Tributes paid to popular council chief

LEADERS from the political, sporting, religious and business communities have united to pay tribute to Ipswich Borough Council chief executive Jim Hehir who died suddenly yesterday.

LEADERS from the political, sporting, religious and business communities have united to pay tribute to Ipswich Borough Council chief executive Jim Hehir who died suddenly yesterday.

Mr Hehir, 61, had just returned with his wife, Sally, from a visit to Australia where they had attended their son's wedding.

Described as the “driving force behind the transformation of Ipswich”, Mr Hehir has been instrumental in many of the town's recent successes, including the Waterfront developments, University College Suffolk (UCS), Suffolk New College and the DanceEast DanceHouse.

He has also been remembered as a passionate council leader who inspired a strong sense of loyalty in his colleagues.

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Many staff at the borough's Grafton House headquarters wept openly when they heard the news of his death yesterday.

The mayor of Ipswich, David Goldsmith, said: “James was not only an accomplished chief executive here at the borough, he also promoted Ipswich tirelessly.

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“He made a huge difference to our town and was well liked by all who met him. He will be sadly missed.”

Council leader Liz Harsant said: “I am devastated by this news, I really am. James was a very good friend and also had an incredible warmth and vision.

“So many projects in Ipswich bore his personal stamp, like the Waterfront, the university, the college and the Dance House.

“James was also very popular with his colleagues, across Ipswich and across the whole country. My thoughts are with his family and his many, many friends at this desperately sad time.”

The council's Liberal Democrat group leader Andrew Cann said: “To anyone who has lived in Ipswich for the past 20 years, all the achievements made here have been down to many but without doubt the best among those talents - everything that word means - was James Hehir.

“To those of us who had family reasons to know Jim well this adopted parent of Ipswich inspired passion for the town and, for those who were close to him, the deepest respect for the biggest of men.”

Labour leader David Ellesmere said: “This is devastating. I worked closely with Jim ever since I became a councillor in 1995.

“It is difficult to imagine Ipswich Borough Council and Ipswich without him. His memorial will be in the buildings and institutions he brought to Ipswich, in particular UCS, as he fought long and hard to bring a university to Ipswich.

“That was one of his prouder achievements. He will be sadly missed.”

Clifford Smith, a former chief executive of Suffolk county council, described Mr Hehir as “a superb local authority chief executive”.

He added: “He was well-liked and well-respected and this can be appreciated from the fact that he served as the president of the society of local authority chief executives. He loved Ipswich and all aspects of Ipswich life.”

Max Stocker, the head of Ipswich Borough Council's press office, worked closely with Mr Hehir for 15 years.

He said: “He was a wonderful man to work for. He inspired loyalty and passion, but above all he took care of everyone he worked with.”

The leader of Suffolk County Council, Jeremy Pembroke, also expressed his “profound sadness” at his death.

He said: “James was a highly thought of man who was passionate about Ipswich and no one can underestimate the contribution he made to life in Ipswich.

“I had the pleasure of working with him on many occasions and I enjoyed his input and above all his friendship.”

Chief executive Andrea Hill added: “I was extremely saddened to hear the news. I have known James for 17 years and have worked with him in previous roles.

“I feel privileged to say he has been both a friend and a colleague. It is a very sad loss to all of us who worked with him in local government. I will greatly miss him. Our thoughts are very much with his wife and family at this sad time.”

Ipswich Hospital chief executive Andrew Reed also paid tribute, saying: “James Hehir was a true leader of the community of Ipswich: visionary, passionate and unrelenting in his promotion of the town, its residents and its wider community.

“He was a great friend of the hospital: he was genuinely proud of our successes and supportive in our challenges.

“Like many others I was truly shocked at the suddenness of his death, and my sympathies go to his wife and family who I know were always first and foremost in his mind.”

Terry Hunt, EADT editor, said Mr Hehir had been an “extraordinarily inspirational, passionate and visionary leader” during his 20 years at the helm of the borough.

He added: “He has been the driving force behind the transformation of Ipswich over the last 20 years. The magnificent, revitalised Waterfront and the new university are just two examples of the many projects which will stand forever as testimony to Jim's determination to transform a town which he loved.

“He was the most positive person I have ever met, and certainly the best ambassador Ipswich has ever had.

“Away from work, Jim loved sport. He was a passionate supporter of Ipswich Town and loved talking about the team's ups and downs. He also enjoyed his regular trips with friends to Twickenham to watch England rugby internationals.

“But most important of all to Jim was his family. No conversation with him was complete without a mention of his children and, more recently, his young grandchildren. I know how thrilled he was recently to travel to Australia to be at his son Sam's wedding.

“Our thoughts are with his wife, Sally, and the rest of the family on this very sad day.”

Mr Hehir has also been praised for involving the Church in community issues.

The Right Reverend Nigel Stock, the Bishop of St Edmundsbury and Ipswich, said: “Even as a relative newcomer to Ipswich, it became very clear to me what a wonderful and dedicated servant he was to the town and borough.

“He was always passionate about promoting the cause of Ipswich. I was hugely appreciative of his welcome to me and his care to keep the Church aware of important issues within the community.

“Our deepest sympathy and prayers go out to Sally and all those closest to him.”

As a keen sportsman, Mr Hehir was a founder trustee and staunch advocate of the Ipswich Town Community Trust (ITCT), a charity which offered a wide range of community programmes for children and adults.

He was also a season ticket holder at Ipswich Town.

ITCT chairman David Sheepshanks said: “This is unbelievably shocking news and our thoughts go immediately with deepest sympathies to his wife Sally and all his family.

“I was fortunate enough to know James both as a friend and a business colleague over the last 20 years, during which time he has been nothing short of an inspiration to this town, the changes he masterminded and the people he served.

“His drive and passion for all things Ipswich will be sorely missed as will his leadership."

Speaking on behalf of the football club, chief executive Simon Clegg added: “Over the last six months that I have been at the club he has been a huge help and support to me personally as well as being a long-term supporter of the club.

“At this difficult time our thoughts are with James' widow Sally, daughters Emily and Lucy and son Sam and other members of his family.”

- Biography:-

JAMES Hehir took on the leadership of Ipswich Borough Council in 1989, having moved from Dartford District Council in Kent.

He was no stranger to the town, having studied at Suffolk College, then called Civic College, and having previously worked for the borough council.

Although his efforts to achieve city status for Ipswich and for the borough to become a unitary authority were not successful, Ipswich flourished from the redevelopment of large areas of brown field sites.

His greatest achievements have been to oversee the regeneration of Ipswich waterfront, the establishment of Dance East as a centre of excellence in Ipswich, and the opening of University College Suffolk.

He was awarded an OBE for services to local government in the New Year Honours list for 2005 and received an honorary doctorate from the University of East Anglia in October 2007.

A sports enthusiast, he was a keen rugby player in his younger days and earlier this year oversaw the erection of the Prince Obolensky Statue in tribute to the Russian �migr� who became a hero in 1936 by scoring two tries against the All Blacks.

He was also a season ticket holder at Ipswich Town.

Mr Hehir is survived by his wife, Sally, three children - daughters Emily and Lucy, and son Sam - and three grandchildren

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