New town manager brings world of experience to his job

The Boston Globe

July 30, 2009 Thursday

(See this Globe link for art that accompanied the printed story.)

BYLINE: By Megan McKee, Globe Correspondent

SECTION: REGIONAL; West; Pg. 1

LENGTH: 1035 words

It doesn’t take long to figure out that Norman Khumalo, Hopkinton’s newly appointed town manager, possesses an energy and ambition shared by only a few.

The native Zimbabwean tells a story about his days with the humanitarian organization Oxfam America in the 1990s, when he oversaw its programs in Africa from its Boston headquarters. Right after the Rwandan genocide in 1994, Khumalo was in the country to help design a program to aid those who escaped the ethnic slaughter, in which hundreds of thousands were killed over a period of less than four months. In the midst of his visit, a crisis broke out in northern Somalia, so he boarded a plane to go there. From there, he flew to West Africa to meet with Oxfam’s president. And then he went to London to tell a British audience about his work in Rwanda and Somalia.

“That illustrates the intensity of work,” said Khumalo. “My life has been extraordinarily busy.”

Khumalo has been places. But when you ask him about his new job in Hopkinton he’ll tell you he’s arrived.

“I am in this because I enjoy being part of a process that makes a difference to the quality of life in a community,” he said.

Khumalo grew up in Zimbabwe’s second-largest city, Bulawayo. He earned a bachelor’s degree in sociology and a master’s in regional and urban planning from the University of Zimbabwe. He was a senior city planner in Bulawayo from 1990 to 1991.

“Honestly, I never had an idea to leave Zimbabwe,” said Khumalo. He was committed to helping develop edu cational and community services largely denied to blacks prior to the country’s independence in 1980. But one day at the library, he saw a magazine advertisement for full scholarships for international students to attend Carleton University in Canada.

Khumalo was one of a handful of people selected for the program.

While completing a master’s in public administration at the Ottawa university, he enrolled in undergraduate courses in architecture to better understand city planning. He became so taken by the subject that he applied and was accepted to San Diego’s New School of Architecture to finish the courses needed for a degree. But before enrolling, he made a stop in Boston to visit relatives.

It was the summer of 1993 and Khumalo was looking for something to do before his architectural studies started. He applied to be a volunteer for Oxfam and was surprised when the organization offered him a paying part-time job. A few weeks after starting, Khumalo was offered the full-time position of program coordinator for Southern Africa. Within two years, he oversaw Oxfam’s programs in all of Africa from the organization’s global headquarters, on Causeway Street in Boston.

Joel Charny, who was the director of the overseas department for Oxfam when Khumalo worked there, said he wasn’t surprised that Khumalo has gone into municipal management.

“He was someone who could be solid, manage information, be in control of situations,” recalled Charny, who is now vice president for policy at Refugees International.

After Oxfam, Khumalo’s first American municipal experience was designing a transportation service for senior citizens in more than 20 Merrimack Valley communities, a venture supported financially by area corporations. The project, Drive People Happy, spanned 1997 and 1998. Khumalo said the aim was to find innovative transportation solutions.

“I enjoy doing this in a creative, entrepreneurial way,” he said.

Khumalo was hired as a town planner in Wellesley in 1998, then worked as a part-time planner for Walpole in 2002. In the same year, Khumalo started working as assistant town manager for Westford, and served as its interim town manager for several months last year. There, he worked with town engineer Paul Starratt.

“When you dealt with Norman, whether as an employee or contractor, everyone knew the rules,” said Starratt. “He was always fair.” He said he and Khumalo started off as colleagues, but became friends. Even as their relationship deepened, Khumalo retained the same sense of integrity that Starratt first recognized as a defining quality. “He had no problems looking me in the face and letting me know where I needed improvements,” Starratt said.

Since then, Starratt has spent time with Khumalo and his family, sharing in their culture and memories. “They’re still very much attached to what it means to come from Zimbabwe, but at the same time, he’s a Red Sox fan,” he said.

Khumalo left Wellesley seven years ago, but his successor, Meghan Jop, said his work for the town still resonates. Jop said that, though she never worked alongside Khumalo, she has come to know him through the town’s former planning director, Rick Brown.

“From my standpoint, he’s the best of both worlds,” said Jop. “He’s really imaginative and a planner, yet he’s taken on these administrative roles.”

His new post in Hopkinton is Khumalo’s first as town manager. He is paid $120,000 a year.

The Board of Selectmen’s chairman, Brian Herr, said he’s confident the town made the right decision in hiring Khumalo, who started in the position June 19.

“He presented himself as a well-rounded, thoughtful, uniter type . . . and that has certainly played out to be true so far,” said Herr. “He has great credentials, and has a lot of great experience with towns around the Metro West area.”

Khumalo, 45, said he has set goals for himself throughout his life, and sees his work as town manager as the latest challenge for improving himself and his community.

“Doing this day in and day out makes me a better person,” said Khumalo. “If I don’t practice, how can I be better? I define my limitations and what I need to work on.”

Khumalo said he never would have imagined himself in Hopkinton 20 years ago, or even a year ago, but he is thrilled to be working in another close-knit community.

He lives with his family in neighboring Uxbridge, but he remains strongly connected to Zimbabwe, where his extended family lives. Maybe he will retire to his native country someday, he said.

“The degree to which it affects me is intense,” he said. “I am very hopeful that change will come and that a better future lies ahead for Zimbabweans.”

Megan McKee can be reached at megan.mckee@gmail.com

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