New Chair Focuses on Communication to Meet Water Resource Challenges

Governing Board Chair H. Paul Senft Jr

Governing Board Chair H. Paul Senft Jr.

After graduating from Emory University in Atlanta, H. Paul Senft Jr. entered the U.S. Air Force Reserve, where his education was put to good use.

“The Air Force taught me to be a plumber,” said the new District Governing Board chair. “You could say they started me in the water business.” Paul smiled.

Quiet and unassuming in appearance, Paul combines a wry sense of humor with a competitive drive to excel, a commitment to whatever the task is at hand and a streak of independence. Officially he’s retired, but his schedule could lead one to redefine the term.

In addition to serving on the District Governing Board, some of Paul’s other responsibilities include being a national committeeman for the Republican Party, director of the Haines City Economic Development Council, owner of Townsend-Senft Consulting and Insurance, Inc., chair of the advisory board of the Heart of Florida Regional Medical Center, member of the Charter Review Committee for the City of Haines City, and past chairman of the Central Florida Economic Development Council, in addition to being active in many other community, civic and church organizations.

“It’s a lot better to correct a problem than to fight it … ” — Paul Senft

“My wife, Cheré, and I got married for better or worse, but not for lunch,” Paul said. “I have to do something every day to get out of her hair. We made a commitment not to do anything to run the other away.”

After 47 years of marriage, two daughters and five grandchildren, their plan seems to be working.

Paul was born and raised in Macon, Ga., a small town two hours south of Atlanta. His father was a registered pharmacist who worked for Upjohn Pharmaceutical Corp. for nearly 40 years. His mother was a homemaker who sang in a Baptist church for more than 70 years until she passed away at the age of 90 about five years ago. He also had two older sisters who “picked on me all the time.”

Life in Macon was family and neighborhood and outdoor games of hide-and-seek or tackle football played across three front yards with participants often knocked into the bushes, causing some consternation for the adults. School was a block away and when a playground was built there, the games moved to the new site.

Whatever sport, whatever age group, “if they blew a whistle, I was there.”

His family moved to Atlanta when Paul was in high school. He attended Druid Hills High School, “the School of Champions,” adjacent to Emory University. Most of the student body at the academically competitive high school had parents who taught at Emory. Paul was motivated to study to ensure his eligibility for sports. He played football, basketball, track, baseball, golf and swimming. If they blew the whistle, he was there. Later in college he would serve as a coach for the AAU, one of the largest nonprofit volunteer sports organizations in the county.

In addition to sports, Paul found himself drawn to journalism in high school, eventually serving as the editor of the school newspaper and embracing the leadership role, an act that would be replicated throughout his life. He remembers driving his English teachers crazy with the unusual editorial decisions at the paper.

“We might devote one issue of the paper entirely to sports, then turn around with the next issue and focus on poetry and art. The teachers couldn’t figure us out. We did some unusual things to get recognition. We wanted an award-winning newspaper.”

With Emory University around the corner from the high school, it was a natural choice for Paul. He lived at home for the first two years and hung out at the Phi Delta Theta fraternity house, eventually becoming one of its officers. He recalls a fire at the fraternity house during his sophomore year. The fraternity pledges were given the task of sanding, varnishing and polishing the floors in a meeting room. A lit cigarette ignited the fumes. When a radio station arrived to cover the fire at the conservative, Methodist university, a reporter stuck a microphone in front of one of the fraternity brothers and asked what happened.

“He was a rabble-rousing free spirit and he said, ‘The still blew up.’” The comment caused quite a stir in the community until everyone realized it was just a joke made to relieve some of the tension of the moment. Paul chuckled at the memory, clearly still fond of the rabble-rouser’s spirit.

It was at Emory University where Paul met Cheré Mary Charlotte. A strong connection existed between Florida and Georgia, and Paul remembered many fraternity brothers from Haines City and other Florida residents who attended Emory to study medicine and nursing. Cheré left Haines City to go to Emory just days before Hurricane Donna struck, the storm that was the catalyst for forming the Southwest Florida Water Management District.

