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From pitcher to manager: Johnston’s Rick Hester says baseball helped make him a leader

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SMITHFIELD — Rick Hester has served 20 years as Johnston County manager. While he said he enjoys his job, it wasn’t his first career choice.

Hester pitched for the Clemson Tigers baseball team and after graduation played three years in the Texas Rangers minor-league farm system.

A Bladen County native, Hester grew up in Elizabethtown and played baseball for East Bladen High School. After college, at age 21, he played in 1983 for the Gulf Coast League Rangers. In 1984, he played for the Burlington Rangers and in 1985, Hester played for the Salem Redbirds and the Daytona Beach Admirals in the Florida State League.

During his time playing for the Admirals, Hester’s roommate was Major League Baseball player Billy Ripken, brother of Cal Ripken Jr., who played for the Baltimore Orioles.

Hester finished his minor-league career with 16 wins, 10 losses and an earned-run average of 4.24.

He recalled one time when the Rangers called him up to pitch on the major league team in a game against the Triple-A affiliate.

“I did well, got the win and the game ball,” said Hester. “My coaches were a major influence on my life. I equate my job to sports in that when I played baseball, my coaches told me to leave it all out on the field. I worked my hardest and did my best. That applies to what I’m doing today.”

Besides attending Clemson, Hester attended N.C. State University for his freshman year and studied communications. After Clemson, where he played baseball for his junior and senior year, Hester earned an associate of arts degree from Southeastern Community College in Whiteville, a bachelor of arts degree in political science and government from the University of North Carolina at Pembroke and a master’s degree in public administration from N.C. State.

Hester is the son of Robert and Sarah Hester. His father was a county commissioner and owned the local radio station WBLA-AM 1440. Hester said his dad is his mentor.

“At age 14, I was recording commercials,” said Hester. “By the time I was 16, I was able to run the control board. We played country, gospel and Top 40. It was fun. Some buddy would call up and ask me to play a song for a girl he liked. We had to work on Christmas and Thanksgiving so the other employees could be with their families. I always respected Dad for that.”

Hester said his work in radio gave him an appreciation for the local news media.

“I also covered basketball for the local newspaper as a stringer,” said Hester. “I hope I’ve always been accessible to the media.”

He and his wife Caroline have been married 31 years. They have two grown children, Brooks and Morgan. The Hesters are members of First Baptist Church of Smithfield.

The Hesters moved to Johnston County in 1987. Throughout his entire career, Rick Hester has been employed by Johnston County.

He began his career as a planner in the planning and development department in 1987. Two years later, he was promoted to senior planner. In 1991, he became an administrative assistant and assistant to the county manager. In 1995, he became assistant county manager, a position he held for nearly four years.

Hester was appointed interim county manager in January 1999. The “interim” tag came off that July, and after 31 years of work for the county, he has no plans to retire. As county manager, he oversees 15 of the county’s 24 departments and 1,100 county employees.

“I’m happy where I am and in the best county where I could serve as manager. I love what I do,” said Hester. “I didn’t imagine when I started that I’d be here this long. But I have a passion for Johnston County and serving in local government. I’m not an 8-to-5 employee — Johnston County is a huge part of who I am. I’m available nights and weekends and enjoy it every day.”

When he’s away from his county courthouse office, Hester said he enjoys spending time with his family

“I don’t really have any hobbies,” said Hester. “I do enjoy reading biographies and am a sports nut. I’m a diehard Clemson fan and enjoy all sports and probably get too worked up when I watch the games. I also enjoy NFL fantasy football. The Detroit Lions are my team.”