Cal Horton can get his point across with just a cock of his eyebrow.
"During a meeting, if he raises one of his eyebrows and stares at me, I know he doesn't like the way the conversation's going," Mayor Kevin Foy said Thursday with a chuckle.
Horton, a straight-shooter with a Southern drawl and trademark white mustache, cuts a commanding figure in his role as Chapel Hill's town manager.
Foy's going to miss that intensity when Horton steps down Sept. 1. Horton will end a 16-year tenure that is the longest in town history for a manager.
"He is tough," Foy said. "I sure would rather have him on my side than the other side. I don't think you can ask for a better person in terms of someone you can work with and trust."
Horton, 61, has seen the town's population rise by one-third since he took the top administrative job in 1990. The town's payroll has gone from 540 employees to 650.
Bus ridership, now free throughout town, has risen by the millions of trips, while the amount of trash sent to the landfill has gone down, a reflection of council policies on transit and recycling.
"This is a community of ideas," Horton said. "In the end, we have to transform those ideas into specific actions."
Horton, who received his undergraduate and master's degrees from UNC-Chapel Hill, returned in 1989 from Decatur, Ga., where he was assistant city manager.
He spent one year as Chapel Hill's public safety director before getting the top job.
Fire Chief Dan Jones was one of Horton's first hires, coming on when Horton was head of public safety. Jones couldn't say enough about Horton.
"I've worked for seven city managers in my career," Jones said. "He is by far the best that I have worked for or observed. He's a lot of the reason I've been here for 16 years. When he tells you something, you can take it to the bank. His advice is always right on the money."
Jones said he and Horton do disagree, though he wouldn't give examples.
"He and I have an agreement," Jones said. "If he tells me 'no,' that doesn't mean it's over with. I can come back with a different argument, a stronger argument, or different timing.
"If he says 'hell no,' that's the end of it for a while."
Horton's retirement will mark 41 years working in government. He had an internship at Raleigh City Hall in 1965.
"The main thing I have sought is to work in an environment where there is a very high level of intellect and debate," Horton said. "Our community has very high level of civic debate, and it's carried out in respectful and civil way. That's the way it should be everywhere."
Horton described his leadership style as "demanding and democratic."
"I have high expectations, especially in regard to values and ethics," he said. "We're expected to do excellent work here as a routine. I can get pretty intense, but it's in the pursuit of the council's objectives."
Horton said he works 60 to 80 hours a week during peak times. A 50-hour week is a slow one.
That hasn't allowed much time for him to read, hike and travel. He'll be doing all three in retirement, in addition to teaching and taking some classes at UNC-CH.
Staff writer Matt Dees can be reached at 932-8760 or firstname.lastname@example.org.