Paul at one time harbored thoughts of a career in journalism but eventually decided on a management degree. As a boy he often spent summers traveling with his father as the pharmacist introduced new drugs to doctors. He wanted to combine his interests in business and medicine. After graduating from Emory, he entered the Air Force Reserve while attending night school at Georgia State University to earn his master’s degree in business administration with a major in healthcare administration.

While he was doing an internship in hospital administration at the Egelston Children’s Hospital in Atlanta, Cheré graduated from Emory and the couple were married.

Paul’s hospital administration career took him to several different hospitals in a variety of positions. He was the first professionally trained hospital administrator at the Scottish Rite Hospital for Crippled Children in Altanta, a facility that had previously been managed by a doctor or a nurse. That hospital was the birth place of the Shrine chain of Crippled Children’s hospitals. He worked for a variety of government-owned or community nonprofit hospitals, was instrumental in building nine hospitals in Florida and managed hospitals in Puerto Rico.

As much as he enjoyed hospital administration, he realized he would never be able to own a hospital and the control would always be with the doctors. Contemplating a career change, an opportunity arose that would bring the Senft family to his wife’s hometown of Haines City. Paul’s father-in-law was ready to sell his insurance agency and Paul was ready to buy. He now owned his own business.

“Insurance can be very rewarding. It’s a personal service, and you get fulfillment when people are covered and reimbursed.”

Thus Paul began a new career that would encompass more than 30 years of service. And, as in his previous work, he embraced leadership roles, getting involved in and eventually becoming president of the Florida Association of Insurance Agents.

Even with a full slate of professional responsibilities, he accepted multiple gubernatorial appointments. He served as a volunteer on the Polk Community College Board for 11 years, chairing for two terms. He was appointed by Gov. Jeb Bush to the Commission for Independent Education when the state’s education system was being reorganized. He also served several terms on the advisory board of the Heart of Florida Regional Medical Center in Haines City.

In 2003, following the death of first-term Commissioner Charles Richardson, Gov. Bush appointed Paul to the Polk County Board of County Commissioners. Paul won the election in 2004 to serve out the remaining two years of the term. That same year, he was elected by Republican leaders from across the state to be a state officer serving on the Republican National Committee, which approves budgets and sets national priorities. The RNC has only 168 members nationally. He was reelected to the RNC in 2008.

During his time on the Polk County Commission, Paul had his first opportunity to work with the staff and Governing Board of the District. Three hurricanes had devastated Polk County in 2004, leaving an incredible amount of debris in Peace Creek. He was impressed by the District’s willingness to step up and help clean out the canal.

During the same time period, the county was facing some potentially stiff fines for overpumping on its water use permit. As county commissioner, Paul made the commitment to find solutions.

“It’s a lot better to correct a problem than to fight it, and this was a problem that needed correcting.”

Paul demonstrated his leadership in helping to develop a water alliance among Polk County’s 17 municipalities and he promoted regional cooperation by reaching out to Toho Water Authority in neighboring Osceola County to get Polk a seat on Toho’s board.

His experience with flooding and water supply issues made Paul a perfect choice to represent Polk County on the District’s Governing Board. This year his fellow Governing Board members chose him as their chair.

He’s aware that this ultimate leadership role in water resources protection comes at one of the most critical junctures in the District’s 50-year history. With dwindling revenue and budgetary restraints, the District finds itself in the position of reexamining itself as an organization and more tightly defining its priorities. Decisions made now could impact the water resources of west-central Florida for years to come. Paul’s confident that solutions can be found.

“There’s nothing you can’t work out if people are willing to pray about it, be reasonable about it and talk about it. I like results, and I’ve found you get better results when you work with people than when you fight them.”

Open and honest communication is a fundamental principle for Paul, a lesson he learned early on from his father.

“My dad gave me a saying. ‘You can do more harm with undercommunication than you can with overcommunication.’ Many problems come down to communications — what you say and how you say it.”

Paul began his tenure as Governing Board chair by making it clear to staff that the lines of communication are open and must remain so. He has reached out personally through emails to staff.

“We have great professional employees at the District. Their passion and commitment is made clear to us each day. We will find creative solutions that will serve the public and our water resources, while ensuring that the District is an exciting and creative place to be.”