Outgoing City Manager Sheryl Sculley smiles at children in the Pre-K 4 SA who present her with a painting.
Sheryl Sculley smiles at Pre-K 4 SA children who presented her with a painting at her final City Council meeting as city manager last week. Credit: Bonnie Arbittier / San Antonio Report

Badass. All business. Dynamic. Energetic. Perfection. Passionate. Brave.

Those were a few words used to describe outgoing City Manager Sheryl Sculley on Thursday, her last day of work for the City of San Antonio after nearly 14 years. Her executive leadership team and staff organized a private celebratory lunch at the Henry B. González Convention Center – a fitting place for it, noted Government & Public Affairs Director Jeff Coyle, because the expansion of the center was one of many large projects executed under her leadership.

“We are in the Cantilever Room and the main message that we hope to deliver today is: ‘you can’t-a-leave-us, Sheryl,’” Coyle said, “The Cantilever room. Get it?” His wordplay/pun eliciting groans and laughter from the crowd of nearly 100 of her colleagues. More jokes and anecdotes were shared and several department heads – and former San Antonio Spur Sean Elliott – presented her with gifts.

Those included a golden glove from the Solid Waste Department, a metal sculpture from Arts & Culture, a “Sheryl Sculley” street sign from Transportation & Capital Improvements, a #19 Spurs jersey from Elliott (who “retired”the number in her honor), and a tattoo of her likeness on the wrist of Assistant to the City Manager John Peterek. (Closer examination by the Rivard Report revealed it to be temporary.)

Her successor, Erik Walsh, received a hand grip strengthener to bring his handshake up to par with her legendary firm shake.

It was a personal and thoughtful affair, far less formal than the ceremonials during her last City Council meeting last week and the chambers of commerce tribute scheduled for March 26 at the Tobin Center for the Performing Arts (another project completed under her leadership and partnership with Bexar County). It certainly had more cussing.

“There’s not a person in this room who hasn’t been affected by Sheryl Sculley – whose careers haven’t benefited through the opportunities that she’s given us,” Coyle said.

Sculley and the City of San Antonio have been compared to Gregg Popovich and the Spurs, he said, because Popovich built an extraordinary team, just like she built out the staff that keeps the City functioning efficiently every day.

“[Popovich] is an incredibly demanding coach, has incredibly high expectations, has an ability to bring the best out of people, and he’s tough on them,” Coyle said. “But the beauty is those players love Pop. He is a player’s coach. And every one of them who’s ever spent any time in the sink-or-swim environment that Pop has created – not unlike ours – walks away with a complete admiration and love for Pop.”

Sculley is tough, can hold people accountable, but is also cherished, Coyle said.

It seems more people, those outside her close circle of friends and colleagues, are familiar with the tough side of Sculley. On Thursday, they highlighted her nurturing side.

“Like a mother, she nurtured our careers in a city that we love and encouraged us to think big, dream big, grow up and be big, bold leaders who don’t settle for mediocrity,” Michael Sawaya, former director of the San Antonio Convention & Sports Facilities Department, said in a letter to Assistant City Manager Carlos Contreras. Contreras read the letter to the crowd. “[Sculley] also taught us to take a 360-degree view of the political landscape and be in the big bad world in order to protect us and our families.” Sawaya was one of two department heads that Sculley didn’t replace when she was hired in 2005. He left the City last year to lead New Orleans’ convention center.

Sculley is widely credited with turning the municipal entity around from a hobbling, inefficient and corrupt government into one of the best-run large cities in the country.

But the credit does not belong to her, she said.

“I get lots of credit for improving the city organization, but we do that as a team,” Sculley told her colleagues. San Antonio is best-run “not because of me, [it’s] because of you.”

Her parting words were simple. “Stay true to your core values. Help others – lift them up, help them be successful in the organization. And make Erik look good.”

As Sculley took her seat, Coyle emphasized that she works the longest hours of any City employee and encouraged her to take her “first lunch break in 13 years.”

Sculley has said she plans on staying in downtown San Antonio and writing a book. While she retired from the City, she is also considering work opportunities. Walsh’s first day as San Antonio’s 20th city manager (hence the #19 jersey for Sculley) is Friday.

No City funds were used for the lunch; the team pooled together resources, according to a City spokeswoman. The event was catered by RK Culinary Group, which donated its proceeds to the Young Women’s Leadership Academy. In lieu of gifts, Sculley has asked that donations be made to the high-performing SAISD school. She will make a matching gift of up to $10,000.

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Iris Dimmick

Senior Reporter Iris Dimmick covers public policy pertaining to social issues, ranging from affordable housing and economic disparity to policing reform and mental health. Contact her at iris@sareport.org