Bartlett’s Jay Rainey retires

Jay Rainey stands in front of an artist's rendering of historic Cedar Hall, his family home in Bartlett for many years. Rainey retired after a decade serving the city.

Jay Rainey’s life is a textbook of perseverance – of dedication to a craft – of a drive to succeed.

Jay Rainey’s life is a testament to inner strength, to faith in one’s God, to acceptance if not understanding.

Jay Rainey’s life is a microcosm of all lives; success, love, heartache… despair.

Jay Rainey’s life, 82 years young, is extraordinary and there is no better adjective than that in describing this decade-long Bartlett public servant.

On Sunday, Dec. 16, Rainey’s interim term as Bartlett City Alderman comes to a close. It was the feather in a 10-year hat serving the citizens of this city.

His home is comfortable and sophisticated, a fitting environment for a man that is that and more. Rainey sinks into a salmon-colored chair, his blue blazer and cream pants a stylish contrast to his throne.

Rainey looks his 82 years. His face is lined with the wrinkles of a man who has earned his spots. A lifetime of extraordinary success has born the pain of incredible loss.

He has buried two wives and two sons along with an unborn child. He tears easily, unapologetic in his emotion. He will go forward as he has all of his life – with a steadfast determination to see the sun rise another day.

The home is quiet but for the tapping of two dogs’ feet as they patter across hardwood floors. Kayla greets the stranger with her nose nuzzled to a hand. Katy is skittish, peeking from behind a sofa from time to time as if to make sure her owner is okay.

“I’m the only one that can pet her,” Rainey said of the latter. “Nobody else ever could.”

Many things Jay Rainey has accomplished in his life could not have been accomplished by another.

Born in rural Illinois in the midst of the great depression, Rainey learned the lessons of hard work from an early age.

His was the typical story of a 1930’s upbringing. He was educated in a one-room school house, Salutatorian of a smallish high school and a job at the local mill. But that’s when the story took a turn.

“I had one year of college,” Rainey said, “but I fell in love, decided to get married and go to work.”

Rainey returned from what was then Eastern Illinois State Teacher College to shovel grain. He unloaded trucks at a local co-op and filled freight cars with the corn and soy beans brought in by local farmers. A year later he was promoted to the office where his Salutatorian stature from high school paid off.

“I guess, being from a small town, everybody knew everybody,” Rainey said. “They knew I was smart enough and that I could learn what was necessary.”

Rainey started negotiating with farmers and buyers and was offered a manager’s job in a small community 100 miles from home.

Young and motivated, Rainey and his wife and four-year-old son David made the move up the co-op management ladder. It would prove to be a short step. His wife fell ill and died from complications with child birth. It was 1954; Jay Rainey found himself as a single father 100 miles from home.

“I got a job in Decatur, IL,” Rainey said. “It was 25 miles from my parents. They could watch David and I commuted every day.”

He was a soybean buyer for Spencer Kellogg and Sons when he met and married his wife Jeanette in 1957. Four years later Archer Daniels Midlands Co. bought out his employer and Rainey was promoted to eastern regional merchandise manager.

In 1969 Rainey was recruited by Cook Industries and he moved south as the division manager. Five years later, the President of corporate giant E.L. Bruce Co recognized Rainey’s management skills and recruited him to either improve their Mississippi division or sell it.

“I did both,” Rainey laughed.

In three years the division went from losing $6-7 million per year to making that amount. E.L. Bruce added Terminex to Rainey’s responsibility and he built it into one of the largest pest control companies in America.

In 1978, one year after his wife and he moved into Historic Cedar Hall, Rainey opened his own commodity business.

“No sooner than we opened and I got calls from other businesses,” Rainey said. “I didn’t know most of these people beside a voice on the other end of the phone but I guess they liked how I did business over the years.”

Rainey did a lot of consulting, building his business before corporate consolidations made quieted the phones.

“That’s when I started to get involved with the local people,” Rainey explained.

“For a while I was almost known as Mr. Jeanette,” he laughed. “My wife was involved with everything, from the Bartlett Arts Council to the Historical Society and she was real active in Bartlett City Beautiful.”

Rainey’s civic involvement started innocently enough. He and his wife supported then Alderman Ken Fulmer as a mayoral candidate. Fulmer knew a savvy financial expert when he saw one and invited Rainey to work for the City of Bartlett as chief administrative officer.

At 68 years of age, when most are looking to slow down, Jay Rainey was gearing up.

Rainey was the go-between for all department heads. Police, fire, public works and others went through him with he reporting to the mayor.

Four years later, with Fulmar announcing his retirement due to his wife’s health concerns, then Aldermen Keith McDonald won the office.

“Every mayor runs the city in his own way,” Rainey explained. “Ken wanted me to handle the day-to-day. Mayor McDonald told me he didn’t know if the city would need a COA and we would see how things went. A couple months after taking office he came to me and said ‘you can stay as long as you like,’” Rainey smiled.

“The job of mayor is simply too much for one man to handle,” Rainey explained. “For Mayor McDonald the department heads reported directly to the mayor and I was there to advise them.”

“I never did have a course in finance or book keeping,” Rainey explained. “I learned how to read a balance sheet and I just learned as I went along from people who knew more than I did. I always felt it was important to put smart people around you,” he smiled.

“When Ken (Fulmer) and I took office in Jan. ’99 the city had been through quite a lot of selling bonds. They were building a new rec. center and a police station, a jail and court and the performing arts center and the debt was something like $40 million. The first thing we did in a meeting with the board was explain that there were a lot of good things the previous mayor and board had done but now may be the time to ‘level off’ and hold back on our spending,” Rainey said.

“When I left 10 years later the debt was still at $40 million – despite the massive city growth. I take a lot of pride in that and I feel like I had the most to say about it. I think I instilled a ‘let’s runs this like a business attitude’ in the city,” Rainey said.

Jay Rainey sits comfortably deep into the chair’s cushion. His legs are crossed, his foot moving to the cadence of his voice. He holds his glasses in his hand, twirling them in his finger to express an exclamation.

The muted television scrolls the names of various stocks across the bottom of the screen and Rainey, while engaged, can’t help from peeking from time to time.

Today, Jay Rainey is driven to overcome once again. Sons Danny, who died of meningitis and Douglas who passed in September from a heart attack have him solemn in thought.

On October 31, wife Jeanette passed from a heart attack herself.

“I think it was more like a broken heart,” Rainey quietly said as he recalled the day of her death. “She just couldn’t get over Douglas and she took the conversations about Cedar Hall personally.”

Today, Jay Rainey tries to follow advice given to him by his father long ago.

“My father said – don’t ever get yourself in debt. Pay yourself first and live on what’s left, and never leave a job without having another,” Rainey recalled. “I worked exactly 60 years (from July 1, 1949 – June 30, 2009) and nowhere was I out of a job.”

As Jay Rainey looks to a life of retirement, he knows challenges remain as he works through his grief.

“I told City Beautiful people that I made a critical decision. I loved Jeanette, I still love her and it’s going to be lonely at times but I’m not going to let all of these losses get me down,” Rainey said wiping a tear from his eye.

“Now I get in a car and I go to city hall or to McDonalds or Burger King – anywhere there’s other people,” he said. “I’m just so blessed with so many friends – it’s a great thing.”

Jay Rainey’s life has had its share of heartache. He’s determined to get through it once again.