholders,” he says. He believes his internship with the City is reinforcing abilities he developed in this military career. Among those are problem solving, strategy development, people skills, planning and execution, and being a good steward of resources.
Tooke describes himself as a lifelong learner and says he appreciates the opportunity to see day-to-day government operations. “Having access to experienced city leadership to discuss the challenges they face, the calculus involved in their decision-making process, and the planning considerations for economic development have been invaluable,” he says.
He also has seen some of the challenges. “The average citizen of any city takes for granted the essential services and functions provided for the public’s safety and well-being,” he says. “It takes a great deal of hard work by a dedicated team who often go unnoticed or underappreciated.” Tooke says he’s impressed by the City of Gastonia employees and what he calls their “high degree of passion for their work.”
Tooke describes the internship as a “test drive” to determine if he truly wants to pursue a career in city or county government. He says it’s been an excellent way to gain experience and tap into a network of proven city leaders.
As he comes to the end of his military career, Tooke hopes the City of Gastonia has helped him answer that “What’s next?” question. It involves applying the skills he developed in the Army and in the internship, and a calling of the heart that prompted him to enlist three decades ago. “It boils down to being service oriented with a service mindset,” he says, “and wanting to contribute to a community’s success.”